Starting-Pitcher Championship-Belt Showdown

The overriding theme of the 2017 season to date has been a wave of homers, many of them hit into the stratosphere courtesy of the sport’s new wave of sluggers, like Cody Bellinger, Miguel Sano, and, of course, Aaron Judge. Somewhat under the radar, the game’s three best starting pitchers, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and are doing what they always do — namely, dominate.

The game’s greatest hurlers generally aren’t fazed when offense ramps up. The late-1990s/early-2000s version of Pedro Martinez just might have been the single most dominant pitching force of nature ever. Today’s Big Three are doing their best Pedro impressions. Despite an injury-shortened 2016, Kershaw was still considered a favorite to retain his hold on the starting pitcher Championship Belt this season. Let’s peel back a couple layers, use some batted-ball data, and determine whether the 2017 first-half results have changed that dynamic.

In the two tables below, contact authority and frequency data is provided for all three pitchers. All stats are through Kershaw’s start on Tuesday night:

The Big Three: BIP Authority Data
Scherzer 68 79-96 72-88 63-80 84 44 61 50
Kershaw 86 118-129 103-90 36-66 96 53 73 64
Sale 87 57-79 93-95 122-75 90 57 46 53

The Big Three: Plate-Appearance Frequency Data
Name POP % FLY% LD% GB% K% BB%
Scherzer 6.6% 41.4% 14.1% 37.9% 35.6% 5.7%
Kershaw 4.0% 31.0% 19.7% 45.3% 30.9% 4.7%
Sale 4.8% 36.3% 22.3% 36.6% 35.5% 4.7%

The first of the tables above includes each pitcher’s Unadjusted Contact Score. This represents, on a scale where 100 equals league average, the actual production level allowed by each pitcher on balls in play. Basically, it’s their actual performance with the Ks and BBs removed. Their Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for each BIP category are then listed. Adjusted Contact Score represents the production level that each pitcher “should have” allowed if every batted ball resulted in league-average production for its exit-speed/launch-angle “bucket.” Finally, overall Adjusted Contact Score, actual ERA-, FIP-, and “tru” ERA- are in the rightmost columns. “Tru” ERA adds back the Ks and BBs, and incorporates the Adjusted Contact Score data, to give a better measure of each pitcher’s true performance level.

The bottom table lists all three pitchers’ K and BB rates, as well as the breakdown of all their BIP by category type. For this table, color-coding is used to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

All three pitchers share an obvious common denominator: absolute K/BB dominance. Scherzer and Sale are battling for the highest K rate among ERA-qualifying starters, and are the only two with K rates over two full standard deviations above their respective league averages. Kershaw ranks fourth among qualifiers in K rate, a tick behind Robbie Ray.

Walk rates are on the rise across baseball, but no one remembered to tell these three guys. All three rank among the game’s best in this category; Sale’s BB rate stands out as the only one over two STD below league average.

When you get down to it, pitching is essentially broken down into two components: K/BB and contact management. All three are acing the first course, so let’s dig a little deeper to see how they’re doing in the second.

Individually, the three pitchers possess markedly different contact-management histories. Scherzer was a historically poor contact manager early in his career, an easy mark for the long ball, though he has greatly improved in recent seasons thanks to an emergent extreme pop-up tendency. Sale has always been a solid contact manager, albeit one without a go-to pop-up or grounder tendency that would allow him to be great. Kershaw has been exceptional in this regard; he gets pop ups up in the zone and plenty of grounders down in the zone.

Scherzer has posted the best Unadjusted Contact Score (68) of the three thus far this season. A big reason for that, however, is his microscopic 14.1% liner-rate allowed, over two full STD lower than league average. That’s the lowest among 2017 ERA qualifiers. Thing is, liner-rates allowed swing much more wildly from year to year compared to those of other BIP types. It’s a fairly safe bet that his liner rate allowed will regress upward in the second half. That said, Scherzer’s liner rate allowed has been in the 20th percentile or lower among NL qualifiers in three of the last four seasons, so the regression could be mild.

Scherzer is an extreme fly-ball and pop-up pitcher. The former isn’t necessarily a good thing, but the latter certainly is. He limits fly-ball authority much better than he did in his first few seasons in the league, as evidenced by his solid 96 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score. He’s also managing liner (88 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounder authority (80) extremely well. Adjusted for context, his Contact Score of 84 is the best of these three hurlers to date. His “tru” ERA- of 50 is also the best. That’s before the expected liner-rate regression, of course.

