Viewing Clayton Kershaw’s 2011 with Sabermetrics and Traditional Stats

Pitching at any level of baseball is a constant test of physical and mental strength.  At the major league level, only the catcher sees a more demanding workload.  If you have pitched at any level, then you know of the continuous focus required to navigate a pitch, a batter, an inning, a lineup, a game, a season.  For big leaguers, off days are far from “off” – conditioning, side bullpen sessions, film study.  Surely the rituals will vary for relievers and starters but you get the idea. Pitching is hard.

Every once in a while, a pitcher will have a breakout year and fool us into thinking – just for a few moments each time he takes the mound – that pitching looks easy.  Enter the 2011 version of Clayton Kershaw.  Every fifth game for the whole season, Kershaw gave the Dodgers a chance to win.  His traditional stat line looked like this:

21-5 with a 2.28 ERA and 248 K

which, by the way, was good enough for the pitching Triple Crown in the National League (he was tied with Ian Kennedy for the NL lead in wins).  This is a nice way to sum up a season, but as I mentioned in the overview post about Kershaw, we are much more capable now of identifying more meaningful metrics when it comes to analyzing and predicting a player’s performance than we were even 20 years ago.  These traditional stats are nice, but do they properly characterize a player and his performance?  You guessed it, the answer is no.

For example, pitcher wins has come under scrutiny in the sabermetrics world as being a somewhat meaningless stat.  Sure, it tells us that the pitcher’s team won the game and he was qualified to tally the win, but can we tell how the pitcher performed just by his number of wins?  Take a look at these two scenarios:

-Pitcher A throws a no-hitter and picks up a win in a 1-0 contest

-Pitcher B gives up 6 runs and walks 5 batters in 5 innings but his team scores 7 runs to qualify him for the win

Both pitchers earn a win, but Pitcher A obviously had the better performance.  The downfall is that the traditional win stat does not differentiate between these two performances.  Now stretch this over an entire season and it will quickly become clear that a traditional stat like the win can be a misleading characterization of a pitcher’s aptitude.  This is just one example of the way that traditional stats are being scrutinized in today’s baseball culture.  Not only is it becoming more practical, but it’s fun (I know, nerd alert!) to explore in more detail the more advanced stats that have been created to better understand the game.  I am still learning many of these new stats from the sabermetric world.

Now that we have established Kershaw’s dominance of the traditional stats, let’s take a look at some of his advanced metrics and compare him to the rest of the league.  Using the Fangraphs Leaderboard we can see that Kershaw is in the top 3 in the National League for:

Strikeouts per 9 innings (K/9) with 9.57 – 2nd
Walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP) with 0.98 – 1st
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) with 2.47 – 2nd

The point is this: Clayton Kershaw had a fantastic year on the mound any way you slice it.  You might even reason that his traditional stats are in fact telling an accurate story since his advance metrics were also superb.

Now that we have established (briefly) that Kershaw had a stellar 2011, there are a couple directions to go in defining his success.  One avenue is to explore his season in historical context – this opens up the classic baseball conundrum of comparing players across eras.  The other is to begin exploring the nuts and bolts of how he was able to be so successful in 2011.  We will go one of these directions the next time we meet.  Until then, let me know if there are any sabermetric principles you would like to discuss.