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.