Next up, Mr. Kershaw. Whenever he’s not clearly the best starter in baseball, it has to be considered an “off year” for him on some level. First, it’s been a few years since his K rate hasn’t been in the “red’ range relative to the league. It’s also the first year in a while that his grounder rate isn’t materially above league average. Plus, some of the additional fly balls he’s allowed, particularly early in the season, were hit very hard. That trend has ebbed a bit, though his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 129 still indicates harder-than-average authority allowed.

All of that said, Kershaw is allowing by far the weakest grounder authority of this esteemed group, with a 66 Adjusted Contact Score and puny 79.6 mph average velocity on the ground. He was pretty dominant on Tuesday night, allowing weak contact across all BIP types while whiffing 11 and walking none. He appears primed for a truly Kershaw-esque second half. Right now, though, his overall Adjusted Contact Score of 96 and his “tru” ERA- of 64 sits third behind the other two dominators.

Lastly, there’s Mr. Sale. Only once in his career has Sale posted a pop-up or grounder percentile rank in he 80th percentile or above. He has gradually developed a fairly clear fly-ball tendency, dangerous when you consider the two home parks in which he has toiled. Fenway simply hasn’t mattered to Sale.

His Adjusted Contact Scores across all major BIP types have been excellent, at 79, 95, and 75 on flies, liners, and grounders, respectively. His overall Adjusted Contact Score isn’t that great, at 90, because he has allowed a materially worse-than-average 22.3% liner rate to date. This is the flip side of Scherzer: Sale’s liner rate can actually be expected to drop as the season continues to unfold, a truly scary thought for AL hitters. While he’s allowed a slightly higher-than-average liner rate in three of the last four seasons, he sat way down in the second percentile the other campaign.

Sale’s Adjusted Contact Score and his 53 “tru” ERA- sit second behind Scherzer at present; he’s running away with the AL Cy YoungAward as things stand.

So, does anything that has happened in the first half force Kershaw to relinquish the starting pitcher Championship Belt? I would argue no, for now.

Kershaw does it all: maximize strikeouts, minimize walks, with a track record of accumulating free outs up in the zone via pop ups and down in the zone via grounders. His pop-up-rate percentile rank has been 56 or better every ERA-qualifying season since 2009, and his grounder-rate percentile rank has been 60 or better every season since 2012. It might be close, but I think he’ll keep those streaks alive once the final totals are in.

I would argue that Sale’s 2017 performance to date has been the most impressive of the three. A 53 “tru” ERA- with a materially higher than average liner rate? That’s simply insane. That he’s a fly-ball pitcher in Fenway accomplishing all of that is remarkable.

Scherzer’s raw 2017 numbers are the best of the group, but without that unnaturally low liner rate, they wouldn’t be. He’s great, but not quite the greatest.

Looking out over the horizon, I would argue that Kershaw’s future remains the brightest. When fly-ball pitchers like Scherzer — and, to a lesser extent, Sale — stop managing fly-ball authority, things can start to get nutty. At some point, K rates in the 30s are beyond the capability of even the game’s very best pitchers, and contact management becomes even more important. I would surmise that Scherzer’s decline phase will be the steepest, and Kershaw’s the smoothest of the group — barring significant injury, of course.

Kershaw gets pop ups without an excessive fly-ball rate, and grounders don’t leave the ball park. His hold on the belt might be tenuous, and one of these two primo contenders might temporarily seize it from him, but the Dodgers’ big lefty should outlast them as a true dominator.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

As an avid baseball fan I am thoroughly enjoying watching these men pitch. I have never seen such dominance by three guys in the same year

6 years ago
Reply to  jpickens206

Agreed. Kershaw in particular is one of the few players I will actively make it a point to watch whenever he’s on TV.

Of course, that being said, he might not be even the best pitcher on his own team this year. I’d be curious to see where Alex Wood ranks in the categories in the article.

a different brad
6 years ago
Reply to  jpickens206

1999 is pretty long time ago, now, I suppose. But Pedro, Randy, and Kevin Brown combined for ~27-28 WAR that year, depending on how it’s calculated.

6 years ago

I’ll stump for 2015 with Kershaw, Arrieta, and Greinke, which really isn’t that long ago.

6 years ago
Reply to  phpope

Scherzer also put up a 6.4 WAR season in 2015 and 2 no-hitters to go along with it and he wasn’t even CLOSE to contending for the Cy Young. 2015 was an incredible year for pitching.