Clayton Kershaw and the NL Cy Young Award

The numbers are almost laughable. In a season when over 100 players have hit 20 home runs, Clayton Kershaw has put up a line for the ages. Through Tuesday: a 1.65 ERA, 1.67 FIP, a nearly unthinkable 168:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The only blemish is his low innings total, resulting from the back injury that cost him a substantial part of the summer. With no one seeming to run and hide with the NL Cy Young Award, it’s only natural to ask whether Kershaw might still be a worthy recipient of the hardware.

Last week, I used granular batted-ball data to measure the contact-management performance of all ERA-qualifying NL starters. This group did not include Kershaw. In that article I referred to my hypothetical Cy Young ballot, if it were limited to only qualifiers; that ballot would have been headed by two above-average contact managers with very strong K/BB profiles, Max Scherzer and Kyle Hendricks. Today, we add Kershaw to that mix, comparing him to those two pitchers, again utilizing exit-speed/launch-angle data in our analysis.

Sure, there are other legitimate candidates likely to receive Cy Young consideration. The late Jose Fernandez was over-the-top dominant, but was actually one of the lesser contact managers among NL starters. Noah Syndergaard is likely the best NL hurler at whom we won’t take a look today; on a per-inning basis, he arguably measures up with anyone not named Kershaw, but his innings total doesn’t come close to matching Scherzer’s.

Hendricks’ candidacy has been at least somewhat controversial in some circles. His K/BB profile isn’t nearly in the league of your typical award candidate, and many believe that luck and the Cubs’ stellar defense has a lot to do with his puny BABIP. The wonderful thing about using BIP data is that we are able to weed out such context and get down to the pitchers’ true talent level. He wouldn’t win a vote for “best Cub starting pitcher,” but does he deserve the Cy?

Kershaw is the best pitcher in the NL, you won’t get any argument on that point. A healthy Kershaw is likely a unanimous Cy Young selection. How much, exactly, do we dock him for his shortfall in the innings department?

And then there’s Scherzer, who has sort of gotten lost in all of this discussion. There’s some irony to all of this. For many years, the analytical community fought, eventually successfully, to take award voters’ eyes off of categories like wins and ERA when deciding award winners. Now, here we are in 2016, sort of blowing off Scherzer’s chances, in part because of an ERA that is quite a bit higher than his competition’s. It doesn’t help that the analytical community’s pitching statistic of choice, FIP, still leaves an awful lot of important stuff out of the equation, and casts an even warier eye on Scherzer’s candidacy.

With this as our backdrop, let’s dig into some plate appearance frequency and production by BIP type data (through 9/26) to draw some conclusions regarding these three pitchers. First, the frequency data:

Plate Appearance Outcome Frequencies, 2016
Hendricks % REL PCT
K 23.0% 109 66
BB 6.0% 73 24
POP 3.0% 89 50
FLY 28.1% 90 34
LD 20.3% 98 37
GB 48.6% 109 70
Kershaw % REL PCT
K 32.6% 155 97
BB 1.9% 23 1
POP 4.6% 49 89
FLY 24.9% 82 9
LD 21.0% 99 56
GB 49.5% 119 75
Scherzer % REL PCT
K 31.4% 149 96
BB 6.1% 74 34
POP 6.4% 188 99
FLY 42.3% 136 96
LD 17.9% 86 4
GB 33.4% 75 4

Hendricks possesses the least imposing frequency profile of the group. Sure, a K rate in the 66th percentile and a BB rate in the 24th is plenty good, but it’s not necessarily what one would equate with award candidacy. His batted-ball mix isn’t exactly eye-catching, either: there’s no extreme go-to pop-up or ground-ball tendency. While his liner-rate allowed is below average, it’s isn’t materially so. There is nothing in Hendricks’ frequency profile that wows you. We’ll have to wait for the production by BIP type data, which is a solid proxy for the measurement of BIP authority, to see what, if anything, sets Hendricks apart.

There’s a whole lot of wow in Kershaw’s frequency profile. K rate in the 97th percentile, behind only Fernandez. BB rate in the 1st percentile. Bam. His K-BB spread is historic. His BIP mix is arguably as impressive. You want a ground-ball guy who gets a tons of pop ups? That combination is about as rare as the woolly mammoth, but here is living proof. Pretty staggering stuff.

Then there’s Scherzer. His K rate narrowly trails Kershaw’s, in the 96th percentile, and his BB rate, while the highest of these three pitchers, is still quite strong in the 34th percentile. (Five of the 31 current NL ERA qualifiers have BB rates between 6.0% and 6.2%. Weird.) He’s as extreme a fly-ball pitcher as you’ll find, with a fly rate in the 96th percentile — and an extreme pop-up tendency, pacing the NL in the 99th percentile. He’s been quite fortunate at avoiding squared-up contact — liner rates allowed are unlike pop-up, fly-ball and grounder rates in that they are quite volatile for most pitchers from year to year — while posting a liner rate way down in the 4th percentile. Scherzer has not been a good contact manager in past years, but has improved over time, and is having a career year in that department because of that low liner rate. Extreme fly-ball pitchers are compelled to contain BIP authority more so than other types of pitchers; we’ll see how Scherzer fared in this area as we move on.

