Finishing The Big 6 — Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta

Posted: 04/25/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

In baseball, pitchers are generally undervalued and talked about by fans for two basic reasons. First of all, baseball fans generally like runs. Conventional wisdom says that more runs = more excitement, and the pitchers are hence the players trying to restrict the amount of fun fans have. Secondly, starting pitchers pitch just once every five games. Naturally, someone would get more connected to a guy they see on the field every day than a player who generally plays just once a week. So yeah, pitchers generally get the short end of the stick. But, after the homer-friendly early 2000s, MLB is quickly becoming a pitcher’s league. With that in mind, I tried to comprise my top tier proportionally. Given that eight (in the NL) or nine (in the AL) hitters play every day and five starters start consistently, a 2:1 ratio made sense. Now, in the end I didn’t use the 2:1 guideline, but the top tier sorted itself out that way because I truly believe that these are the six players who are by far the best in the sport. In a pitcher’s league, there are a plethora of really, really good pitchers. It’s these too guys, though, that stand apart.

Clayton Kershaw: Already a HOFer?

Let’s call Clayton Kershaw the Mike Trout of pitchers. That is, the guy who has been utterly dominant for years. Kershaw’s reign of dominance has continued for much longer than Trout’s; since the start of 2009, he has a 2.28 ERA. Since 2011, he’s been even more dominant, with a 2.10 ERA, five consecutive All-Star appearances, and five straight top-three finishes in the Cy Young voting with three victories. Of course, playoff success has still been elusive, but that’s not what I’m focusing on here. Like with Trout, the list of pitchers most similar to Kershaw through 27 is jaw dropping, with Tom Seaver, Pedro Martinez, and Roger Clemens rating as most similar. Also similarly to Trout, Kershaw has more WAR (48.5 on Baseball-reference, 48.1 on Fangraphs) than any of his comps at the same age. At this point, the Dodger is on a rampage that even Dodger great Sandy Koufax might not have matched. Koufax’s famed prime was five short years in which he won three Cy Young Awards while posting a 1.95 ERA and .93 WHIP and striking out more than a batter per inning. Since 2011 began, a 5+ year span, Kershaw has the same three Cy Young’s and strikeout proficiency while putting up a 2.10 ERA and .93 WHIP. They’re very similar numbers, but Kershaw already had two sub-3 ERA seasons on the board before 2011 (3.17 total pre-2011) while Koufax had a 3.94 ERA before he broke out. The point is, I guess, that Kershaw would have similar career accolades and stats to the all-time great if he retired today. He obviously doesn’t have the playoff success Koufax had, but he also obviously isn’t retiring anytime soon. Like Trout, he has an excellent chance at being considered one of the best in the sport… ever.

Kershaw’s started the year predictably Kershaw-esque, with 30 strikeouts, three walks, and a 1.50 ERA in 30 innings across four starts. How is he so darn good? Well, in addition to getting a lot of strikeouts, he also forces a ton of ground balls. Once mediocre at keeping the ball on the ground, his ground ball rate has edged over 50% over the last two full seasons, thus becoming well above-average. Since the start of 2013, his first truly incredible season (he’s had one every year since), Kershaw’s ground ball/fly ball rate is in the top quarter of qualified starters. He basically has three pitches, given that just 2.7% of his career pitches have been changeups and given that I’m not including this 46-MPHer (talk about an insane pitch). All three of the pitches are elite. His fastball has steadily averaged 92-94 MPH since his rookie year and is by far the best in the bigs. Since 2011, Kershaw’s fastball has saved 131.5 runs of value. Among 183 qualified starters, Johnny Cueto’s fastball has been second-best… at +75.7. Even on a per-100 fastball basis which obviously doesn’t value quantity of production, Kershaw’s +1.31 runs saved leads baseball, although Matt Harvey is close behind at +1.28. Others throw the fastball much harder, but nobody throws it any better.

