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Monday
Jan202014

Clayton Kershaw's $215 Million Curveball

There are myriad reasons why Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw just earned a seven-year, $215 million contract extension, becoming the first player in history to pull in more than $30 million a season. Kershaw, 26 in March, boasts the fifth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (46 percent above average) ever for a starting pitcher during his first six seasons in the majors, trailing only Walter Johnson (164 ERA+), Mordecai Brown (158 ERA+), Smoky Joe Wood (152 ERA+) and Christy Mathewson (150 ERA+). He's a workhorse, having topped 200 innings pitched in each of the past four seasons, and he has fooled hitters like no other lefty (9.2 strikeouts per nine frames) this side of Randy Johnson (9.4 K/9) to start his career.

Yet for all of the breathtaking stats that Kershaw has compiled since making his debut at Chavez Ravine back in May of 2008, this one may be the most remarkable: he has thrown a total of 2,155 curveballs during the regular season, according to our Pitch F/X data, and exactly zero of those hooks have landed in the cheap seats. That's right -- Kershaw has never surrendered a regular-season homer on the pitch that earns him comparisons to Sandy Koufax. Batters have launched 1,945 home runs off curveballs dating back to '08, but nobody has gone deep against Public Enemy Number One.

What in the name of Vin Scully is going on here? How has Kershaw been so thoroughly dominant with his curveball, which has smothered hitters to the tune of a major league low .145 opponent slugging percentage from 2008-13? Here are three reasons why Kershaw's curve seemingly can't be taken deep.

Batters can't tell whether it's a ball or a strike -- or just don't think they can hit it

To go deep, you obviously have to swing the bat -- and opponents rarely do when Kershaw unleashes a curve. Batters have swung at just one-third of curveballs seen from Kershaw since '08, compared to the 40 percent major league average. Even when the pitch ends up being thrown in the strike zone, hitters pull the trigger less than half of the time (47 percent, compared to the 55 percent MLB average). Either batters can't discern whether it's over the plate in time to swing, or they figure it's futile to even try.

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location versus Kershaw's curveball, 2008-13

Kershaw's curve induces weak contact

When hitters do swing at Kershaw's curve, they often just pound the pitch into the infield grass or hit a weak fly ball. Kershaw has generated grounders 55.2 percent of the time that batters have put his curve in play, north of the 52 percent MLB average. Those who manage to loft the pitch into the air have won a moral victory, but little else. Batters have hit fly balls off Kershaw's curve an average of 244 feet -- second-lowest among all qualified starters dating back to 2008.

Lowest Average fly ball distance on curve balls put in play, 2008-2013 (min. 800 curveballs thrown)  

Kershaw can add and subtract with his curve

L.A.'s ace has thrown his curveball at an average of 73.4 MPH during his career. But he can dial it way up (topping 82 MPH on the gun) or way, way down (he threw a 49 MPH yakker to Yasmani Grandal on September 9, 2012 -- Grandal didn't swing, of course). That might be part of the reason why hitters so rarely swing at Kershaw's curve -- it could be a power pitch, or it might arrive at home plate slower than a Prius traveling on Interstate 5.

Kershaw was wild with curveball when he first arrived in the bigs, throwing it for a strike less than half of the time, but he has gradually learned to control the pitch (57 percent strike rate last year) while adding precision to his power arsenal. His curve, like the rest of his game, has only gotten better. That's a scary proposition any hitter dreaming of finally going yard off the pitch.

Wednesday
Jan152014

Bumgarner or Sale: Who's the Best Young Southpaw after Kersh?

No one will argue that Clayton Kershaw isn't the best pitcher in Major League Baseball at 25 years old or under, and I doubt many will refute the idea that he's well on his way to being the best pitcher of my generation. Heck, he just signed a seven-year, $215 million deal with the Dodgers -- giving him the largest average annual salary for a player in baseball history -- and has led all qualified starters in ERA in each of the past three seasons. Based on these facts alone, we can conclude that Kershaw takes the cake when it comes to dominant pitchers (both young and old).

But who's the next-best 25-or-under southpaw in baseball right now? This is a difficult question to answer, if only because there aren't many elite lefties. While Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, and Jose Fernandez are the obvious leaders of an insanely talented crop of young right-handed pitchers, the same cannot be said for young southpaws outside of Kershaw. Two names stand out above the rest, however, and that's Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner.

Both are 24 years old. Both are entering their fifth full season in the majors. Both own career ERA marks around 3.00 (3.08 for Bumgarner, 2.97 for Sale). Both finished in the top 10 for their respective league's Cy Young Award voting last season. Both are exceptionally towering in stature (Bumgarner is 6'5", 235; Sale 6'6", 180) and both played for teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2013. The similarities are almost uncanny, am I right?

Unnaturally similar resumes aside, though, these two have clearly established themselves as the top 25-or-under southpaws in baseball after Kershaw. Which one is "better", you ask? Let's find out by evaluating the two in these areas: Command, ability to generate strikeouts and batted ball results.

Command/Control

Though Sale and Bumgarner boast similar pitch frequency heat maps over the past two seaons, one holds a distinct advantage in respect to command and control -- an aspect that is crucial to consider when evaluating starting pitchers. You can pump upper-90s fastballs around the plate all day long, but if you can't hit the mit where you need to, you won't last long in the majors.

  • Pounding the zone: Since 2012, Sale owns a 52.9% zone rate compared to Bumgarner's 49.9% mark. Yes, throwing more pitches in the zone doesn't always lead to success, but in this case it does: Sale's 37.9% called strike rate (third best among LHP since 2012) trumps Bumgarner's 32.5%.
  • Restricting free bases: Given his ability to pound the strike zone and paint the corners at a high rate, a lower walk rate has followed suit. Sale owns a 5.9% walk rate over the past two seasons while Bumgarner retains a slightly higher 6.7% walk rate, which is nearly at the 7.2% league average mark.

