MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Starting Pitchers, Part 1

Today we start the pitching reviews, and the rotation is split into three sections. With the exception of the fact that Clayton Kershaw is awesome and obviously will be first, they’re done in no order whatsoever other than to have both regular and fill-in starters in each piece. While it may make sense to have Part 1 be Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and Hiroki Kuroda, no one wants to see a Part 3 that is entirely John Ely, Dana Eveland, and Jon Garland, right?

Clayton Kershaw (A+2)
2.28 ERA, 2.47 FIP, 9.57 K/9, 2.08 BB/9

Remember, I’m basing these grades on expectations, and we had sky-high expectations for Kershaw entering the season. He still gets a great grade, because he met those expectations and then shattered them. If you don’t remember just how highly we thought of him even before the season, recall that he was #1 on my list of “Six Reasons for Optimism in 2011“:

1) Clayton Kershaw. You hardly need me to revisit all the ways in which Kershaw is awesome; I did just that already in his 2010 Season in Review piece. He had a two-month stretch last season in which he was basically the best pitcher in baseball, and while that’s probably a bit too much to hang on his head right now, you can certainly make the argument that he’s already one of the best lefty starters in baseball. Forget what you hear about him still needing to do this or that to be an “ace”; if he made no further progressions, he’d still be worthy of being at the top of nearly any team’s rotation.

Yet, there’s still so much more there. Last year he made a marked improvement in his major weakness by walking 10 fewer batters despite pitching 30 more innings than in 2009. Don’t forget, he’s not even 23 yet. I’ve been arguing that he turned potential into performance last year, but the greater accolades haven’t quite come yet because of his mediocre (and pointless) win-loss record. This is the year that the greater baseball world recognizes Kershaw in his rightful place as one of the dominant starters in the game.

I’d say that last sentence paid off pretty well, right? We got off to a good start when Don Mattingly named Kershaw the Opening Day starter on the first day of camp, and after a relatively quiet spring Kershaw proved Mattingly right by dominating Tim Lincecum on March 31:

Earlier today, I noted that I had picked Clayton Kershaw to finish 1st in the NL Cy Young Award voting over at Baseball Prospectus. I’m now concerned that I didn’t pick him quite high enough, because Kershaw was absolutely sublime in tonight’s season opener, to the point where San Francisco starter Tim Lincecum allowed just one unearned run over seven innings himself, yet there was still no question about who was the most dominant starter on the mound tonight.

Kershaw scattered just four hits over seven scoreless innings, but even that doesn’t tell the true tale. One of those hits should have been an error on a botched toss from James Loney to Kershaw, and one was a bloop that fell just out of Loney’s reach. But while Kershaw was outstanding all around, it’s not just the few hits he allowed that impressed me most, and it’s not the nine strikeouts he put up. It’s not even how bad he made a handful of Giants look, particularly when he offered his curve. It’s the fact that he walked just one and made it through seven innings with fewer than 100 pitches. In years past, it might have taken him 120 pitches to get that far; in starts that aren’t his first of the season, you’d expect to see him continue into the 8th and 9th.

Need more proof of Kershaw’s progression? This was the 11th time in his career that he pitched at least seven innings without allowing more than one walk. Though he’s been in the bigs since mid-2008, seven of the previous ten came after June 27, 2010 – i.e., in the last half a season. We’ve long known that Kershaw had all the talent in the world, but there’s now a clear pattern of him harnessing the wildness and becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in the bigs. Mark my words, this is the year he gets the respect from the general public he deserves. Oh, and he turned 23 two weeks ago.

“Beating up on Lincecum and the Giants” proved to be a general theme of the season, as Kershaw won five of his six starts against San Francisco, allowing five earned runs in 42 innings along with a 49/8 K/BB ratio. By the end of April, Kershaw was off to a decent enough start, yet he was only 2-3, with both of his victories coming in games where he didn’t allow the opposition a single run. With the Dodger offense looking as dreadful as it was, we were cringing in anticipation of Kershaw having a fantastic year yet being denied the attention he deserved because he’d end up with a record like 14-12.

