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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Clayton Kershaw: An Analysis

Yesterday when I logged onto Rotoworld, I noticed a short note coming from the Los Angeles Dodgers' official homepage: "Clayton Kershaw was pulled from his start for Double-A Jacksonville after just one inning on Thursday, suggesting that he's on his way to the majors." I was almost moved to pick this kid up for my team and ride him to the Promised Land. I have missed out, in years past, on the likes of Francisco Liriano, Yovanni Gallardo, and (this year) Edison Volquez. Of course, it was my own fault. I was slow to action and, as a result, I lost the opportunity to bolster my rotation for the second half of the season.

As of right now, I am still incredibly slow to act on this young man... but I am not so sure that my pensive approach is completely unwarranted. Let's take a step back here. Yes, Clayton Kershaw is better than Esteban Loaiza. Yes, despite his bad record in Double-A this season (0-3) his numbers (2.21 ERA in 36 2/3 innings) have been incredible. Yes, Joe Torre is his manager. Of those three yeses, Joe Torre is my biggest concern. It's hard to say if the way in which the likes of Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Joba Chamberlain were handled under the 2007 Yankees had a lot or a little to do with Torre... but, for fantasy purposes, I am sure that I don't want the 2008 version of any of those players.

Let's just take a minute and look at the comparables of a few of the young pitchers who have come up to the bigs over the past few years. For me, Innings Pitches is the most important category, as it demonstrates a potential innings limit any potential starter may see as a big league pitcher. There's no way a Major League franchise risks its future on a guy who has barely seen 100 IP in a season while on the farm. Here's a look at a few of the young arms of yesteryear:
Phil Hughes, NYY: In 2005, 85.4 Innings effective innings with 93 strikeouts and a 0.87 WHIP. So for as many batters as Hughes dominates in the strikeout department, he wasn't allowing terribly many base runners while on the hill either. In 2006, 146 IP, 168 K's, and a 0.87 WHIP, demonstrating, again, that Hughes was absolutely dominating from the full wind up. However, as Yankee fans remember from the 2007 version of Phil Hughes, he had difficultly pitching from the stretch. He was so dominating in the minors, that the scarcity of base runners handicapped his ability to perfect pitching from the stretch.

Francisco Liriano, MIN: Here's Liriano's IP over his minor league career:

2001: 71
2002: 80
2003 (Injury Shortened): 9
2004: 156.2
2005: 191.1

Here's the next extreme. Liriano was making steady progress in '01 and '02 before his injury shortened '03. Then, out of no where, he was somehow allowed to throw 150+ innings a year after coming off an debilitating injury (which is ridiculous when looking at these numbers, but I digress). In 2005, the Twins saw Liriano nearly throw 200 innings in Double-A, Triple-A, and the Majors. In 2006, we all saw what happened, Liriano threw 121 innings, and blew his arm out. Obviously, Liriano's 2006 injury, as well as the injuries to high-profile prospects like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (years ago), has led to a different approach for some organizations when dealing with pitching prospects, a la 2007 Yankees.

Yovanni Gallardo, MIL: To me, Gallardo was dealt with the best of these three prospects. In 2004, he threw 26.2 IP. In 2005, Gallardo took a huge leap with 121.1 IP for Single-A West Virginia. In 2006, between Single-A and Double-A he, again, increased his workload with 155 IP. In 2007, as we all remember, he threw a combined 188 IP between Triple-A and MLB. Gallardo received the most pampering and, therefore, provided the Brewers with a dominating ace that only a freak injury could snatch away.

And now, we return to our old friend Clayton Kershaw. Which of these three paths will he follow? Let's take a look:

In 2006, Kershaw threw 37 innings in the rookie league. In 2007, between Single and Double-A, Kershaw threw 122 innings, a huge increase over his rookie league campaign. Thus far in 2008, he's thrown 43.1 innings, striking out 47, with a 1.09 WHIP. Looking back over the last three years, the only Hughesian WHIP he's ever maintained was in the rookie league, after that he's allowed enough base runners to work on his pitching from the stretch.

