Clayton Kershaw will be just 22 years old on Opening Day this season, and all major league teams should be so lucky as to have a kid with his talent already toiling in their rotations. Simply put, he has multiple-Cy Young Award potential. According to FanGraphs.com, Kershaw's fastball averaged 93.9 miles per hour in 2009, 10th-fastest among all starting pitchers in baseball. His drop-off-the-table curveball is a diabolical counterpoint, 20 miles per hour slower, with tons of vertical movement and four inches of break away from left-handed hitters. Plus, in the second half of '09, Kershaw started mixing in a slider, which has nearly the same horizontal break but much less vertical break than his curve. I admit, at some point, these offerings are going to make facing Kershaw flat-out unfair.
But I'm not convinced he's there yet.
Dodgers fans won't be surprised to learn that the main fly in Kershaw's 2009 ointment was his control. It's true that in '09, Kershaw was the sixth-toughest starting pitcher in baseball to hit when he threw pitches in the zone (more on that in a moment). But it's also true that he walked 4.79 batters per nine innings last year, second-worst among qualified starting pitchers. That helps explain why Kershaw's WHIP last season was "only" 1.23. If he had merely allowed the average number of walks per nine innings as all qualifiers (2.81), his WHIP would've been a microscopic 1.01. And heck, even if he had allowed the average BB/9 of "strikeout pitchers" (let's say qualifiers who averaged at least 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings), which would be 3.14, his WHIP would've been 1.05. As it was, Kershaw's WHIP of 1.23 placed him 23rd among 77 qualifying starting pitchers. Respectable? Absolutely. Elite? Far from it.
Control issues are of course at the heart of why Kershaw was such an inefficient pitcher in '09. He needed 17.7 pitches to get out of his average inning, the second-highest such mark in baseball (behind only Max Scherzer's 18.0). By contrast, Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay needed 13.9 and 14.2 P/IP, respectively, and lest you think that's an unfair comparison because neither Carpenter nor Halladay fanned a batter per inning, then consider strikeout pitchers such as Javier Vazquez (15.1) and Tim Lincecum (15.3) still managed that feat with far greater efficiency. As a result, despite the fact that he threw an average of 101 pitches per start, Kershaw's average start lasted just under 5 2/3 innings, and he pitched more than seven innings just once in his 30 starts. Is it any wonder he achieved a decision in just 16 of his 30 starts, the third-lowest percentage (53.3 percent) among qualifiers?
Indeed, the more I crunch Kershaw's '09 numbers, the more his underlying stats begin to look like those of another pitcher, a guy no potentially elite fantasy hurler wants to be compared to: Jonathan Sanchez. See below:
Clayton Kershaw versus Jonathan Sanchez
Their 2009 stats are more similar than you might realize.
Much closer than you might have realized, huh? In terms of control, they are very similar pitchers.
Zone contact percentage
The percentage of pitches in the strike zone that batters made contact with. Source: FanGraphs.com.
Not only that, but as I mentioned earlier, only five pitchers were tougher than Kershaw to hit when they found the strike zone. That list? Hello again, Mr. Sanchez. As the box to the right shows, Kershaw definitely belongs among a group of power pitchers.
Now, Kershaw finished 23rd among starting pitchers in ESPN Fantasy's Player Rater in 2009, while Sanchez finished 65th, so there's no question which guy you'd rather have in a fantasy league (despite the fact that they both finished with only eight wins). But based on their underlying numbers, it's not hard to make the argument that Kershaw got a whole lot luckier last year than Sanchez did.
Their fly-ball rates were nearly identical (batters hit fly balls 41.6 percent of the time against Kershaw and 43.1 percent against Sanchez), yet Sanchez allowed 19 homers, while Kershaw allowed only seven. Indeed, Kershaw's 4.1 percent HR/FB rate was the major leagues' lowest among qualifiers, while Sanchez's 10.3 percent HR/FB was higher than the average among qualifiers (9.64). It's relatively accepted among the sabremetric crowd that extreme HR/FB outliers tend to be the result of a pitcher's luck -- good or bad -- and such results rarely are repeated from year to year. Just think, if Kershaw's HR/FB rate climbs closer to the 9.64 percent league average, we're talking 16 homers instead of 7, a difference that would definitely show up in Kershaw's ERA and WHIP numbers.
Next, take a look at Kershaw's "Batting Average on Balls In Play" (BABIP): .274. Sanchez's was .290, which meant each pitcher's BABIP was below the qualifiers' average of .298. Once again, it's generally accepted that BABIP outliers tend not to repeat from season to season, so there's a pretty good chance Kershaw will be less lucky on batted balls in the future. Again, that would show up in Kershaw's fantasy numbers; if his BABIP was at the league average in 2009, he would have allowed 130 hits for the season instead of 119, and his WHIP would have climbed to 1.29.