But Kershaw wasn’t about to let that happen. Seemingly every other start, I was including a note about how he’d just tossed out one of the better starts of his career by Game Score (an admittedly imperfect stat, but useful enough for quick-and-dirty comparisons). For the record, his top three career starts by that metric, and six of his best ten, came in 2011. In May, he had perhaps his best month of the season, picking up his second career shutout, going 4-0 and holding the opposition to a paltry .203/.247/.264 line, along with a fantastic 46/9 K/BB.

By June, we were so impressed that I was simply titling articles with names like ”Clayton Kershaw, Ace” and noting that he was pitching in at the plate, too:

Clayton Kershaw was a one-man wrecking crew, taking matters into his own hands to toss his second shutout of the season, made all the more impressive due to the fact that it was an all-righty American League Detroit lineup. The Tigers managed just two hits, none by heavy hitters Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, or Magglio Ordonez. Kershaw had no need for the bullpen, completing the game on 112 pitches while retiring the final 13 batters he faced – including three swinging strikeouts in the ninth.

But Kershaw wasn’t finished there. Yes, Juan Uribe gave him the only run he’d need with a solo homer in the second inning (sidenote: Ha, Brad Penny. Ha.) and Dioner Navarro doubled in a second run in the sixth. With two on and the bases loaded in the eighth, Kershaw came to the plate. We’ve seen Don Mattingly hit for Kershaw a few times in these situations, even earlier in the game, and it usually hasn’t worked out either on the offensive end or in the relievers who followed. Mattingly let Kershaw hit; he poked a single to right, scoring two, and that was that. Kershaw’s actually been better at the plate (.294/.333/.294 .627) than the real professional hitters who he’s faced (.211./270/.299 .569). He also now leads the league in strikeouts with 117.

Even better, take a look at the list of top five Game Scores in MLB this season. Two of the best five games in the league belong to our own Clayton Kershaw. The next time someone tells you he’s “on his way to being one of the best pitchers in baseball,” stop them immediately. He’s already there.

So it was no surprise we were giddy about him in July when the midseason reviews came around:

Clayton Kershaw (A+) (9-4, 3.03 ERA, 2.45 FIP)
Is A+ even high enough? I’m not sure it is, though we certainly expected great things from him. Think about this: his HR/9 rate and H/9 rate are unchanged from last year, but he’s managed to do that while lowering his walk rate (again!) and increasing his strikeout rate. He’s leading the league in whiffs, and he has two shutouts among his three complete games. He’s 23. He’s lefty. He’s an All-Star.

Don’t let anyone tell you that he’s progressing towards being an ace, or one day he could be one of the best. Clayton Kershaw is, right now, one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball. The scary part? He could still get better.

Terrifyingly enough for everyone else, he did get better:

I Split W L ERA GS CG SHO IP R BB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
  1st Half 9 4 3.03 19 3 2 130.2 45 35 147 1.048 10.1 4.20
  2nd Half 12 1 1.31 14 2 0 102.2 21 19 101 0.886 8.9 5.32

A 101/19 K/BB? Who does that? In his second start after the break, he dominated the Giants again, then beat the Rockies and threw a complete game at the Padres, before having a rocky (for him) outing in Arizona on August 7, allowing four earned runs to collect his fifth loss of the season.

And then things got real. Just check out the ludicrous tear he went on after that Arizona game:

Rk Date Opp Rslt Inngs Dec IP H ER BB SO HR Pit GSc 2B
25 Aug 13 HOU W,6-1 GS-8 W(14-5) 8.0 6 1 1 9 0 112 74 2
26 Aug 18 MIL W,5-1 GS-8 W(15-5) 8.0 5 0 0 6 0 104 78 2
27 Aug 23 STL W,13-2 GS-6 W(16-5) 6.0 6 0 2 8 0 108 66 1
28 Aug 29 SDP W,4-1 CG W(17-5) 9.0 6 1 2 5 0 118 74 2
29 Sep 4 ATL L,3-4 GS-7   7.0 8 2 0 10 0 115 61 1
30 Sep 9 SFG W,2-1 GS-8 W(18-5) 8.0 3 0 1 9 0 111 82 0
31 Sep 14 ARI W,3-2 GS-6 W(19-5) 5.0 1 0 0 5 0 63 70 1
32 Sep 20 SFG W,2-1 GS-8 W(20-5) 7.1 6 1 2 6 1 115 66 1
33 Sep 25 SDP W,6-2 GS-8 W(21-5) 7.1 4 2 1 6 1 93 67 1
            233.1 174 59 54 248 15      

