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Finger Lickin', Finger Lickin' Good, Y'all: Ricky Romero or Clayton Kershaw?

The past couple days, our fine site has been abuzz with talk about Ricky Romero's trade value, generating a lot of really interesting discussion from our fine users.  One particularly interesting piece, who has generated a lot of discussion is Clayton Kershaw, starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Both pitchers have shown the capacity to log lots of innings and be effective.  Neither is considered an injury-concern.  The pitchers had similar seasons in 2010 (both pitched over 200 innings with 3.64 xFIP), but Kershaw is younger (23) and has stepped up his game, being far more effective this season (2.80 xFIP) than Romero (26, 3.63).  According to their fangraphs trade value series values, any team that would refuse to trade Romero (#37) straight-up for Kershaw (#11) would be nuts.

And yet, I'm not so sure.  The first, and most obvious issue (and the only reason the Dodgers would even consider trading Kershaw) is their contract statuses.  As was discussed on the previous post, Romero has already been locked up long-term at a very cost-effective 5M in 2012 and 7.5M per season from 2013-2015, with a club option for 13.1M in 2016, totaling 4 yr / 27.5M if they do not pick up his option and 5 yr / 40 M if they do.  There is some risk that Romero could forget how to pitch or suffer a serious injury, but that contract is extremely team-friendly and is a great bargain.  

Kershaw's status, on the other hand, is up in the air.  He is eligible for free agencyarbitration for the first time this offseason, so he has three more seasons of team control.  His arbitration award this winter (assuming he does not ink a long-term deal) is likely to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12M.  The next two seasons, that award should increase, probably to about 15M and 18M, so Kershaw is likely to be paid about 45M over the next three seasons, after which he becomes a free agent.  While being on the hook for an injured Kershaw for multiple seasons is not a risk the team would have to take, that is a lot of salary to commit on a per-year basis, even though it's certainly worth it for a player of Kershaw's calibre.

For just over half of what Kershaw is projected to make over the next three seasons, the Jays could have Romero for an additional season with the club option for 2016.

An additional pitfall, as has been discussed to some extent, though it has not been quantified, is that Romero has plied his trade for the Blue Jays in the AL East, while Kershaw has done so for the Dodgers in the NL West.  Obviously, pitching in the AL East is not the same as pitching in the NL West and pitching at Rogers Centre is not the same as pitching at Dodger Stadium.  Some quick team stats by division show just how much harder Romero's job is.  If the pitchers are analyzed using xFIP, park factors should be less of an issue, but if one uses FIP (HR-based) or a runs-based method (such as [Earned] Run Average), home park becomes very important.

AL East NL West
wRC+ 107.4 89.2
wOBA .332 .306
BB% 8.6 8.2
K% 18.1 19.6
HR% 3.1 2.1

Now, Kershaw doesn't pitch exclusively against NL West teams (11 starts out of 26) and Romero doesn't pitch exclusively against AL East teams (12 starts out of 25), but those differences in competition are astounding.  If we adjust Romero's BB, K, and HR totals based on the number of starts within division for each (45% of all starts) by the differences in competition (BB-factor: 0.953, K-factor: 1.083, HR-factor: 0.678), Romero then has 60 BB, 159 K, and 12 HR.  While changing divisional opponents would impact his innings, we will leave that part of the equation out and just recalculate his FIP (league adjustment according to fangraphs is 3.04) based on our revised BB, K, and HR values.  Romero's adjusted FIP is 3.33, half a run better than his FIP prior to this adjustment (3.84), but still significantly worse than Kershaw's (2.54).

There is still the difference between Rogers Center (HR park-factor: 1.219) and Dodger Stadium (HR park-factor: 0.851), though.  This is a great deal of difference, a factor of 0.698.  Further adjusting Ricky's HR by that factor, assuming he starts half of his games on the road and half at home, he goes from 12 HR to just 10 HR, further lowering his FIP to 3.18.  Assuming 200 IP, the difference in WAR between a 3.18 FIP and a 2.54 FIP is about 1.5 wins.  This is, of course, assuming that Kershaw manages to maintain a better than league-average HR/fly-rate (7.3%) and Romero continues to give up homeruns at a slightly higher than league-average rate (11.2%).  We've adjusted for that some (by home park), but we did not apply the adjustment to road starts.

Essentially, Kershaw has absolutely dominated the worst-hitting division in baseball, pitching his home games in the sixth-most pitcher-friendly park in baseball.

Romero has merely pitched very well against the best-hitting division in baseball, pitching his home games in the third most hitter-friendly park in baseball.

Call me crazy, if you'd like (and I probably am), but I'm just not so sure that it's worth it to take on Kershaw at the cost of added salary and fewer years.  There is potential for Kershaw to get better, sure, but that potential is there for Romero as well.  Kershaw has been phenomenal this season -- better than Ricky, even after adjusting for quality of competition and home park -- but, all factors remaining equal, I just don't think the difference of 1-2 WAR per season is enough to justify the difference in contract status.