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August 26, 2014
Notes About Baseball
Polling the Clubhouses: Kershaw or Felix?
In The Room
This simple, context-less question was posed to a dozen or so players (and a manager) over the past week. The goal: to harvest pure, instinctual reaction to the two best pitchers of this generation through the power of word association.
About half the time, I was asked to clarify--was I asking which pitcher is better? Was I asking which Cy Young winner a guy would rather face? I offered no answers and stared blankly with recorder running, waiting for them to speak.
Here's what we got:
"Kershaw. I feel like they're very similar types of guys--they do everything really well. They're probably two of the better competitors in all of baseball in terms of pitchers. But lefties in particular; you don't see lefties that are like Kershaw. You don't see that type of delivery, you don't see that type of angle on pitches, and you certainly don't see many guys throwing that kind of breaking ball.
"That's not to say Felix Hernandez doesn't do all those things, because he does. But there's just so few left-handers that can... it makes him (Kershaw) that much more effective."
I asked Neil if Kershaw was the best lefty he's ever faced.
"Yes. Yeah. Billy Wagner was pretty darn good, too, but he was obviously a bullpen guy. But as far as starters go, he's definitely the best lefty I've ever faced. You ask around and it'll be pretty unanimous—most people will say Kershaw because you don't see that type of stuff he brings to the table. There hasn't been a guy like him, in my opinion, in a long, long time."
Chris Johnson, Braves right-handed third baseman (18 PA vs. Kershaw (4/18, 2B), 3 PA vs. Felix (1/3)):
"Felix. Just being a right-handed hitter. Wait. Is it who would I rather face? You're not giving me anything? This is a really tough question—two best pitchers in the league. Neither, if neither is an option? I'll go with neither."
Neither is not an option.
"If I gotta face one, I'd probably face the lefty because I'll have *a* chance. Not only is their stuff so good, they can also throw it where they want, when they want. So they can throw the breaking ball for strikes, they can throw it for balls, they can throw any pitch in any count and they're so unpredictable."
So if Johnson would rather face Kershaw and get the platoon advantage, what's his plan in a worst-case scenario—standing in against King Felix?
Deep sigh from Chris here.
"Find the best pitch possible and try to put it in play. His ball is so heavy and it moves a lot. It's always dancing in the zone—we talk about guys throwing to the "Y", you know? It looks like it's coming out straight, but it goes right or goes left, in or out, up or down. So just try to get the best pitch in that at-bat and hopefully you can put it in play. Hopefully a guy's on base so you can do something good and still make an out.
"Try to get both of those guys early in the count, I think they try to get ahead. I think later in the at-bat you're at their mercy because they have so many pitches they can strike you out with; it's so hard to sit on something and if you're not sitting on something, their stuff moves so much that it's hard to put in play."
As we wrapped, I asked Johnson about his performance against each.
"Well, I've only faced King Felix three times. And I'm 1-for-3. And my numbers definitely aren't .333 against Kershaw. I even have a hard time saying, 'I'm better against Felix.'"
One-for-three, though. That's not bad!
"It was a broken bat single. But I'll take it."
B.J. Upton, Braves right-handed center fielder (5 PA vs. Kershaw (2/5), 32 PA vs. Felix (3/31, 2B)):
"Felix. I'm right-handed, so yeah, I'm gonna have to go with Felix."
B.J. has interpreted the question as "who's the tougher matchup."
"Yeah, for me. You know what, I think Kershaw's a bit more cut and dried. You know what he's got and you know he's going to come at you. Felix has a plethora of pitches that go a different way; you never know which way the ball's going to go coming out of his hand."
I asked B.J. how he combats the heaviness of Felix's ball.
"I don't know. I think I have the worst batting average, minimum 25 ABs, in the league against Felix. [ed: It's true!] I don't even know how you could explain it. It's going to go in, out, down. You really just don't know what it's going to do."
Is Felix the best righty B.J.'s ever faced?
Gerald Laird, Braves right-handed catcher (3 PA vs. Kershaw (1/3), 29 PA vs. Felix (6/23, 2B)):
"Wow. That's a tough call. No disrespect to either of them, but if I had a choice, I'd take Felix Hernandez. They're both nasty. I think Felix has more plus pitches than Kershaw. Just the movement he gets and, no knock on anyone else, but he does pitch in the American League. With the DH and having that extra guy in the lineup, it's a lot tougher on the starting pitching. So to do what he's doing and having a sub-2.00 ERA in the AL, it just speaks volumes.