However, the Liriano/Prior/Wood problem, as we've seen last year with the '07 Yankees, is something that is usually fresh on Joe Torre's mind. Hughes, Kennedy, and Chamberlain were all kept on a strict innings limit and, in 2008, the Dodgers have announced that they do not want Kershaw throwing more that 25 innings a month. Torre has shown in seasons past that the front offices' wish is his command when it comes to decisions such as this one.

Does your team really need a guy who, at most will be throwing 5-6 innings a start. Remember how frustrating Felix Hernandez was two years ago when Seattle placed the same inning limitations on him? Combine these inning limitations with the fact that Kershaw is a strikeout pitcher and his fantasy owners will be lucky if he makes it out of the 4th inning for each start.
It's a shame that this is the situation, but if I were the Dodgers, I'd look to the way in which the Brewers managed Yovanni Gallardo and deal with Kershaw in this same way. For me, I passed on Kershaw for this year and picked up his compete antithesis: Jake Westbrook, and innings-eater.


Mike Plugh said...

You know I love the young guys and I had my eye on Kershaw from day one. I snatched him up as soon as I saw him on his way up.

It makes no difference to me that he'll only go 5-6 tops. It's the quality of those 5-6 that matters. For a team in need of back end pitching, like my keeper team, he fits perfectly. He will boost your numbers with each great outing, but his bad outing ought to be short enough that he won't kill you either.

My prediction for Kershaw is about what Jered Weaver did 2 years ago, which ain't bad at all...

bfadds said...

But Jered Weaver was tossing nearly 7 IP a start... and I would say that Kershaw is more of a K-artist than Weaver, meaning his pitch counts are going to be through the roof (for Joe Torre, at least by the 4th and 5th).

I'm telling you, Mike, he's going to be another frustrating version of 2007's Phil Hughes, and I think he'll cause you more heartache than happiness this year.

On a side, are you totally against my Jake Westbrook pick-up over Kershaw?

Mike Plugh said...

Don't sell 5 innings and 6-7 Ks short. It depends on the type of league you're in, but those leagues with innings limits are good places for Kershaw. He's a good gamble, but he's still a gamble. He could have a low inning, high upside profile that acts almost like a heavily worked quality reliever.

His real upside is Weaver though. If he can put together a 5 inning start here and a 7 inning start there and strike out a ton of batter with a low WHIP, he's a steal.

Mike Plugh said...

The Westbrook thing is okay. I haven't been a Westbrook fan over the years though. I think he used to be a Yankee farmhand, but I could be wrong. I think he's a decent real-life 4th starter, but I would almost rather have a better reliever in fantasy than a good 4th starter. If he's the best available and you need a starter eligible guy in the worst way, he's always a fair choice.

bfadds said...

You are correct about the Westbrook Yankee farm hand thing. He was the "player to be named later" in the Hideki Irabu-Ted Lilly deal... as well as the "player to be named later" in the Ricky Ledee-David Justice deal.

Mike Plugh said...

Well, not too bad for a 1st go around the Majors. The Roto take on hs outing:

"Kershaw allowed two runs on five hits over six innings in his major league debut, walking one and striking out seven.

Spin: Kershaw was in line for the win before the Dodger bullpen blew it for him. It was truly an impressive performance - 94-97 mph fastball and a true 12-6 curve. One of the two runs clearly should have been unearned (Blake DeWitt high throw to home) and you could make an argument that a better left fielder than Juan Pierre could have prevented the second run, but regardless, it was fun to watch. He's now available in Yahoo leagues so use that #1 waiver priority if you've got it."

It took him 103 pitches to get through 6, which is 17.2 pitches/inning. Too many, but the 7 Ks got him an initial 10.50 K/9 and only one walk is stellar. If he walks another batter or two in his next few outings, he may only make it through 5. I'll take this kind of pitching any day of the week though.

bfadds said...

Oh, who wouldn't? I guess I'm just skeptical about youth... which you know. I think I am going to continue to maintain that as good as Kershaw looked tonight, he's going to be more of a frustrating starter than a reliable one.

I think that you'd be lucky to say that the Dodgers' bullpen is the reason that he doesn't win any of his subsequent outings.