Decade Wrap: A Contextual Look at Pitching in the 2010s Part 1

Clayton Kershaw
Photo Credit: Jae C. Hong

By Louis Addeo-Weiss

Sunday, September 29th, marked the final day of regular season play in the 2010s. 

We saw many-a-goodbye, with the likes of Bruce Bochy, Ned Yost, Joe Maddon, Clint Hurdle and players such as Alex Gordon, Martin Prado, and a bevy of others, suit up one last time, as many of these men will pursue life outside of the sport they’ve known since they were toddlers.

With the ending of the 2019 regular season, we also wrapped up a decade full of tremendous starting pitching.

The 2010s saw the Los Angeles Dodgers Clayton Kershaw etch out a full-decade of dominant starting pitching. 

But just how dominant was the Dodgers’ heir to Sandy Koufax?

For the sake of that quandary, we’ll defer to the baseball-reference play index to put into context just how incredible the left-hander was over the past ten seasons.

Metrics we’ll cite here include the ones deemed most pertinent to this case study; those being WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which assesses the total value a player has contributed to his team in the context of his contemporaries, ERA+, and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).

Using WAR to quantify total value, since the start of 2010, Kershaw’s 59.3 bWAR (baseball-reference) is tops among all starting pitchers in the big leagues, with Justin Verlander (56.2), and Max Scherzer (56.1), holding the two and three slots.

Kershaw’s 164 ERA+ across the decade also leads all qualified pitchers, with Verlander being the runner up, though still well behind at 136.

 What makes Kershaw and the aforementioned names of Scherzer and Verlander so great is the degree of separation between them and other names in the top 10 when it comes to total WAR.

Pitching Leaders (2010-19) Per Baseball-Reference Play Index

RkPlayerWARERAERA+FIP
1Clayton Kershaw (1996 IP)59.32.311642.64
2Justin Verlander(2142 IP)56.23.101363.26
3Max Scherzer(2063.2 IP)56.13.121343.06
4Cole Hamels(1958 IP)46.23.331243.64
5Chris Sale(1629.2 IP)45.43.031402.90
6Zack Greinke(1984 IP)44.03.181283.26
7David Price(1887.1 IP)38.63.241253.27
8Corey Kluber+(1341.2 IP)33.23.161352.99
9Jacob deGrom*(1101.2 IP)32.72.621482.78
10Stephen Strasburg(1438.2 IP)32.63.171302.96

+ Kluber debuted 2011

*deGrom debuted 2014

What this graphic tells us is just how dominant the three names at the top are, but it also conveys just how much more balanced pitching is today than in previous eras.

For instance, if we look at the bottom three names on the list, Kluber, deGrom, and Strasburg, you’ll notice a large degree of separation in WAR when compared to the likes of Kershaw, Scherzer, and Strasburg, but what this merely comes down to is time spent on the field, which we can see through the lense of innings pitched.

For deGrom, who, among the names in the top 10, has thrown the least number of innings at the big league level, with just over 1100 innings, but we also must remember that deGrom did not debut until June of 2014, which means he had missed nearly half of the decade to amass more value.

Why does this matter, and does it aid this notion that pitching in the 2010s was far more balanced than, say, the 2000s?

To answer this, take a look at the graphic below, which outlines the leaders in WAR among starting pitchers during the 2000s.

Pitching Leaders (2000-09) Per Baseball-Reference Play Index

RkPlayerWARERAERA+FIP
1Randy Johnson(1885.1)51.33.341373.13
2Johan Santana(1709.2)46.23.121433.38
3Curt Schilling(1569.1)46.23.541323.24
4Pedro Martinez(1468)45.63.011522.92
5Roy Halladay(1883.1)45.43.401343.32
6Roy Oswalt /(1803.1)43.13.231343.35
7Javier Vazquez(2163)42.33.981133.67
8Mark Buehrle(2061)41.33.801224.17
9Mike Mussina(1790.2)40.83.871163.51
10Tim Hudson(1923.1)40.23.501263.82

/ Oswalt debuted in 2001

When referring to this graphic, you’ll notice that, while the dropoff in WAR between Johnson and Hudson (11.1) is not as extreme as the dropoff between Kershaw and Strasburg (26.7), who sits 10th among pitcher WAR in the 2010s, the variance in innings is largely responsible for this, as well as the fact that every pitcher except one (Oswalt) either debuted or were already established in the league at the decade’s outset.

