COMMENTARY | During the May 15 episode of "Pardon The Interruption," Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw and his career ERA came up as a topic of discussion. Tony Kornheiser called Kershaw "a nice pitcher" but would not put him in the class and company of all-time greats from yesteryear.
Among members of the mainstream media, under-appreciating Clayton Kershaw is nothing new. It took until his 2011 Cy Young victory for many to recognize his greatness, even though his 2009 and 2010 campaigns included striking out more than a batter per inning with ERAs under 3.00 and the FIPs -- Fielding Independent Pitching -- to back them up (3.08 and 3.12, respectively).
While one comment from a prominent sports television personality does not encompass an entire field of media members, it does speak to the lack of correlation between those who simply watch games and rely on traditional pitching statistics -- wins, losses, ERA -- and those who look deeper into our National Pastime and seek to better understand what they see, as well as process and quantify all of the information that is available to us.
While ERA can serve as a baseline for looking at a pitcher's basic run prevention, it does not take into account the defense behind a hurler and all of the other things that can affect runs being scored, such as the strength and effectiveness of a team's bullpen and batted-ball luck. Advanced metrics, from FIP to SIERA to tERA, give us a better indication of how well a pitcher is performing based on the things he can control: strikeouts, walks and home runs.
The most interesting thing about Kornheiser's comment is that in the case of Kershaw, advanced metrics are not even necessary to display just how dominant he's been and will continue to be. They make the picture clearer, of course, and show just how irrelevant individual pitcher wins are in demonstrating production. But a clear picture of Clayton can be gleaned from his "traditional stats" just as easily as it can be seen through analytics and sabermetrics.
Beginning with his first full season in 2009, Kershaw is 8th in baseball in wins (61), 4th in strikeouts per nine (9.34/9 IP), and 1st in ERA (2.51) among qualified starters. Traditional baseball people and those who espouse old-school principles of grittiness and toughness and possessing "the will to win" should be lauding the young Dodgers' ace.
Digging deeper, these numbers aren't fluky in the least. Kershaw is 2nd in FIP over this period -- trailing just Stephen Strasburg (2.85 and with ~600 more innings than the Nationals' righty) -- and 6th in fWAR, clocking in at 22.6.
Very few pitchers induce weak contact like Kershaw. Weak contact can certainly become a discernible skill a pitcher can perfect, and it can be seen through a combination of missing bats and inducing infield popups, which serve the same purpose as strikeouts.
Kershaw's career 9.25 K/9 IP mark, when examined in unison with his career infield fly ball percentage (12.7 IFFB%), portends to a career of inducing weak contact and being able to work out of jams and not rely on what has been a rather shoddy defense behind him.
To say Kershaw has not earned residing in the company of all-time greats is misguided and incorrect based on the evidence at hand. Three years ago, I took a look at Clayton in comparison with some all-time greats and a pair of current pitchers.
There was chatter that Kershaw's propensity to issue walks early in his career would prevent him from ever being an "ace." My argument was that even if he walked a lot of guys throughout his career, some of the greatest pitchers to ever toe the rubber pitched with that fault and still found great success.
As he has cut down on his walks significantly and seen them fall below 2.5/9 IP each of the last three seasons, Kershaw's dominance over hitters has only increased to historic levels, as chronicled by Mike Petriello in a piece for ESPN.
Only 25 years of age and with his prime still to come, Kid K just eclipsed the 1,000 innings pitched mark and has compiled eye-popping numbers in his five-plus seasons in The Show. His career is already at a point through 159 starts that most pitchers would take over their entire career. A 2.97 FIP, 9.25 K/9 IP, a strikeout to walk ratio that's nearing 3 to 1, and some of the filthiest stuff in the game should have long ago made Clayton a household name.
To Kornheiser's point, when looking at the first five seasons of Kershaw and Sandy Koufax, Clayton has a better strikeout rate per nine; better walk rate per nine; has accumulated more fWAR (Koufax only had 5.2 fWAR through five seasons); has pitched almost twice as many innings; and has an ERA almost a run and a half lower than Sandy's. And that's just one legendary pitcher. So, about that whole "nice" pitcher and not in the company of great arms thing…
One mainstream media voice, no matter how loud, does not constitute a majority. There are numerous media figures who analyze the game in great depth and long ago realized Kershaw is the dominant force described above.
Pieces are being written on the Texas lefty imploring people like Tony Kornheiser and Jon Heyman to rethink their stances, appreciate Kershaw for the stud pitcher he is, and not claim Brad Penny is better.
If Clayton is just a "nice" player and his results are nothing special, sign me up for a crash-course taught by Professor Kershaw.
Is it possible to be both the best at your position in all of baseball and the most underrated? Clearly, it is, and Clayton Kershaw has mastered that and his craft as well as he's mastered Public Enemy Number One.
Greg Zakwin is the founder of Plaschke, Thy Sweater Is Argyle, a Dodgers' and sports card blog. He writes with an analytical tilt about The Blue Crew at ChadMoriyama.com. You can find and follow him on Twitter @ArgyledPlaschke. A graduate of UCLA in 2011 with a Bachelor's in History, he's been a follower of the Dodgers since birth and still mourns the loss of both Mike Piazza and Carlos Santana.
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