Last Sunday, as I was sitting on my couch watching J.A. Happ get lit up, which was bad news for my fantasy team, I got other bad news pushed through to my phone: Clayton Kershaw had exited his game with a lower back injury. He had missed time last year with a problem in his lower back, and baseball (and my fantasy team) is worse with him sidelined. Then, 20 minutes later: Stephen Strasburg exits with arm problems. More bad news for my fantasy team, but also bad news for baseball. While not Kerhsaw-esque, Strasburg is very fun to watch in his own right.
My brain immediately assumed that both of these guys would be out for an extended period of time. That may or may not be true, but the mysteries of the brain led to another note: Man, Kershaw and Strasburg’s teammate Max Scherzer have been really, really good this year.
I head to the Fangraphs leaderboards where I am quickly reminded that Chris Sale has been otherworldly! These three guys are changing the game; their dominance harkens to when Doc Gooden necessitated a lower mound. Maybe these guys have necessitated a more buoyant ball, but MLB hasn’t officially changed any rules yet.
So here are their stats through Tuesday in a few key categories:
That’s pretty good, right? We all know that they’re excellent pitchers each having excellent years. But I wanted some context. Let’s take the worst performers within each of those categories and compare them to the last 45 years of baseball. So we have Sale’s 2.48 ERA, Scherzer’s 2.13 BB/9, and we have Kershaw’s 10.7 K/9. We’re doing the opposite of creating a super-pitcher here. Rather than taking the best attribute of each player, we’re effectively taking the worst.
Download some data, filter some data, see how many years have 3 guys at least as good as this fictional Sale-Scherzer-Kershaw hybrid.
The result was not what I expected. In addition to those three who are doing it this season, the only other pitcher to meet those rate stats since 1980 with at least 130 innings pitched: Pedro Martinez. Here’s the full list of guys with at least a 2.48 ERA, 10.7 K/9 and fewer than 2.14 BB/9:
- 1999 Pedro Martinez
- 2000 Pedro Martinez
- 2002 Pedro Martinez
- 2014 Chris Sale
- 2014 Clayton Kershaw
- 2015 Clayton Kershaw
- 2017 Chris Sale
- 2017 Clayton Kershaw
- 2017 Max Scherzer
But… we know that strikeouts are way up, and that those rate stats don’t do a very good job of adjusting for era. I probably should have used one of those fancy stats, like ERA+ or something, but it’s my blog and you made it this far, so let’s keep going.
What happens if we adjust the rate stats to just be within shouting distance of those above? So I adjusted the K/9 and BB/9 a unit in the bad direction and filtered for an ERA a half run higher than what we were looking for previously. Our new threshold line is this: 9.7 K/9, 3.14 BB/9, and a 2.98 ERA with at least 130 innings pitched. That’s a very good season, but not one of those otherworldly Pedro seasons. I would have been able to make some serious money on NetBet live in-play betting if it were available in Pedro’s prime.
Well, this is kind of surprising. I really expected more of these types of seasons. But nope! These guys are just really, really good. For those wondering, the trio who accomplished the feat in 2014 was Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, and….. Corey Kluber. Max Scherzer had a 3.15 ERA that year. Slacker.