Let’s now take a look at the production by BIP type data to get a better feel for the authority allowed by all three pitchers this season:

Adjusted Production by BIP Type, 2016
Hendricks AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA FIP TRU ERA
FLY 0.279 0.721 68 60
LD 0.620 0.790 85 95
GB 0.148 0.161 39 94
ALL BIP 0.266 0.414 63 73
ALL PA 0.201 0.249 0.312 58 66 1.99 2.43 3.21 2.75
Kershaw AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA FIP TRU ERA
FLY 0.222 0.580 43 66
LD 0.622 0.757 83 97
GB 0.183 0.190 57 82
ALL BIP 0.271 0.393 61 80
ALL PA 0.181 0.196 0.262 38 50 1.65 1.59 1.67 2.08
Scherzer AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA FIP TRU ERA
FLY 0.352 0.982 118 97
LD 0.581 0.743 75 87
GB 0.201 0.222 73 97
ALL BIP 0.285 0.523 85 85
ALL PA 0.189 0.239 0.347 61 61 2.82 2.55 3.16 2.55

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitches (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation.

First, you will note the almost total absence of numbers above 100 in the REL PRD and ADJ PRD columns; the Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores are better than league average across all BIP types, for all three pitchers, with the exception of Scherzer’s fly-ball Unadjusted Contact Score. These guys are getting it done with more than just Ks and BBs.

Hendricks is our likely 2016 NL Contact Manager of the Year. In this, the year of the homer, he has suffocated fly-ball contact. Hitters have batted .328 AVG-.895 SLG on fly balls this season, but only .279 AVG-.721 SLG vs. Hendricks — for a 68 fly ball Unadjusted Contact Score. And it’s not the defense, or Wrigley Field, which has played like a pitchers’ park this season. When you remove context from the equation and solely rely on exit speed/launch angle, Hendricks “should have” performed even better, with a 60 fly ball Adjusted Contact Score, better than both Kershaw and Scherzer.

Hendricks has benefited from quite a bit of good luck on grounders this season, allowing only .148 AVG-.171 SLG for a 39 ground-ball Unadjusted Contact Score. Adjusted for context, this jumps all the way up to 94, close to league average. A stellar infield defense has helped Hendricks look good here.

On all BIP combined, Hendricks has posted Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores of 63 and 73, respectively. Add back the K and BB, and Hendricks’ 2.75 “Tru” ERA is nowhere near as good as his ERA, but markedly better than his FIP.

Kershaw is much more than a K/BB freak. He has absolutely strangled fly-ball contact this season, to an even greater extent than Hendricks. Hitters have batted .222 AVG-.580 SLG in the air (43 Unadjusted Contact Score), though adjustment for context nudges that mark upward to 66, higher than Hendricks. Kershaw has also been quite lucky on the ground, with hitters batting just .183 AVG-.190 SLG (57 Unadjusted Contact Score). Though that mark also is adjusted upward for context (82 Adjusted Contact Score), it remains below Hendricks’ level.

On all BIP combined, Kershaw has posted Unadjusted an Adjusted Contact Scores of 61 and 80, respectively. A relatively high liner rate is responsible for Kershaw falling short of Hendricks’ Adjusted Contact Score. Add back the K and BB, and Kershaw’s “Tru” ERA of 2.08 isn’t nearly as good as his ERA or FIP, but is still much better than his two competitors.

Scherzer has allowed fairly extensive damage in the air this season, a .352 AVG-.982 SLG, for a 118 fly-ball Unadjusted Contact Score. There’s a good bit of bad luck in that number, however; adjusted for exit speed/launch angle, he “should” have posted a 97 Unadjusted Contact Score. While Scherzer has been a bit lucky on both liners and grounders, one cannot ignore the impact of his high pop-up rate. That helps forces his overall Adjusted Contact Score down to 85, below his fly-ball, liner or grounder mark. That’s pretty good contact management for an extreme K/BB guy not named Kershaw.

Add back the K and BB, and Scherzer’s “Tru” ERA of 2.55 is below both his ERA and FIP. No, current mainstream metrics do not give Scherzer adequate credit for his pop-up tendency, or pick up the fact that he has not allowed above-average fly-ball authority.