The variation between the pitcher with the most innings thrown in the 2010s is 1040. 1 (Verlander-deGrom), but as we’ve already noted, deGrom debuted in 2014, where Verlander already amassed 25.4 WAR entering the 2014 season.

Thinking hypothetically would tell us that, had he entered the league earlier, deGrom could have easily come close to matching, if not exceeding Verlander in total WAR over the span of the decade.

But from a statistical perspective, looking at it through a microcosm, we can see that, for pitching, the 2000s was, in fact, far more balanced than our current decade.

For Martinez, who had already established himself as the premier pitcher in the sport at the turn of the century, still managed to finish 4th in total WAR despite the fact that he threw the fewest innings of any member in the top 10, at just 1468. The difference in his case lies in the slew of injuries the right-hander suffered, which derailed his overall performance.

Like Pedro, Strasburg, who threw a comparable number of innings over his respective decade (1438.2 to Martinez’s 1468), was riddled with injuries and a controversial shutdown.

Brad Penner – USA TODAY Sports

Strasburg, unlike deGrom, doesn’t benefit from hypotheticals when compared to the likes of Martinez, especially considering he pitched in parts of every season of the 2010s.

While the 2000s, in the context of the 2010s, proved a better balance of great starting pitching, the data surrounding the premier arms of the 1990s, a decade which lay more in line with what we’ve seen during the 2010s.

Pitching Leaders (1990-99) Per Baseball-Reference Play Index

RkPlayerWARERAERA+FIP
1Roger Clemens (2177.2)68.13.021513.03
2Greg Maddux(2394.2)65.42.541622.77
3David Cone(2017)52.93.211353.44
4Randy Johnson(2063.1)52.13.141403.17
5Kevin Brown(2211.1)48.03.251283.31
6Kevin Appier(1867.2)47.63.471313.49
7Tom Glavine(2228)45.03.211293.59
8Chuck Finley(2144)44.63.761193.99
9Mike Mussina+(1772)42.03.761303.64
10Pedro Martinez*(1359.1)40.52.831562.91

+Mussina debuted in 1991

+Martinez debuted in 1992

For the sake of this piece, Pedro Martinez will again serve as a topic of discussion, but before discussing him in the context of the 1990s, it is important we note his presence throughout his entire career.

Getty Images

From 1992-2009, the span of Martinez’s career in the majors, only Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux amassed more WAR than Martinez, with Johnson amassing 98.3 and Maddux 87.5 to Martinez’s 86.1 mark, respectively.

Of pitchers with at least 2000 innings pitched during that span, Martinez owns the highest ERA+ (154) amongst all of them.

But for the sake of this article, we must look at what Martinez was able to do during the ‘90s that merits continued mention.

Earlier, it was discussed how much value deGrom added in just parts of six seasons, and the same can be said for Martinez.

Debuting with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1992, Martinez spent his first two seasons primarily as a reliever, making just three starts through the 1993 season. When looking at Martinez after he transition into a full-time starting role prior to the ‘94 season, when he was traded to the Montreal Expos, the comparisons to deGrom are apt.

From 1994-through-1999, Martinez posted a 157 ERA+, and totalled 37.2 WAR across 1244.1 innings pitched, while deGrom, who did not debut until June 2014, still managed a 148 ERA+ and 32.7 pitching WAR (34.9 total).

This isn’t to say the two are the same pitcher, as the numbers may suggest, but a reflection of the value two great pitchers managed to amass over an abbreviated stretch.

It is important, though, not to ignore the dominance of the decade’s two best pitchers, Clemens and Maddux.

For Kershaw, the undisputed champion of the 2010s, this decade saw a pitcher dominate all facets of the art of pitching, as the left hander led in all of the above categories, while also ranking among the top four in K% (28%).

As for Clemens, his 3.02 ERA during the 1990s, unlike Kershaw, failed to lead the sport, as Maddux did so, outpacing him at 2.54, as well as FIP, 2.77-to-3.02. In regards to K%, Maddux’s 18.5% mark ranks 9th, where Clemens ranks 2nd to Randy Johnson (29.7%) at 23.4% respectively.

Image courtesy of RealClearSports

Does this lead us to the question of whether or not Kershaw ranks ahead of Maddux and Clemens? Well, total WAR would suggest otherwise, and injuries, as they did Martinez, have taken a toll on Kershaw throughout the decade, with him having not thrown 200 innings in a season since 2015. 

This, a prolonged reflection, for lack of a better word, is just the beginning of the 2010s in the context of preceding eras. 

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