"With the movement he gets at the velocity he gets, it's something special. When you face him, you're in a battle. If you get a hit, you feel kind of excited about yourself."
At this point, I was curious what the feedback might be from opposing pitchers, or even a manager.
We'll begin with Charlie Morton of the Pirates. Kershaw or Felix?
After explaining to Charlie the binary nature of our situation...
"I can't! I can't. Man. Honestly, I can't. Those are two of The Guys. I can't. I really can't. I'm trying, but I can't."
We had encountered our first roadblock, so a new tactic was required. I asked Morton what came to mind as he watched those guys work.
"Talent. Use of the talent. Proper use of the talent. Maximizing the talent. Hard work. Studs.
"[Felix] seems to have maintained his aggressiveness that he had when he was throwing really, really hard, and that confidence. But he's pitching more, too. He's got what? Sinker, Four-seamer, cutter, cutter/slider, curveball, and a nasty changeup.
"Same thing with Kershaw. Kind of. Kershaw's curveball is better. And he's more cutter/curveball, whereas Felix mixes it up pretty well."
If Charlie could steal something from each of them, what would he take?
"Felix's changeup, Kershaw's curveball... and probably his cutter. Those are two guys, when I watch them I'm like, 'I wish I had your stuff.' The command, too, because when you have stuff like that, it's even harder to control."
Mike Minor wasn't offering scouting reports, but did have this to say on his teammates' mindset going into a game against either of our Aces.
"Some guys are like, 'I hope he hits me because I'm not gonna reach otherwise.'"
Putting all of this together, among the players who interpreted the question as some form of "'which guy is better," the results were dead even—four preferred The Claw, four preferred King Felix and Charlie Morton chose both, somehow.
Among the hitters who interpreted the question as "who would you rather face," the general consensus was that righties would rather face Kershaw and lefties would rather face Felix; not a huge shock there, as getting any advantage against one of the two best pitchers on the planet would seem to be the right choice.
As our word association experiment has resulted in something of a dead heat, we'll allow the 2013 NL Manager of the Year, Clint Hurdle, to have the final word.
On Kershaw and the greatest lefties he's ever seen:
"The way he's gone out and started to rip off complete games is impressive in this day and age. I got to see Randy Johnson a lot when he was on a really good run in Arizona. Steve Carlton was a guy I got to see in my career. And I think Kershaw is going to fill out that trio."
"Crazy value, because it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of heavy leverage to the innings. He's not pitching through a lot of discomfort, he's not in the stretch a long time. I did get to see The King early in 2010 when I was with the Rangers, so I've gotten to see the evolution. He's gotten smarter; it's kind of like that shortstop learning he doesn't have to throw a bullet every time from deep in the hole. He's learned the touch and feel of the game—they both have."
So who's he taking, gun to his head?!?
"You've got two dynamic pitchers, quality eaters of innings with stuff that's just electric and plays every night. So if I got pushed into a really hard place... ... ... I could always bail and say I don't want to answer. I'd let you pick and I'll take the other guy."
I realize we profiled the Dodgers lefty here in Outliers not so long ago, but as a companion to this week's In The Room, I felt we needed to have a look at just how dominant Felix and Kershaw have really been this season.
We'll begin at B-Ref, with a really basic 2014 Top-Ten leaderboard scan. Of the 24 lists that aggregate positive data relating to starting pitchers (the categories reveal good stuff, as opposed to bad stuff), Kershaw and Felix appear together on 17 of them.
If we ignore the lists related to health and not performance (Kershaw started the season on the DL (back); he's six starts behind the league leaders), the pair would appear on 17 of 21, only falling short in Wins, Complete Games, Shutouts and BB/9, with Hernandez missing from each.
The pair occupy the first two spots in nine of the lists(!)—bWAR for pitchers, ERA, WHIP, FIP, Adjusted Pitching Runs, Adjusted Pitching Wins, Base-Out Runs Saved, Situational Wins Saved and Base-Out Wins Saved... so basically all of the important stuff.
Each player leads his respective league in FIP and WHIP. Kershaw also leads the NL in CG, ERA+, K/9 and K/BB ratio; Felix leads the AL in H/9.
When we remove pitching to pitchers from the equation, their slash stats against look like this:
Each of them is holding opposing batters to an OPS that's lower than the league's lowest qualifier (Zack Cozart, .576). For some context, only three qualified batters in all of MLB fall below the .600 mark (Cozart, Jean Segura, and Gordon Beckham).
Put another way, Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez turn every batter, on average, into a guy who's worse than the worst hitter in baseball... and by a relatively gigantic margin.