Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley Are Regressing (Updated)

One year ago today, Clayton Kershaw turned in the worst start of his young career, allowing seven earned runs while lasting only 1.1 innings against the Brewers. After a string of good starts to start the season (not allowing more than 3 ER in any, though with an admittedly troubling walk rate), the Milwaukee debacle alone pushed his ERA from 3.07 to 4.99, showing just how unreliable such stats can be early in the season. As I said at the time, I felt any worry was much ado about nothing, based on Kershaw’s history – at 21 in 2009, he’d compiled 4.2 bWAR, right in between C.C. Sabathia and Josh Beckett. Even the best starters have a rough game from time to time, and the decimated state of the Dodger rotation (at the time featuring Charlie Haeger, Carlos Monasterios, and a pre-mania John Ely) contributed more to the panic over Kershaw’s bad start than anything.

At the same time, Chad Billingsley was doing his best to shake off the worry over the poor end to his 2009 season. He gave up six earned runs in his second start and didn’t make it out of the fourth in his third, leading me to jokingly ask what to do with him, though his next two starts were much better, going six innings with two earned runs each time. (See “And That’s Why You Stick With Chad Billingsley” to relive it all.) There was absolutely concern after the second half of 2009, though he’d ended that year with two promising starts, and his 2007-09 added up to the 35th most pitching bWAR, even despite the lousy conclusion to 2009.

Meanwhile in St. Louis, 32-year-old Brad Penny was off to a surprisingly decent start, this after getting cut loose by the Dodgers after an awful and injury-plagued 2008 and getting released by the Red Sox in August of 2009. Having pitched three of his five games against the noted offensive powerhouses of Houston, Arizona, and San Francisco, Penny’s ERA was a sparkling 1.56, a number which everyone knew couldn’t last as he’d struck out just 18 in 34.2 innings. It didn’t; Penny allowed 14 earned runs over 21 innings in just four more starts before missing the remainder of the season due to injury. The ERA which had looked so good weeks earlier ended up being 6.11.

This is where we stood one year ago today, on May 4, 2010, when Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Heyman dropped a tweet which will surely haunt him forever:

kershaw may be regressing faster than billingsley. not sure. close competition. #howcanbradpennybebetterthanboth?

At the time, it seemed comical. A national baseball writer for a respected publication was claiming that two former first round picks, each in their early-to-mid twenties with a track record of success, were each worse than an overweight 32-year-old on his fourth team in three years? I’ll admit that we all had some worries about Billingsley, though I was confident he’d work through them – he has – but to question Kershaw at the time based on one lousy start was crazy. It’s now gone from comical to ludicrous, if you look at what the threesome have done since then.

Clayton Kershaw, May 5, 2010 – May 5, 2011
GS: 33  IP: 219.0  Line against: .216/.282/.317  K/9: 9.9  BB/9: 3.3  K/BB: 3.1

Chad Billingsley, May 5, 2010 – May 5, 2011
GS: 32  IP: 201.0  Line against: .234/.306/.332  K/9: 9.1  BB/9: 3.5  K/BB: 2.6

Brad Penny, May 5, 2010 – May 5, 2011
GS: 11  IP: 62.1  Line against: .286/.344/.457  K/9: 6.0  BB/9: 2.9  K/BB: 2.0

Yeah, I think I’m pretty okay with the regressing Kershaw and Billingsley, wouldn’t you say?

******

No, I’m not ignoring another Jonathan Broxton breakdown last night. (To be honest, I only saw the first four innings of the game.) But from what I’m reading, this only seems to validate the point I’ve been making all along: whether he’s willing to admit it or not, there’s something physically wrong with him, particularly if he really was only throwing 89-93 last night. Whether that’s an arm injury, bad mechanics, or poor conditioning (a point I’ll entertain while reminding that he’s always been a large guy), I can’t say. But it does point to a real, tangible issue, not the assaults on his manhood or emotional state some amateur psychiatrists like to call out. That’s really the only point I’ve ever tried to make, because I’ve never been blind to the fact that he’s not the same guy; just that 3+ years of excellent work doesn’t disappear so easily without a reason. And on the topic of “reasons”, why isn’t Joe Torre’s abusive usage included in every story mentioning Broxton’s troubles?

Update: Per Ken Gurnick, Broxton has been shut down with elbow pain. It’s very odd to consider this as being good news, but it is.

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  1. [...] misinformed anecdote from Jon Heyman?  Of course you are!  Mike goes back one year to revisit Heyman’s ill fated tweet where he opined that Kershaw and Billingsley were quickly regressing.  [...]