The Greatness of Clayton Kershaw
Is it possible that a 25-year old starting pitcher, with barely a half-dozen seasons under his belt, is already one of the most taken-for-granted veterans in the Majors?
I’m writing, of course, of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw.
As a Mets fan, I’ve been in awe of our own great pitcher, Matt Harvey (The Dark Knight of Gotham.) Every pitching performance of his is an event to be savored. I can think of perhaps only two or three other pitchers in Mets history who’ve generated this kind of buzz and displayed such overwhelming dominance at this point in their careers.
Then I recall that Clayton Kershaw is just a year older than Matt Harvey, and has already been just as dominant, perhaps more so, for about six years now.
Kershaw made his MLB debut at age 20 on May 25, 2008 against the St. Louis Cardinals. In six strong innings, he struck out seven, walked just one, and surrendered five hits and two earned runs. Of his 102 pitches, 69 were strikes. His ERA after that first start was 3.00. He has not posted an ERA that high in any of his past five seasons (including this one.) His lone mistake that day was a double to some guy named Pujols.
Through 1,142 career innings (a fair sample size), Kershaw’s career ERA+ of 146 ranks 5th best all-time among starting pitchers since 1900, behind only Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood. Including this season, he is enjoying his 3rd straight year with an ERA+ of at least 150. By way of comparison, Sandy Koufax reached that level of dominance in each of his final four seasons.
Speaking of Sandy Koufax, until this year, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax ranked #1 and #2 in fewest hits surrendered per nine innings in their careers (6.555 and 6.791, respectively.) This year, Kershaw has squeezed in between Ryan and Koufax, now claiming second place all-time at 6.767 per nine innings. Granted, Koufax tossed about twice as many innings in his career as Kershaw has to date, but, then again, Kershaw has been a much more dominant pitcher in his first half-dozen seasons than Koufax was. In fact, Koufax was about Kershaw’s current age before he finally began to turn the corner in what had been to that point a very mediocre career.
Kershaw, with a career record of 74-44, has already won one Cy Young award, was the runner-up last year, and has an excellent chance to win another this season. He is on his way to winning his third consecutive ERA crown, and will probably lead the league in WHIP this year for a third straight season as well. He has also given up an average of just 5.8 hits per 9 innings this year, one hit per nine below his already fantastic career average.
Astonishingly, in his 1,142 career innings pitched, Kershaw has surrendered just 859 hits. Another way of looking at this is that Kershaw has tossed 283 hitless innings in his career, the equivalent of pitching an entire season, and then some, without giving up a hit.
And lest you think that perhaps Kershaw has a walk rate that might not be quite as impressive as his hit rate, Kershaw’s career mark of 3.0 walks per nine compares favorably (though very similarly) to Koufax’s career rate of 3.2 walks per nine (not to mention Nolan Ryan’s much higher rate of 4.7 walks per nine innings.)
Since his rookie year of 2008, Kershaw’s WAR has gone up virtually every season as well: 1.4, 4.7, 5.5, 6.5, 6.2, 7.1 (thus far in 2013.) His 31.4 career WAR (generally a cumulative stat), works out to an average of around 5.5 per season. I’ll leave it to you to estimate where he might finish among the all-time WAR leaders if he enjoys perhaps another decade of good health.
There’s a real chance that before he’s done, Clayton Kershaw will rate among the top five left-handed pitchers in baseball history. It would be unfortunate if, outside of L.A., baseball fans failed to notice Kershaw’s greatness due to our sports media’s current obsession with scandal, blame and shame.
Addendum: I just learned a couple of hours ago of the elbow injury that Matt Harvey has suffered. The brittleness of pitchers is something that we are constantly reminded of and, despite our hopes going forward, obviously no pitcher is guaranteed a long and healthy career. Not Matt Harvey, not Clayton Kershaw, not any of them. All we can do is enjoy their talent while we have them.
Underrated / Overrated: Baseball and Other Stuff – Part IV
Image via Wikipedia
This is the fourth installment of an ad-hoc series called “Baseball, and Other Stuff.” If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you know how this works. If you are just joining us, settle in. You’ll get the idea.
The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty’s 44th Foot at Gandamak
Overrated: Ryan Howard – Sure, his home run and RBI totals over the past five years have been remarkable. But, consider, his walk totals have declined steadily over the past five years (108, 107, 81, 75, 59.) In only two of his seasons has his WAR exceeded 4.0. By contrast, Albert Pujols‘ LOWEST single season WAR was 5.8. And Howard has struck out in 27% of his plate appearances, a staggering total. Finally, only once in the past three years has his on-base percentage touched .360. At age 30, he has probably seen his best days.
Underrated: Miguel Cabrera – Has been playing in the shadow of Albert Pujols his whole career. Otherwise, Cabrera might be considered the greatest player in the game today. Still only 27-years old, he has already produced seven excellent seasons. He has driven in over a hundred runs in all but his first half-season, and has only once failed to score over a hundred runs in a year. His career line is: .313, .388, .552 with an OPS of .939. His career OPS+ is 145, good for 45th place all-time, higher than Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews.
Overrated: Custer’s Last Stand – June, 1876. Lt. Col. Custer’s entire command was wiped out (268 killed) at the Little Bighorn River, by a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Within a year, most of the Indians had been forced back onto reservations, were killed, or had fled with Sitting Bull to Canada.
Underrated: Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army – January, 1842. Afghanistan (road from Kabul to Jalalabad.) After an uprising in the city of Kabul, fomented by Akbar Khan, forced the British / Indian troops and camp followers (16,500 strong) out of Kabul, they attempted to reach safety 90 miles away at the British garrison at Jalalabad. But soon after they set out, the slaughter began. Near the end, fewer than 40 British regulars of the 44th regiment of foot were all that was left. Surrounded by Pashtun tribesmen, their surrender was requested, to which a British sergeant reportedly declared, “Not bloody likely.”
