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March 8, 2010

One-Hoppers

Slider makes Kershaw a Cy contender

by Jay Jaffe

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This past weekend, Clayton Kershaw shared the company of Sandy Koufax -- the Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw to whom all other Dodger southpaws are inevitably compared. Kershaw has yet to lead the Dodgers to a championship or rack up the individual accolades his predecessor earned. But he's closer to putting it all together than you think.

Despite last year's unimposing 8-8 won-loss record, the 21-year-old finished the year with the NL's lowest hit rate (6.3 per nine), second-lowest homer rate (0.4 per nine) and fifth-highest strikeout rate (9.7 per nine). The turning point came in June, when he added a slider into his already-impressive arsenal: a mid-90s fastball, knee-buckling curve (the one Vin Scully named "Public Enemy Number One" when Kershaw was still a teenager) and change-up. His two breaking pitches, the slider and curve, start off similarly so it's difficult for the hitter to distinguish from one another until too late. The new slider generated almost twice as many swings and misses on a percentage basis.

Kershaw's numbers, since he introduced the pitch in early-June, are eye-popping; they stand with the elite hurlers in the majors, with the caveat that his age limited his workload (every pitcher below -- save for Kershaw, Lester and Jurrjens -- received at least one mention in the Cy Young voting):

Player GS IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Clayton Kershaw 20 115.0 2.03 10.2 4.6 0.2
Felix Hernandez 23 167.1 2.10 7.8 2.7 0.5
Tim Lincecum 22 160.0 2.25 10.0 2.8 0.5
Adam Wainwright 23 161.0 2.29 8.6 2.1 0.6
Jon Lester 21 138.0 2.35 9.9 2.6 0.6
Chris Carpenter 23 153.2 2.53 6.4 1.8 0.4
Javier Vazquez 21 149.0 2.54 9.2 1.7 0.9
Jair Jurrjens 23 149.0 2.60 6.8 3.1 0.7
Zack Greinke 22 147.1 2.75 9.4 2.4 0.7
Roy Halladay 21 157.0 2.87 8.0 1.4 0.9

Note that Kershaw's strikeout and home run rates compare favorably to Lincecum and Greinke, the two Cy Young winners. Sure, the kid could stand to walk fewer hitters, particularly since doing so will allow him to pitch deeper into games. And he may be due for a bit of regression in the hit and homer departments. But with his quality of stuff, it wouldn't be implausible to find him attending an awards banquet in the near future.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

5 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Squirrelmetrix

The BP Team Health Reports may have him and the rest of the Dodgers pitching staff in the red but he might be the best bet out the Dodgers starters to avert what the red portends. It's like you say - if he stops walking batters so much, watch out!

Mar 08, 2010 18:07 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Wanted to save this for the annual, but for a long term future, the scariest player comps I saw for anyone in the 2010 annual were for Kershaw... Scott Kazmir, Oliver Perez, Steve Avery and Dontrelle Willis.

Mar 09, 2010 12:11 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Unlike some of the guys on that list above or the ones jimnabby alludes to below, Kershaw doesn't seem to have any major mechanical issues, and the raw stuff is great. In fact, I pulled this list (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/statistics/sortable/index.php?cid=120927) from our stat reports - 21 year old pitchers with at least 100 translated innings pitched, and their Stuff scores:

YEAR NAME T_IP STUFF
1940 Bob Feller 304.7 44
1975 Frank Tanana 239.3 43
1998 Kerry Wood 179.0 39
2002 Mark Prior 127.3 39
1976 Dennis Eckersley 186.3 37
1984 Roger Clemens 137.3 37
1957 Sandy Koufax 104.3 35
1911 Joe Wood 241.3 33
1971 Vida Blue 280.7 33
1972 Balor Moore 140.7 32
1966 Don Sutton 213.0 31
2009 Clayton Kershaw 195.3 31

A few cautionary tales, but also five Hall of Famers out of 11 pitchers with better or equal scores.

Mar 09, 2010 12:39 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

As I remember, Avery wasn't believed to have major mechanical issues and Willis's awkward delivery with the leg high kick was thought to keep his arm protected, though his head might've been a different matter. All four, though, can be labelled as erratic left-handers for one reason or another.

That is an interesting list Jay, though of those five Hall of Famers, one retired early (Koufax), and one became a Hall of Famer as a reliever (Eckersley). Of the rest, there are arm issues (Wood, Prior, Tanana(?)) though of course, you expect arm issues with Tanana.

Will Kershaw be great? Probably. But will he have a long career? He seems riskier than other pitchers.

Mar 09, 2010 13:38 PM
rating: -1
 
jimnabby

"Sure, the kid could stand to walk fewer hitters..."

For so many pitchers, these are famous last words. Here's hoping Kershaw isn't one of them.

Mar 09, 2010 12:21 PM
rating: 1
 
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