That’s an absolutely insane run, and in the only game he didn’t win there – September 4 against the Braves – all he did was strike out ten without allowing a walk, being victimized somewhat by an Aaron Miles throwing error. At the end of August, we were already beginning to fantasize about his Cy Young prospects, while Kershaw gained notoriety for getting tossed out of a game for plunking Arizona’s Gerardo Parra:

The truth is probably somewhere in between, with my opinion leaning towards “Kershaw probably meant to send a message, not hit him, and Parra just stood there,” but to be honest, I don’t really care too much. I’m sure Bill Plaschke is furiously fapping away his latest story about how Kershaw has earned respect – you know, because everyone thought he was a joke before for only contending for the Cy Young at 23 – but it really doesn’t matter. If there is one unquestionable bad guy, it’s home plate umpire Welke, who wildly overreacted by immediately tossing Kershaw on a questionable call. (Update: when I wrote the line about Plaschke, he had not published an article this morning, and I was mostly joking. But just a few minutes ago, up went his piece, calling out Kershaw’s “toughness” and “leadership”. Predictable Bill is predictable.)

Kershaw avoided a suspension and continued on his run. On September 20, we acknowledged that even though pitcher wins are stupid, watching him go for his 20th was still meaningful; on the 21st, we again looked at his Cy chances if he won the “Triple Crown”, and when he ended his season by beating the Padres on the 25th, we had nothing but praise:

Clayton Kershaw reached the halfway mark of his 23rd year about 2 weeks ago, and with today’s 6-2 victory over San Diego, he’s merely just finished off what is arguably the best non-Koufax season in the long history of the Brooklyn & Los Angeles Dodgers.

21-5, 2.28 ERA, which is the lowest ERA in all of baseball. 248 strikeouts, the most by any lefty Dodger pitcher other than Koufax in team history, the sixth-highest total overall, and enough for a 2011 National League K crown (assuming Cliff Lee doesn’t whiff 17 in his final start, a number he has never reached.) At 23, it’s the highest strikeout total for someone his age or younger since Dwight Gooden had 268 in 1985. And since June, he’s 14-2, propelling him to an almost certain “pitching Triple Crown”, as much as it makes me cringe to type that phrase.

We can argue about whether those numbers all matter (spoiler alert: they don’t) but those numbers, more than WAR, FIP, or ERA+, are the ones that are going to get engraved in the public memory when you think about  Kershaw’s outstanding 2011 season – in the same way people immediately can spout “23-8, 2.26″ when asked about Orel Hershiser’s 1988.

It remains to be seen if he wins the Cy Young Award – I’m leaning towards “he will” – but his progression to one of the most elite pitchers in baseball is undeniable. Or if you prefer it in graphical form, how about this collection of charts borrowed from a recent FanGraphs article?
 

Kershaw could have not improved at all from 2010, and still been one of the better pitchers around. Instead, he improved in nearly every area of the game, and it’s not hyperbole to say that there’s not a single pitcher in baseball I would trade him straight up for. And he’s still not even 24 yet, just now entering his first arbitration hearing. That’ll probably push his salary from ~$500k to ~$7m for 2012, which is still a bargain for the value he provides, but after Matt Kemp is (hopefully) locked up, getting Kershaw signed long-term has to be a top priority. Until that happens, we can at least count our blessings that we’re lucky enough to be present at the start of what could very well be a historic career.
 
Jon Garland (D-)
4.33 ERA, 4.65 FIP, 4.7 K/9, 3.3 BB/9

When the Dodgers signed Jon Garland to round out the fifth spot in the rotation, it seemed like a great idea at the time, though not without worry for the $8m 2012 vesting option:

In a vacuum, this is a great move to fill out the rotation. Garland is certainly nothing spectacular, but his durability (9 straight years of at least 32 starts) and reliable average performance  (FIP between 4.05 and 4.93 in each of those nine years) makes him one of the best #5 starters in the league. Seriously, #5 spots for most teams are average at best and dreadful at worst; there’s not too many clubs who can say that they can do better than Garland there.

