Los Angeles Dodgers 2012 Season Preview: Starting Pitcher

Clayton Kershaw

What more can I say about Clayton Kershaw other than that he has perhaps the brightest future of any player in baseball – and has already had more success than most -  and all at just 24 years of age?

Entering 2011, Kershaw was coming off of two 4+ WAR seasons (4.1, 4.7), had fanned over nine per nine innings in back-to-back campaigns, and had already cut his walk rate by a full free pass from 2009 to 2010. His FIP was no higher than 3.12 between ’09 and ’10, and he had exhibited the excellent skills of inducing weak contact (IFFB% in 2009 and 2010: 13.5% and 12.4%, respectively) and keeping the ball in the park (0.92/0.37/0.57 HR/9 marks between 2008 and 2010).

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2011 proved to be his best season yet, and the young man is not even close to his prime. He whiffed 9.57/9 IP, cut his walk rate down by almost a walk and a half to 2.08 per nine, kept the ball in the park yet again (~half a home run per game rate), and induced infield popups 13.3 percent of the time while limiting the amount of line drives hit against him (18.2% in ’11, career 18.7%).

Kershaw produced a FIP of 2.47, a 2.52 tERA, and a 2.81 SIERA, all of which serve as career-best marks. One of the major reasons for Clayton’s success was his slider, which he threw over 25% of the time. Though we all remember how foolish he made Sean Casey look with his curve way back when in Spring Training, and know how devastating “Public Enemy Number One” can be, the slider is a more controllable pitch, and Kershaw can more easily throw it for strikes. Looking at his pitch selection, it’s easy to see why Clayton has reduced his walk total in three straight seasons. He’s thrown the curve less in each of his seasons in The Show (23.0%/16.8%/7.0%/5.4%) while simultaneously increasing the usage of said slider (0.3%/6.9%/19.6%/25.5%).

With a 6.8 WAR season and two straight 200-plus inning campaigns now under his belt, the doubters who loudly proclaimed the Dodgers had no “ace”, and that Clayton walked too many to ever really be successful, have nowhere to turn.

Chad Billingsley

Chad Billingsley has been an excellent number two starter over his six-year career. Still just 27 and sporting a career 3.71 FIP, 3.84 tERA, and over eight strikeouts per nine, Billingsley is only now entering his prime and can improve upon what has been a very, very good start to any major league career.

But don’t tell that to countless Dodgers fans and analysts who see him as nothing more than a weak-hearted and intestinal-fortitude lacking bum. In fairness, less see him this way after his career-best 2010, but many still view him as a detriment to the Dodger rotation.

There is no doubt Bills has areas of his game he needs to improve on. He’s always allowed too many baserunners (career 1.37 WHIP), and his K/9 IP has fallen in four consecutive years (9.01/8.21/8.03/7.28), while his walks per nine innings pitched jumped last season to an unacceptable 4.02 after a career-best mark of 3.24 in ’10.

Never hampered much by the long ball (career 0.67 HR/9 IP), Chad has maintained a fairly normalized BABIP of .302 and induced a marginal amount of infield popups at 7.6% (although last campaign saw a career-high 10.5 IFFB%). Though he’s faced bouts of being singled to death, Chad doesn’t produce as much weak contact as you would hope he would, which hurts him and the numbers, particularly with an overall weak defense behind him.

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Billingsley has twice been a 4+ WAR pitcher, with a 3.1 WAR season coming off of a broken leg mixed in for good measure. Yes, there are areas of his game that need improvement and have always needed help, and yes, I would move him in the right deal (with a big bat in return). That said, he’s a vital cog in the Dodger machine, and has been a really, really good pitcher for a number of years.

The Dodgers could do a lot worse behind Kersh (see below and below and below), and fans should be happy a supremely talented pitcher with upside like Chad possesses is in the rotation and in the fold through at least 2014.

Ted Lilly

Ted Lilly is actually Latin for “Home Run Steal”, for those of you who were unaware.

The more you know.

Lilly, in his first full season with the club – and the first of a three-year, $30+ million back-loaded deal with a no-trade clause in ’11 and ’12 – was predictably bad. Nearly historically bad, as he could not stop allowing balls to fly out of the park and baserunners to fly 90 feet after 90 feet. He gave up 28 homers and 35 swiped bags, and was nearly one of two 30-30 men for the 2011 Dodgers. Lilly has historically given up home runs at an alarmingly-astounding rate, with over one per game in every season of his thirteen-year big league career.

Lilly posted more than acceptable strikeout and walk numbers (7.38 and 2.38 per nine, respectively), as well as a very good WHIP of 1.16.  Unfortunately, when you allow home runs out the wazoo and free bases, your year-end numbers look pretty bad. A 4.21 FIP for a third starter isn’t outrageous, but for the money he’s making, he needs to be more productive and much more consistent.

Lilly allowed 23 homers and a .474 SLG% in his first 22 starts, but just five long balls and a .293 SLG% in his last 11 starts. He actually got lucky on the season with a .260 BABIP against, but of course, home runs don’t affect BABIP, so Lily has maintained a .270 BABIP over his career.

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A three-year decline in WAR, a 36-year-old body, and a three-year increase in walk rate with a history of too many walks allowed doesn’t bode well for a guy the Dodgers will expect and need to be as productive as Hiroki Kuroda was. A career tERA of 4.61 for your third starter on an offensively-light squad isn’t exactly optimal team building strategy.

But hey, he induces a ton of popups. I’m sure that makes up for it.

Aaron Harang

Signed to be the number 3/4 starter following a “rebound season” that was all Petco Park, Aaron Harang‘s days as an effective and productive pitcher are over.

Once a 4+ WAR pitcher for three straight seasons, the 33-year-old righty (now the proud owner of a back-loaded two-year contract) has seen his strikeout rate fall in three consecutive seasons to a paltry 6.54 per nine in 2011. He’s generally kept the walks down, but with a declining strikeout rate, the fact that he has walked over 3.0/9 IP the last two seasons is troubling.

Harang’s FIP has not been below four since President Bush was still in office, and like the man above him in the piece and the man to follow, he’s massively prone to the round-tripper. He has surrendered over one homer per game each of the last six seasons, and has done so in eight of his ten career seasons, with the other two yielding marks of 0.80 and 0.94 HR/game.

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With a three-year decline in WAR, a career WHIP of 1.35, and recent injury problems, this is exactly the guy you’d want to give a two-year deal to, with more money in the second year, and a mutual option for a possible third year, right?

Put your hand down Ned Colletti.

Chris Capuano

Chris Capuano was signed to back-loaded two-year deal (sound familiar?) after a pretty solid comeback season with the New York Mets following an injury-filled 2010. He fanned over 8.0/9 IP while walking under three per nine, and had a solid FIP around 4, just about what you’d like from a number 4/5 starter.

Unfortunately, he can’t keep the ball in the park, allowing over 1.3 HR per game last season. Of note is that it was not a blip; it’s long been a trend of the lefty (a la Lilly), as he’s allowed over a homer per game for the last six seasons, with a near two long balls per game mark in 2004.

Yes, Dodger Stadium will help, but giving up a massive amount of home runs isn’t exactly what you want to be known for, regardless of where you pitch.

About Greg Zakwin

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