Then there’s the offspeed stuff. Kershaw’s slider has saved a cumulative 72.9 runs since the start of 2011, second in baseball behind Francisco Liriano. On a per-100 pitch basis among pitchers who had at least a prolonged experiment with a slider, Kershaw’s eighth at +1.67, behind Jose Fernandez, Yu Darvish, Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyson Ross, and Liriano, all of whom are known for their devastating sliders. But the pitch Kershaw’s really known for is his curveball, which is often called the best in baseball. Again since 2011 (the year I’m using since it’s the start of Kershaw’s Koufax-esque run), the curve has saved 48.9 runs total and 2.36 per 100 curveballs, numbers that rank second (behind Adam Wainwright) and second (behind Corey Kluber). So the ace has easily the best fastball in baseball, an incredible curveball, and a great slider. I’m running out of adjectives.

This is why the guy ranks first in the league in pretty much every stat since the start of the 2011 season, from strikeout-walk % (23.1%), opponent’s average (.197), ERA (2.10), FIP (2.32), WHIP (.93), strikeouts (1279), wins (90), complete games (20), shutouts (11)… I could go on and on, and most of these leads are by a wide margin.

Yeah, Kershaw’s good. There may be a debate over who the best hitter in baseball is. The best pitcher, though? No such debate. Kershaw’s the best by a mile, not to diminish the insane success of…

Jake Arrieta: A Shocking Breakout

Let me make this clear: there’s no comparison between Kershaw and Arrieta in terms of their career achievements. But that doesn’t make Arrieta’s recent success any less incredible. Last week, the Cubs’ ace threw a no-hitter. Is happened to be among the least surprising no-hitters I can remember, simply because the guy who threw it is so dominant (and also threw a no-no last season). First, some background. In the summer of 2013, as Kershaw cruised to a 1.83 ERA, Jake Arrieta was floundering to the tune of a 7.23 ERA on the Baltimore Orioles and a 4.41 ERA at the Orioles’ AAA affiliate. Then 27, Arrieta, who had once been a top prospect, seemed en route to a career in AAA. Even before his ugly 7.23, Arrieta had posted a 5.33 ERA in his first three seasons with the Orioles. Then, on July 2, the Cubs traded for the pitcher… and promptly sent him to AAA. He ended up making nine starts for the Cubs that year, putting up a 3.66 ERA but continuing to struggle with walks (4.2 per nine innings) while failing to strike guys out (6.4 per nine), usually a fatal combination for a pitcher’s chances at the highest level. And then… the proverbial light turned on. In 2014, Arrieta started 25 games and had a 2.53 ERA and .99 WHIP. The difference? Control. The walk rate had gone down to 2.4 per nine innings, while the K rate was up to 9.6 per nine. Arrieta wasn’t a top tier pitcher, but he was just a notch below the top guys, as evidenced by his ninth-place finish in the Cy Young Award voting. His first 13 starts last year seemed like a small step back, as Arrieta was “just” 6-5 with a 3.40 ERA. Then he became the best pitcher ever, or so it seems.

Since his start on June 21, 2015, Arrieta has made 24 starts. He’s 20-1 with a .86 ERA. He has two no-hitters. He’s struck out 173 batters and walked 33 in 178 innings. He’s thrown five complete games and four shutouts and has won a Cy Young Award. There are no words that can describe this stretch. It’s obviously an unsustainable stretch, but pitching this well for this long puts Arrieta in rarified air. In his record-breaking year, Bob Gibson’s best 25-start (I wanted to do 24, but his best stretch included a 25th) stretch saw him go 19-5 with a .86 ERA (how he had five losses in that stretch, I have no idea). I like the identical .86 ERAs. Totally random? Yes, but they show just how good Arrieta has been.

As I said before, Arrieta’s career resurgence has come almost entirely because he’s gone from having no control to great control. But he also altered his ineffective slider and replaced it with a terrific slider-cutter (nobody knows which it really is, which might be the point). Here is a terrific article from before last year on the pitch. The pitch has made the pitcher pretty much unhittable. Since the start of the 2014 season, Arrieta’s ERA is 1.99, just six ticks behind Kershaw’s. The slider/cutter has saved 42.8 runs and 2.41 per 100 pitches, both easily the best in baseball. Most aces have at least one put-away pitch, and when Arrieta found his, he became one of the best pitchers in baseball. What’s happened since has been simply mind-blowing. I don’t know how much longer this 24-start stretch of amazingness can continue. But I do know this: Jake Arrieta may not be Clayton Kershaw, but he’s definitely here to stay. Now, can he lead the Cubs to a World Series?

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