Of the original 16,500 men, women and children that evacuated Kabul, only one British medical officer and a few Indian sepoys survived to tell the tale.
Overrated: Jim “Catfish” Hunter – A colorful character and a tough competitor, but does he really belong in the Hall of Fame? He did win 20 games or more for five straight seasons, but, excepting win totals, he had just three truly outstanding seasons in his entire career: 1972, ’74, ’75. He never struck out 200 batters in a season. He was extremely durable (200+ innings pitched) ten seasons in a row, and he kept his walks to a minimum. But his career ERA+ was just 105, meaning that taking his career as a whole, he was just 5% better than your average replacement level pitcher.
Underrated: Pedro Martinez – Will eventually make the Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible, but some writers, perhaps most, will not view Pedro as a first round HOF candidate (as if that matters) because he won just 219 games in his career. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that most baseball fans / writers, bloggers, etc., view Pedro as a top 25 all-time pitcher who, unfortunately, didn’t last long enough to make an even greater impression on the minds of the baseball masses.
But let’s take another look at Pedro Martinez’ career. He was an eight time all-star who won five ERA titles, six WHIP titles, three Cy Young awards (while finishing 2nd twice and third once), whose career WAR of 75.9 is 23rd all-time.
Pedro also posted nine 200 strikeout seasons, including two 300-hundred K seasons.
But those are his LEAST impressive statistics. Pedro also posted a career WHIP of 1.054 (fifth best ever) and struck out 10.04 batters per nine innings (3rd best ever.) His strikeouts per walks ratio was 4.15 (3rd best ever.)
Pedro Martinez made 409 career starts, and was defeated just 100 times. He never lost more than ten games in a season, and he was defeated 1o times in a season just twice in 18 years. His .687 career win-loss percentage is 6th best all-time. Pedro struck out 3,154 batters in just 2,827 innings pitched.
Most impressively, however, Pedro Martinez enjoyed his success in a hitter’s era in mostly friendly hitter’s parks (especially Fenway Park.) Very few pitchers in baseball history have managed to top an ERA+ (which takes into consideration a pitchers era and home ballpark) of 200. For the sake of context, Lefty Grove, Bob Gibson and Pete Alexander each reached that plateau just once in their respective careers. Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Tom Seaver never posted an ERA+ of 200 in any single season.
Christy Mathewson reached that lofty number twice. Roger Clemens touched that number three times, but two of those years are tainted by alleged PED usage. Walter Johnson, widely regarded as the best pitcher who ever lived, topped an ERA+ of 200 an astonishing four times.
Pedro Martinez reached that pinnacle five times.
Pedro’s career ERA+ of 154 is pretty damn good. How good? Well, since you ask, it’s THE BEST EVER for a starting pitcher.
In other words, folks, from 1997-2003, not only wasn’t there a better pitcher in baseball, but there may never have been a better pitcher in the history of baseball.
Overrated: The Everley Brothers – Here are some lyrics to their hit single “Cathy’s Clown“, released in 1962:
“When you see me shed a tear, and you know that it’s sincere, Doncha think its kinda sad, that you’re treatin’ me so bad? Or don’t you care…?
Egad man, grow a spine!
Underrated: The Blues Brothers:
Overrated: Dave Winfield – Nice overall life-time numbers, 3,000+ hits, 1,800+ RBI’s, 465 home runs… no one’s saying that he sucked. And he gets extra points for being tailed by a private investigator at the behest of Herr Steinbrenner in the ’80’s. But his career line of .283, .353, .475 is not spectacular. Nor is his .827 career OPS, or his OPS+ of 130. Each of these numbers are rather on the low side for a HOF outfielder.
Underrated: Jimmy Wynn – Jimmy (Toy Cannon) Wynn broke into the big leagues in 1963 at the age of 21, and retired fifteen-years later at the age of 35. For most of his career, he played in pitchers’ parks in a heavily dominant pitcher’s era. Despite these handicaps, Wynn was an offensive force in the N.L. In 1965, at age 23, Wynn stole 43 bases while being caught just four times. He also drew 84 walks, scored 90 runs, hit 30 doubles and 22 homers, and logged an OPS+ of 144.
In 1967, despite leading the league in strikeouts, Wynn clubbed 37 homers, drove in 107, scored 102 and stole 16 bases. In ’68, he led the league in offensive WAR at 7.7.
In 1969, Wynn led the league with a huge total of 148 walks, resulting in a .436 on-base percentage. He also slammed 33 homers and scored 113 runs. His .943 OPS was good for sixth in the league. His OPS+ of 166 was a career high, and was fourth best in the senior circuit.
In 1974, Wynn was traded to the Dodgers, made the All-Star team and finished fifth in the N.L. MVP voting at age 32. He drew 108 walks, drove in 108 runs, and scored 104 runs. He slugged 32 homers, and finished with an OPS+ of 151.
In his career, Wynn drew over a hundred walks six times, scored 90 or more runs six times, hit at least 25 homers five times, and posted a career OPS+ of 128, the same as Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Goose Goslin…and Jim Rice.
And, perhaps most ironically, considering Jimmy Wynn is not in the HOF, and Dave Winfield is…
Jimmy Wynn’s career WAR: 59.8.
Dave Winfield’s career WAR: 59.7.
That’s all for today, boys and girls. As for me, I’m done here until after Christmas, so check back in sometime between Christmas and (overrated) New Year’s. Until then, enjoy the holidays.