Command Advantage: Sale.

Strikeout Ability

If command is the most important means by which to evaluate a starter, then strikeout capacity and ability is an easy second, at least for me. Fortuitously, this is an area in which both Sale and Bumgarner have excelled to this point in their respective careers.

But the way in which the two go about punching out opponents is different; a whopping 49.8% of Sale's strikeouts occur in the strikezone (third-highest among qualified lefties since 2012) while Bumgarner uses his deception to expand opponents zones, as 59.4% of his strikeouts transpire outside the zone.

  • Expanding the zone: Since 2012, Sale owns a 30.4% chase rate juxtaposed to Bumgarner's 29.1%, so Sale gets the slight nod here. Neither are dominant in this area, though, as the league average mark in the last two seasons is 28.5%. We should consider that opponents swing more frequently at Bumgarner's stuff (47.7%) than Sale's (45.4%), however.
  • Swing and a miss: Sale separates himself from Bumgarner a bit more in generating swings-and-misses, however, as he owns a 25.2% miss rate opposed to Bumgarner's 23.6% miss rate. Neither are exceptional in this respect, again, as the league mark is 21.2% and league lead is owned by Francisco Liriano at 30.7%. The two are nearly identical when it comes to swinging strikes, with Sale boasting an 11.5% swinging strike rate and Bumgarner an 11.2% rate.
  • Simple Strikeouts: Then there's the generic strikeout rate. Sale reigns supreme here again, holding true to a 25.5% strikeout rate (sixth-best since 2012) compared to Bumgarner's 23.6%.

Strikeout ability advantage: Sale.

Batted Ball Results

Though I'm not the biggest proponent of evaluating pitchers strictly off opponents' numbers against them, they do maintain at least some merit. Looking at how batters fare against a pitcher statistically (i.e. SLG% against) can sometimes shed light on how effective (or uneffective) a pitcher's stuff is from a broad perspective.

  • Limiting XBH: While Sale maintains an advantage in command and strikeouts, Bumgarner gets the nod for holding opponents to lower success rates. Over the last two seasons, he's held batters to a .348 SLG% (ninth lowest among qualified starters) while Sale is just percentage points behind at .362 compared to the .402 league average.
  • More grounders: The ability to generate ground balls is an elite (and frankly unteachable) attribute for any pitcher, and Bumgarner again outperforms Sale in this regard. With a 47.5% ground ball rate since 2012, he outmatches the 44.7% league mark and trumps Sale, as well, whose 45% ground ball rate is essentially average.
  • In play or no? When it comes right down to it, pitchers are considered effective when they limit the amount of pitches that opponents put in play -- less pitches put in play generally leads to less hits. It's really that simple. For Bumgarner, this is another edge over Sale, as he owns a 36.9% in-play rate (fifth-best among lefty starters last season) compared to Sale's 38.8% mark.

Batted ball results advantage: Bumgarner.

So, Who's (Second) Best?

Considering everything we've just discussed, it seems as though Sale is the "better" pitcher, holding advantages in command and strikeouts. However, this is more of a question of preference; do you want a pitcher whose command is slightly better and who strikes out more batters (Sale), or do more ground balls and fewer pitches placed in-play tickle your fancy?

I'll take Sale, but we all know Kershaw is the most elite arm in the game.

Tuesday
Jan142014

Big Papi Refuses to Get Old

Red Sox GM Ben Cherington recently said that "the door will be open" for the club to discuss a contract extension with David Ortiz, who will pull down $15 million next season during the last year of his current deal. For most 38-year-olds who don't contribute in the field and on the bases, the door would have slammed shut years ago. But Ortiz, fresh off a season in which he posted the best park-and-league-adjusted OPS (60 percent above average) among qualified hitters this side of Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis, just won't get old. Forget slowing reflexes and declining bat speed -- Big Papi is too busy hoisting World Series trophies and sporting WWE championship belts.

In fact, Ortiz's lumber looks as quick as ever. He annihialated "hard" pitches -- fastballs, cutters and splitters -- in 2013, boasting the third-highest slugging percentage in this game against those high-speed offerings.

Baseball orthodoxy says that sluggers lose their quick-twitch fibers and prodigious power as they age. Not Ortiz, who is actually yanking more hard pitches to right field -- and launching them deeper -- as he creeps closer to forty. His pull percentage and average fly ball distance versus fastballs, cutters and splitters has increased three years running.

Ortiz's pull percentage and average fly ball distance vs. hard pitches, 2011-13

        

In addition to his World Series and pro wrestling gold, Ortiz can now claim his place as one of the all-time great batters among old dudes. Ortiz has the fourth-highest OPS+ ever for a hitter from age 35 onward (minimum 1,500 plate appearances). A chemically enhanced Barry Bonds, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth are the only batters who mocked Father Time more effectively than Big Papi, though those guys continued raking into their forties.

(Source: Baseball-Reference.com)

Should the Sox pony up one last time for Ortiz? History hasn't been kind to similar sluggers. The list of DHs who have thrived from age 38 onward is an awfully short one: Just Edgar Martinez (132 OPS+), Brian Downing (130 OPS+) and Harold Baines (111 OPS+) managed to be at least 10 percent above average with the bat while logging 1,500+ plate appearances. And keep in mind, these are guys who only contribute offensively. Still, are you going to bet against Big Papi at this point? Eventually, he's going to slow down. But if there's one thing we've learned while perennially writing his baseball obituary, it's that Ortiz cares little for typical aging curves.