Finally, there's Kershaw's strand rate. In 2009, 77.5 percent of the baserunners that reached against him were stranded without scoring, compared to 72.6 percent for Sanchez and the league average among qualifiers of 73.9 percent. I wouldn't characterize Kershaw's performance here as egregiously lucky, but certainly a downturn here (i.e., a higher percentage of baserunners who score) in 2010 would negatively impact Kershaw's fantasy bottom line, just as Sanchez's was (slightly) negatively affected in '09.
By no means am I saying Clayton Kershaw is Jonathan Sanchez. The former will be 22 entering his third big-league season; the latter is 28 and will be entering his fifth season. There's little question who has more upside. I'm just saying you should be skeptical when you look at Kershaw's 2.79 ERA from last season, as I don't think it's representative of how he pitched. I think if you were to even out his HR/FB, BABIP and strand rate, you would be looking at a guy who deserved an ERA around 4.00, give or take. And if that had happened, suddenly you'd see Kershaw as a guy who struggled to make it inside the top 40 among starting pitchers in our Player Rater, even with all those luscious strikeouts.
Now, I'd be the first to admit it's mighty dangerous to assume last year's stats will be replicated this year, especially for a kid as young and talented as Kershaw. Certainly there exists somewhere on the spectrum of possible results that a big improvement in the young lefty's control could be in store, which almost certainly holds the key to a more solid statistical foundation and thus fantasy excellence that we can believe in. Problem is, I'm having a tough time coming up with recent examples of strikeout pitchers making such single-year control leaps.
If I constrain myself to looking at pitchers from the past 10 years who averaged at least 9 K's per 9 and at least 4 walks per 9, then isolate those who improved to 3.2 BB/9 or fewer the following season, I come up with exactly one such player: Cliff Lee. In 2004, at age 25 (and entering his third big-league season), Lee posted an 8.09 K/9 and a 4.07 BB/9. In '05, he improved to 2.32 BB/9. (Unfortunately, he also dropped to 6.37 K/9, a tradeoff I'm not sure Kershaw's fantasy owners would be willing to accept in 2010.) To be fair, several other pitchers from the past decade come close to meeting my criteria for "strikeout pitchers who improve their control in a single season," and thus bear mentioning:
Strikeout pitchers who improved their control
A handful of pitchers of pitchers with high K rates who lowered their BB/9 from one year to the next.
A few things stand out in the chart above. In only two cases -- Lincecum and Kazmir -- did the pitcher's strikeouts fail to decrease as his walks decreased, indicating a common and understandable tradeoff between power and control. Next, you can pretty much ditch Lilly, Wood, Schmidt, Wakefield, Burba and Finley; those guys had at least six seasons of big-league experience at the time of their improvement. And Lester's numbers aren't exactly fair game, because he started only 11 contests in 2007 while coming off cancer treatment. Frankly, the only two comparables here that make the possibility of Kershaw's potential one-year metamorphosis worth believing in are Lincecum and Kazmir. And talk about differing career paths. Is Clayton Kershaw a left-handed version of back-to-back Cy Young Award winner Lincecum, who, let's face it, never really battled control problems as severe as Kershaw's? Or is Kershaw another Kazmir, who followed up his excellent '06 with two years that saw his BB/9 leap right back to 3.88 and 4.14?
In two or three seasons, Kershaw could become a legit Cy Young candidate. My main point in all this statistical wrangling is to inject some rationality into the 2010 fantasy prospects of one of the most hyped starting pitchers in the game. As of this writing, according to MockDraftCentral.com, Kershaw is being drafted, on average, 20th among starting pitchers, somewhere between the eighth and ninth rounds of a 10-team fantasy draft (and as early as the 61st pick in one mock draft). Could he live up to that kind of billing, which pretty much requires him to be a strong No. 2 fantasy hurler? Absolutely. But because I'm not convinced he can reinvent himself as a more efficient pitcher in his age-22 season, and because I think his WHIP won't help you much and that he'll struggle to get enough decisions to post an above-average wins total, I don't think he's worth this kind of draft-day investment.
In a vacuum, of the starters currently being selected after him on MockDraftCentral, I'd take Ubaldo Jimenez, Ricky Nolasco, Wandy Rodriguez, John Lackey and Scott Baker before I'd draft Kershaw. Now, I suppose if he is somehow sitting there undrafted when my pick comes along in, say, the 12th or 13th round, I'd almost certainly take the plunge, provided I felt my team's WHIP could withstand his walks. But that's not likely to happen in many drafts, because to get a hyped guy like Kershaw, you often have to reach a round or two earlier than you want to, since you know all it takes is one other person to love a player for you to lose him.
And for that reason, I think it's wise strategy not to draft Kershaw for your fantasy team in 2010.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.