Welcome to the first of many installments in the series “Reading Between The (Stat) Lines.” The purpose of these articles is pretty obvious given the somewhat clever (alright, obvious) title I whipped up at 6:00 in the morning. I’ll be taking a look at players whose 2009 stat lines didn’t exactly tell the whole truth.
You can thank Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching phenom Clayton Kershaw for providing the inspiration I needed to get the ball rolling. While doing some late-night browsing of the Fantasy Baseball Cafe message boards, I came across a thread asking people their thoughts on how Kershaw would perform in 2010 after his amazing 2009 season.
But was it as amazing as it appeared?
On the surface, Kershaw had everything a fantasy ace needs except the wins. He finished the year at 8-8 with a 2.79 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 185 K in 171 IP, but most impressive of all was his .200 OBA. At only 21 years old, Kershaw had arrived.
Not so fast. The underlying numbers tell a different story, but before we dive deeper into the stats, there’s a disclaimer:
This is all just me playing with numbers and adjusting peripherals to fall in line with league averages. It’s impossible to know true outcomes for a set of events that didn’t happen, but this allows us to gauge how accurately a player’s stats represent their true performance.
Runners on Base
Control has always been an issue for Kershaw. He averaged 3.7 BB/9 in the minors and allowed 4.8 BB/9 last season. If it wasn’t for his insanely low OBA, his WHIP would be astronomical.
Speaking of his OBA, Kershaw also sported BABIP of .276. For pitchers, the league average BABIP generally hovers between .290 and .300. With a BABIP of .276, Kershaw caught his fair share of breaks which helped drop his OBA, but what would happen to his stats if his BABIP was .295?
Kershaw allowed 119 H in 596 opponents’ AB last season (.200 OBA). If his BABIP was .295 instead of .276, he would have allowed eight more hits over the course of the season, pushing his OBA to .213. Those eight extra hits would also raise his WHIP from 1.23 to 1.27. Both of these increases seem minor, but together they add fractions of a run onto his ERA.
Kershaw’s HR/FB rate was an unbelievably low 4.1%, down noticeably from 11.6% in 2008. For comparison, fellow Dodger Chad Billingsley had HR/FB rates of 8.1% during his great ‘08 season and and 8.8% during his disappointing ‘09. Hiroki Kuroda had a 7.6% HR/FB rate in ‘08 and 9.9% in ‘09. Also consider that Kershaw’s HR/FB rate was lower than those of Tim Lincecum, Chris Carpenter, and Adam Wainwright, the top three finishers in NL Cy Young voting.
If Kershaw’s HR/FB rate was adjusted to more expected numbers (I’ll use 7.5% as a reasonable best-case scenario), then he would have allowed 13 HR on the season instead of only seven. This would have added at least six more runs to his ER total if they were all solo shots, which would have jumped his ERA to 3.11 (again, a best-case scenario). Let’s not forget that this HR analysis is without correcting for Kershaw’s .276 BABIP. Factor that in and you have more runners on base and more HR being hit to potentially drive them in.
Also of note is the quality of the Dodgers’ bullpen. They led all of baseball in bullpen ERA, and between Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Ramon Troncoso, Ronald Belisario, and Hong-Chi Kuo, only 22.7% of inherited runners were allowed to score (that’s really good). This is in no way a knock against Kershaw because the strength of the bullpen behind a starter is an important factor when drafting him, but if in coming years the Dodgers part with one or two of these setup men and don’t find adequate replacements, then it becomes an issue.
Take this analysis for what it is: an indication that Kershaw was very good last season, but not everything his numbers made him out to be. While he is still developing, it would be too much to expect him to repeat his 2009 numbers. I am a big fan of Kershaw, and I am making sure to target him, but cautious optimism is most appropriate. He still has that potential to put up A.J. Burnett-type numbers (a solid ERA, poor WHIP, mediocre W totals, and lots of Ks).
I’ll leave you with a few official projections for 2010 with mine thrown in for good measure.
Also, don't forget to check out Baseball Professor for more analysis.