The All-Star Case for Kershaw is Not Complicated

Over at the Los Angeles Times, Steve Dilbeck wrote a Jekyll-and-Hyde pair of commentaries, explaining in one why Los Angeles Dodgers star pitcher Clayton Kershaw belongs in the All-Star Game, and in the other why he doesn’t. It appears to be an attempt to show that there are legitimate cases to be made for both sides of the discussion.

Unfortunately, Dilbeck’s arguments betray his understanding, or lack thereof, of what constitutes greatness in a Major League pitcher. His con argument is neatly summarized in his third paragraph:

It’s supposed to be a game featuring the players having the best first halves of the season, not having really good seasons. There shouldn’t be any free pass based on past excellence. It’s an All-Star game, not a lifetime achievement award.

His pro argument ends with this:

In the 1960s, the NL would never have put together an All-Star team without Sandy Koufax, and it shouldn’t send one out now without Kershaw.

Dilbeck never comes right out and says it, but his argument for Kershaw basically boils down to, “He has been the best for a long time, so he deserves to be there.” He does attempt to make a statistical case, but his heart isn’t in it:

It’s not as if he’s fallen off the mountaintop, dropping down into some pool of pitching mediocrity. He leads the league in strikeouts. After his start Wednesday, he is seventh in WHIP — walks and hits per inning pitched — at 1.02 and eighth in opponent batting average at .217. His earned-run average is 2.85. His peripherals — the sabermetric stuff — are all terrific.

There it is. The “sabermetric stuff.” Translation: “Obscure stats that we normal baseball fans don’t understand but the geeks tell us they matter.”

The thing is, the case for Clayton Kershaw in the All-Star Game is not so complicated. There are three things working against him:

  1. His win-loss record. After last night’s dominant shutout of the Phillies, Kershaw’s record sits at 6-6. It was 5-6 when the All-Stars were announced.
  2. His ERA. It sat at 3.08 going into last night, and it is now at 2.85.
  3. His past. Kershaw has not been as great this season as he was the past two or three or four seasons when he won three Cy Young Awards and missed out on another that he deserved because he didn’t have enough wins.

Let’s take the last one first. This year’s edition is the 85th All-Star game. If you figure an average of ten All-Star pitchers per league each season, there have been about 1,700 All-Star pitchers in MLB history. Guess how many of them were not having as good a season as Clayton Kershaw’s 2014 season? Oh, probably about 1,695. If someone tried to tell you that Madison Bumgarner does not deserve to be an All-Star because he’s not as good as Kershaw was last year, you would tell them that’s the dumbest argument you ever heard. The response for Kershaw should be the same.

Let’s talk about ERA. Earned Run Average is not a useless statistic. In fact, I think it was one of the best stats of its time. With the limited information available to record-keepers in the early days of baseball, ERA probably came as close to approximating the quality of a pitcher as you could hope for. It has issues — different defenses, different scorekeepers, dumb luck, etc. — but it did a pretty good job. With that said, Kershaw’s 3.08 ERA (before yesterday) was as good as or better than 12 pitchers who have won the Cy Young Award in my lifetime. Drop his ERA down to 2.85, as he did last night, and you add another seven names to that list. Kershaw, as he sits right now in the middle his “down” year, has an ERA better than exactly 25 percent of the Cy Young winners since I was born in 1977.

So if you want to use ERA as your measuring stick (which I don’t recommend, because it was good for its time but there are better tools now), Kershaw stacks up pretty well. Oh yeah, and he also has a better ERA than Bumgarner and Michael Wacha, who both made the team.

That brings us to wins and losses. The anti-sabermetrics crowd would have you believe that the stat geeks don’t care about wins and losses. The truth, of course, is that the basement-dwelling keyboard jockeys just don’t consider wins and losses to be individual stats, but team stats.

Dilbeck says this:

Then, of course, there is his win-loss record, 6-6 after Wednesday’s game, which we’re just supposed to discard because sometimes pitchers pick up cheap wins or underserved losses. And because, you know, the sabermetric people told us we should do so.

But to put absolutely no value on the win-loss record for a starting pitcher is going too far. It’s not as if there’s no correlation between a starting pitcher’s performance and who wins and loses.

Yes, there is often a correlation between a starter’s performance and who wins and loses. But often, there isn’t. Look at these three games:

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In that table is one win, one loss, and one no-decision. Let’s add some information to the table:

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Wins and losses do not tell you how well a pitcher pitched. They tell you if a pitcher pitched well enough and the defense behind him defended well enough and the relief pitchers relieved well enough to keep the other team from scoring more runs than the pitcher’s teammates scored off the opposing pitcher who might be Max Scherzer or might be Kyle Lohse.

Just like ERA, there might have been a time when the pitcher win was a useful statistic. There might have been a time when the best way to tell if a bone was broken was to hold the injured arm up next to the healthy one and see how it looked. But we have X-ray machines now, and we have advanced statistics.

Here’s the thing about the “sabermetric stuff”: most of it isn’t that mystical. Yes, there are some stats like WAR that throw people off because the formulas a kind of secret and there are multiple versions and all that noise. But the advanced stats that people talk about most often with regards to Kershaw’s All-Star case are not that hard to understand.

There’s BABIP. It has a funny name, but it just stands for “Batting Average on Balls in Play.” We all understand the concept of batting average; this stat just tells us how often a ball hit off a particular pitcher falls in for a hit. Since 2009, Kershaw’s first full season in the big leagues, the BABIP against him has been between .251 and .278 every year. League average is .300. As Kershaw consistently, year after year, put up above-average BABIPs, it became clear that he was not just getting lucky, but that he was actually inducing weaker contact, making it easier for his fielders to get outs.

After last night’s game, Kershaw’s 2015 BABIP sits at .306, 32 points higher than his career number. It was at .357 when I wrote about him two months ago. His home run rate — the percentage of fly balls that go over the fence — has dropped from 20.8 to 14.9 in that same span, but it is still more than twice as high as his career average. Has something fundamentally changed that allows batters to hit the ball hard off of him? No, he leads baseball in lowest batted-ball velocity allowed, and he has the second-lowest batted-ball velocity on fly balls. He has literally just been unlucky.

We can bury our heads in the sand and pretend that a pitcher controls everything, or we can use the data available to us to identify how well he is pitching. Luck is a fickle thing. As I wrote on May 11:

The wonderful thing about bad luck is that it doesn’t last. Bad luck is no match for the relentless march of time. … Bad luck will be drummed out by neutrality, and every once in a while you will even get a bit of good luck on your side.

Since I wrote that, Kershaw’s ERA has gone from 4.26 to 2.85. His BABIP has gone from .357 to .306. His HR% has gone from 20.8 to 14.9. And he has gone 5-4 with a 2.06 ERA, a WHIP of 0.890, and 104 strikeouts and 16 walks in 78.2 innings.

Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball the past four years. The fact that he has maybe only been one of the five or six best pitchers in baseball this year is not a good reason to keep him off the All-Star team.

Kershaw will not win the Final Vote. Johnny Cueto is having an outstanding, deserving season, and he will probably win. I’m not sure why there are eight starters and five closers on the NL pitching staff, but it is what it is. After being jobbed out of the role of starting pitcher the last two All-Star Games, it appears that Kershaw will now be jobbed out of a spot on the team altogether. And it’s a shame.

As Dilbeck said, an All-Star berth is not a “lifetime achievement award” (right, 2014 Derek Jeter?), but it doesn’t need to be. Clayton Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in baseball right at this moment, and he should be playing in the game for the best players.

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