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Better Luck Next Year, Clayton

Clayton Kershaw had a lot riding on his shoulders in 2009.  From the moment he was drafted seventh overall in 2006, the highest pick by the Dodgers in 13 years, the expectations were great for the golden left arm of the former high school teammate of Matthew Stafford in Highland Park, Texas.  Over on Dodger Thoughts, nobody wanted to jinx anything, so we began calling him The Minotaur, a mythical creature not to be believed until we saw him with our own eyes.  He made it to the big leagues in 2008, and was basically a league average starter as a 20-year old, a remarkable achievement.  Expectations were understandably quite high for Kershaw entering 2009.

The 21-year old did not disappoint.  He put up an adjusted earned run average of 149, nearly 50% better than league average.  Of the 78 starting pitchers in baseball with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, here is where Kershaw ranked:

ERA 2.79 8th
149 8th
FIP 3.06 7th
x-FIP 3.94 26th
H/9 6.26 1st
HR/9 0.37 2nd
K/9 9.74 7th

It's hard to get much better than that.  Yet, when we glance over a little to the left on the back of his baseball card, we will see his win-loss record at a pedestrian 8-8.  Why is that?  One big reason was his high walk totals, leading to short outings:

BB/9 4.79 77th
5.63 75th

Over his last 11 starts, Kershaw put up a 2.60 ERA while striking out 10.77 batters per nine innings, yet had no wins to show for it.  However, it wasn't all Kershaw's fault.  At Baseball Prospectus, using play-by-play data, they track a couple of stats to help determine a pitcher's expected win-loss record:

  • E(W) - Expected Wins:  "Expected win record for the pitcher, based on how often pitchers with the same innings pitched and runs allowed earned a win or loss historically (this differs from how it was computed, which was a more complicated, theoretical calculation)."
  • SNW - Support-Neutral Wins: "the pitcher's expected number of wins assuming he had league-average support."

Here are Kershaw's expected records per Baseball Prospectus:

13.1 6.4 18.0 12.0

Instead of 18-12, the Dodgers went 14-16 in Kershaw's 30 starts.  Looking back, Kershaw seemed to have his worst luck when pitching his best.  Kershaw had four of the best five starts by a Dodger in 2009, as measured by game score.  His top three starts produced zero wins:

Date Opp IP H R ER BB K GmScr
Apr 15 SF 7.0 1 1 1 1 13 83
Aug 8 Atl 7.0 2 0 0 1 10 82
July 29 
StL 8.0 4 0 0 2 7 79

Starting pitchers had a game score of 79 or better in 159 games this season, or 3.3% of all games.  Those pitchers were 140-3 in those games, with just 16 no-decisions.  Kershaw had three of those no-decisions.  No other pitcher in baseball had more than one.

If we lower the threshold to a game score of 70 or better -- which accounts for the top 11.4% of all MLB starts in 2009 -- Kershaw had 10 of those games, the same number as CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander.  Only four pitchers had more starts with a game score of 70 or higher.  Here are Kershaw's numbers in those 10 starts:

69.0 28 4 2.87 10.43 0.52 2.16 .125/.206/.174 4-0 6

Those six no-decisions led baseball.  Tim Lincecum was second, with four.  The point is that Kershaw didn't have a relatively low win total just because he wasn't able to pitch deep into games.  He pitched great often enough, but just didn't get rewarded as much as he should have.

Here's hoping for better luck next year, kid.