Kershaw, Aces, and Rotations | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

By now, this must be boring to read. For years, I’ve followed Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw‘s ascent against their Hall of Famer, Sandy Koufax. Kershaw’s exceptional pace to become the Dodgers’ best left-hander in history continued in 2013, and if I write so frequently about it (or, on an annual basis), it’s because it’s fun to think about a pitcher that could end up being the best. Not only does the Dodgers’ young southpaw boast a Top Position among 2013 National League starters, but tomorrow night he has a chance at the type of big money game that helps build pitching legends. After Zack Greinke helped keep the Cardinals from advancing to the World Series, Kershaw takes the hill for a Game Six that could keep the Dodgers’ playoff hopes alive. Kershaw, without question, owns the top spot in the 2013 NL, and winning in an elimination game would only help to build his legend.

2013 Top Pitchers
In 2011 and 2012, there was some debate about top pitchers in the National League. Johnny Cueto improved to an elite level in 2012, but Kershaw was right behind him; even knuckler R.A. Dickey was not terribly far behind. In 2011, teammates Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee were almost exactly as valuable as one another, leaving room for plenty of counterarguments; Kershaw was right on their tails, boasting his First Top Five performance of his career. Since that 2011 campaign, Kershaw became quite comfortable among the three top pitchers in the NL, and in 2013 he whipped competition. The nearest competitors, in terms of runs prevented against league and park, were newcomers Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey.

Pitcher (Runs Prevented) SP #1 SP #2 SP #3
2011 R. Halladay (44) C. Lee (43) C. Kershaw (39)
2012 J. Cueto (38) C. Kershaw (35) R.A. Dickey (31)
2013 C. Kershaw (46) J. Fernandez (32) M. Harvey (30)

Whereas 2011 and 2012 featured Top Trio races within five-to-seven runs, Kershaw was approximately 14-to-16 runs better than his 2013 competition. To put it lightly, that 14-to-16 run stretch is typically the distance between an entire rotation spot: it’s the difference between Homer Bailey and Edinson Volquez in 2012, or Edwin Jackson and Yovani Gallardo. In 2011, that’s the difference between Matt Cain and Anibal Sanchez, or Chad Billingsley and Kyle Lohse. Basically, the type of distance between Kershaw’s 2013 campaign and his nearest competitors is the type of distance one might find between average and #4 starter, #2 or #3 starter, etc. There is no real category for his performance in the context of this year’s league.

Three Rotational Models
The Dodgers have a historical reputation for developing pitchers. Recent staffs have lightly mimicked that trend, with Kershaw followed by righty Chad Billingsley, not to mention youngsters involved in recent trades (such as Nathan Eovaldi and Rubby de la Rosa). The Dodgers have also aggressively signed free agents from other leagues, most notably with Hiroki Kuroda and Hyun-jin Ryu in recent years. Their recent rotations have been defined as much by their veteran signings and replacements as their own organizational developments or international signings. Even in the context of the Dodgers’ rotation, Kershaw’s excellence stands out; in fact, in rotational comparisons, his elite status is strengthened.

Gallardo has been the Brewers’ best starter over the last three years, preventing 15 runs in his 592 innings anchoring Milwaukee’s rotation; his fluctuation from top-to-mid rotation is typical of dependable MLB starters. Like the Dodgers, the Brewers have relied on a sizable portion of arms from outside the organization to round out their rotation. Wily Peralta and Mike Fiers were the organizational arms to work 100+ IP in the last three years (besides Gallardo), while significant trades and free agency signings produced the rotation’s most valuable seasons after Gallardo:

Regular Starters (Runs Prevented) 2011 Brewers 2011 Dodgers 2012 Brewers 2012 Dodgers 2013 Brewers 2013 Dodgers
#1 S. Marcum (11) C. Kershaw (39) Y. Gallardo (16) C. Kershaw (35) K. Lohse (16) C. Kershaw (46)
#2 Y. Gallardo (6) H. Kuroda (14) Z. Greinke (12) C. Billingsley (3) M. Estrada (4) Z. Greinke (22)
#3 R. Wolf (5) T. Lilly (-2) M. Fiers (8) C. Capuano (0) Y. Gallardo (-7) H-j. Ryu (15)
#4 Z. Greinke (-1) C. Billingsley (-14) M. Estrada (6) A. Harang (-2) W. Peralta (-21) C. Capuano (-12)
#5 C. Narveson (-6) S. Marcum (5)
#6 R. Wolf (-23)

By contrast, the Cardinals’ rotation has shifted from a group of pitchers from other organizations to homegrown arms: from Jaime Garcia, to Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly, and Shelby Miller. Ironically, as much as the Cardinals have a reputation for pitching excellence (especially with the reputation of turning sinker pitchers into serviceable arms, perhaps due to previous pitching coach Dave Duncan), the Cardinals’ rotations have not featured a consistent ace performance in the last three years. Adam Wainwright returned to prominence in 2013, and Kyle Lohse was excellent for the Redbirds in 2012, but that’s the extent of the Cardinals’ recent top rotation success. Those types of single-season performances are good, but not quite the same as an ace-level of performance. In this regard, their development of Shelby Miller gives them a chance to have a homegrown top rotation pitcher in the coming years.

Cardinals (Runs Prevented) 2011 2012 2013
#1 C. Carpenter (6) K. Lohse (24) A. Wainwright (22)
#2 K. Lohse (3) L. Lynn (6) S. Miller (10)
#3 J. Garcia (-14) J. Kelly (0) L. Lynn (-4)
#4 J. Westbrook (-22) J. Garcia (-1) J. Westbrook (-18)
#5 A. Wainwright (-4)
#6 J. Westbrook (-4)

What the 2012 and 2013 Cardinals, as well as the 2011 Brewers, ultimately prove is that a team doesn’t necessarily need a consistent ace to have a solid rotation. Similarly, the 2013 Dodgers prove that an extremely top heavy rotation can withstand a gang of replacements and below average performances. And of course, the 2011 Cardinals proved that teams can hit their way to the playoffs and a championship. Between these models, one can ultimately see the benefit of having an ace, but also the rarity of aces in baseball.

Should Kershaw help the Dodgers force a Game Seven against the Cardinals, it would be a fitting statement about his role on the club over the last few years. He has produced at an excellent level for five years now, moving from Top 10 seasons in 2009 and 2010 to Top 3 performances in the last three years. As the club floundered in some of those seasons, Kershaw never let up. Now, he has a chance to shift that arrangement and lead the Dodgers.

When we talk about aces and #1 starters in baseball, we should contrast the various rotation models around the NL to Kershaw’s dominance. In this case, the Cardinals and Brewers were just two comparisons to the Dodgers’ top-heavy model. In order to build competitive clubs, teams don’t necessarily need a consistent ace leading their rotation. In some cases, teams don’t even need a #1 starter (or even a #2 starter) to compete Even above average pitching seasons can be fleeting, which means that teams might ultimately benefit from taking flexible attitudes toward their rotations, rather than set-in-stone, #1/#2/#3/#4 groups of starters.

Even so, when one compares Kershaw to everyone else, one might ask, “How many #1 starters are there in the NL?”

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.


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