“Durability.” “Reliability.” “Innings eater.” Those were the keywords you’d constantly hear tossed around regarding Garland, which made sense for a team that never found a #5 starter in 2010, and it made a whole lot of sense… for about three days:

Hey, today just keeps getting better and better! Jon Garland was just on Jim Bowden’s XM radio show. Bowden tweets:

Jon Garland just told us that teams wouldn’t offer him a multi-year deal because of MRI’s and Physicians opinions that he would break-down

I didn’t hear this live, so it’s possible something was lost in the translation, but it’s an eye-opener. On one hand, this seems highly unlikely, because Garland is known for his durability – and because what player would admit that?! On the other hand, it’s not like Ned Colletti’s never knowingly signed an injured pitcher before.

And for all the durability… Garland made it all the way to March 9 before straining his oblique and missing the rest of camp, starting the season on the disabled list. When he returned, he provided nine starts of varying quality before hitting the disabled list again, this time with shoulder inflammation that eventually required season-ending surgery in July.

So much for durability, right? On the other hand, Garland never came close to earning that $8m option for 2012, which is probably the best possible outcome. If he’s healthy after surgery, I’d take him back (at a far, far reduced one-year salary) to give him a shot as a back-end rotation type.

Nathan Eovaldi (A-)
3.63 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 6.0 K/9, 5.2 BB/9

I have to be honest: I gave Nathan Eovaldi just about no consideration for most of the season, and that’s why he gets a solid grade despite uneven performance. He literally didn’t enter my mind until his recall was imminent, and why should he have? He didn’t even rank on most top prospect lists entering the season, a reflection of the fact that he had a decent-but-not-great 2010, allowing 9.9 hits per nine and striking out just 6.6 per nine across three rookie-league and A-ball teams. That’s not to say he was a non-prospect, just not someone who demanded more interest than up-and-comers like Rubby De La Rosa, Zach Lee, and Allen Webster or highly-drafted disappointments Chris Withrow and Ethan Martin. The first time I even ever brought him up here was on July 14, and even that was just a brief mention as part of a look at who might be used to replace de la Rosa should he reach his innings limit.

But de la Rosa succumbed to injury before that was an issue, and with a solid season at AA Chattanooga under his belt, Eovaldi was indeed recalled to join the rotation in early August, forcing me to write a “let’s get to know Nathan Eovaldi” post for my own benefit as much as yours. Eovaldi’s first impression was generally a successful one, allowing two earned runs or fewer in his first four starts and in five of his six overall. However, while his contributions were certainly welcome, I had to voice some concerns after his fourth start:

That’s a pretty impressive start to a career, and the hope Eovaldi has provided has been well-timed in the aftermath of Rubby De La Rosa‘s elbow surgery. While that’s wonderful, there’s also some worry about how much of this is smoke-and-mirrors; after striking out seven in his debut in Arizona, he’s now struck out three, two, and one over his last three outings, totaling just six whiffs in 17 innings over the last three games. (Yes, the box score says he had two strikeouts tonight, but one was a foul bunt for strike three by Carpenter.) That’s a .232 BABIP, and that kind of success without missing bats is generally unsustainable. That’s not to take anything away from Eovaldi, of course, who should be thrilled with the way his season has gone; just a reminder to take the “OMG he has a 2.05 ERA” comments you’ll surely hear with the requisite grain of salt.

We began to see that course correction in his next start, when he allowed six hits and five runs over four innings to the Rockies, in the fact that he didn’t strike out a single batter in any of his four relief appearances to end the season after being removed from the rotation, and in the fact that his FIP is quite a bit higher than his ERA shows.

Still, as debuts go, Eovaldi’s was very good, hence the quality grade. He’s being talked up as a possible rotation option out of camp in 2012, but I’d consider that to be a worst-case scenario. Remember, teams never use only five starters, so that means you’re almost certainly going to need some starts from someone worse than your presumed fifth starter. I’d prefer Eovaldi be the guy stepping in to help out as needed, rather than someone you’re counting on from the start. It’s hardly the worst thing in the world for him to get more seasoning in the minors in preparation for a full-time gig later in the year or in 2013.

******

Next! Chad Billingsley continues to frustrate! Dana Eveland gets sent over from central casting to fill the role of ”Fungible Veteran Starter #X72!” And Rubby De La Rosa is so rudely taken away! It’s starting pitchers, part 2!

0 comments

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Kershaw, as you may have heard, is awesome. He’s probably going to win the NL Cy Young next month, and as he enters his [...]