So, on a per-inning basis, Kershaw’s the guy, with a 2.08 “Tru” ERA to Scherzer’s 2.55 and Hendricks’ 2.75. To measure each hurler’s “pitching runs” for the season, you simply multiply their innings pitched totals by the difference between their “Tru” ERA and the league average, per nine innings. Scherzer wins once his innings bulk is taken into account, with 40.2 pitching runs to Kershaw’s 33.0 and Hendricks’ 29.2. The Nationals’ righty is the 2016 NL Cy Young Award winner in my book. He might not be the best on a per-inning basis, but he has delivered the most pitching value of any NL hurler this season.

Next time, we’ll look at the AL, drawing the Zach Britton factor into the discussion.





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astrostl
6 years ago

I hadn’t thought about it prior, but I’m now hoping that Fernandez wins it.

Johnston
6 years ago
Reply to  astrostl

Any voter who doesn’t vote for Fernandez has no heart.

Thr33Rings
6 years ago
Reply to  astrostl

Jose Fernandez didn’t even have 1 complete game this year and he wasn’t even in baseball references’ to 10 pitching WAR. You can’t give someone an award just because they died. It’s real a tragedy but give it to someone who deserves it.

YKnotDisco
6 years ago
Reply to  Thr33Rings

Who do you think deserves it?

Thr33Rings
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

Cueto, Bumgarner, Lester, Hendricks, just to name a few.

YKnotDisco
6 years ago
Reply to  Thr33Rings

What order?

Thr33Rings
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

Bumgarner, Lester, Cueto, Hendricks, Scherzer, Arietta, Syndergaard, Fernandez, Kershaw.

YKnotDisco
6 years ago
Reply to  Thr33Rings

How did you come to that conclusion?

Thr33Rings
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

Stats bro, and looking at the situations they pitch in.

YKnotDisco
6 years ago
Reply to  Thr33Rings

What stats are most indicative of performance to you?

Thr33Rings
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

a mix of things. Baseball reference War, W/L, K’s, situations, ERA, IPs, team record, etc.

HarryLives
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

He’s very clearly a Giants homer, and a particularly “trolly” one at that. Ignore.

YKnotDisco
6 years ago
Reply to  HarryLives

Thought maybe he was JFTG but he hasn’t mentioned BABIP/luck/Cubs in the same sentence, so…

Thr33Rings
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

No lie, I love the Giants but I can appreciate what the Cubs have done. The pitcher’s freakishly low babip is the product of insane defense and I cannot fault them for doing that.

Garys of Oldemember
6 years ago
Reply to  Thr33Rings

This is fangraphs, bro. Which stats.

JimmyD
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

I think Bumgarner has taken himself out of consideration with a 3.81 2nd half ERA

Thr33Rings
6 years ago
Reply to  JimmyD

More to the award than ERA dude. Come on I thought this was a stat site.

YKnotDisco
6 years ago
Reply to  Thr33Rings

I see you have taken your meds now.

JimmyD
6 years ago
Reply to  Thr33Rings

Fernandez is 3rd in the NL by WAR (Kershaw & Syndergaard at 6.5, Fernadez 6.2) No one cares about complete games. I think Kershaw shouldn’t get it because of the time missed. Fernandez leads NL starters in k/9 and only slightly behind Syndergaard in FIP. I think it should be between Fernandez and Syndergaard.

Thr33Rings
6 years ago
Reply to  JimmyD

fangraphs war maybe but baseball reference which is the more respected version (sorry but I am just being honest) says otherwise.

JimmyD
6 years ago
Reply to  Thr33Rings

I always go by Fangraphs WAR! … Cases can be made for Fernandez, Syndergaard, Kershaw, Scherzer, and Hendricks.. None of them don’t deserve it. I would just prefer it if Fernandez won.

Thr33Rings
6 years ago
Reply to  JimmyD

From what I can tell, fip based WAR is too theoretical and baseball references’s era based war is more grounded in what is actually happening in the game. It is just a better metric.

Doorknob11
6 years ago
Reply to  Thr33Rings

That and I really doubt Fernandez would have appreciated something like that, he seemed like a guy who wanted to earn it not be given it because something happened to him

Bipmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Doorknob11

I really don’t like, in general, the idea of doing anything “because it’s what he would have wanted,” ever, not just this situation.

The really sad thing about this particular case is that this award, right now, is crowded near the top, and Fernandez was part of that crowd, which means that he very well may have pulled ahead given two more starts this season, and missing them will likely put him behind, just strictly based on statistics. And it feels incredibly shitty to be like “well, he was in the WAR lead, but he lost it because, you know.” I feel shitty even thinking about it.

The problem is that voting for him based on what we think he would have done doesn’t feel much better. It all feels like it’s a weird effort to honor him by reducing him to his stats. I almost want MLB to declare him ineligible for votes, but do something special and out of the ordinary to recognize him, specifically by making some kind of exception. Other people have suggested a “Jose Fernandez Spirit of the Game” award. I think that would work, but it doesn’t need to be that.