The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw might never become a strikeout king like Randy Johnson or throw 680 innings like 24-year-old Will White did in 1879, but he’s having the best season of any pitcher since Greg Maddux in 1995.
He’s throwing his fastball at a career-low rate (54.9 percent) and has brandished his slider (29.8 percent) and 12-to-6 curveball (14.3 percent) exponentially more this season, helping him throw a career-high 69 percent of his pitches for strikes.
Earlier this season, Kershaw registered the fifth-longest scoreless-innings streak of the expansion era. In June, he threw a no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies, a game in which he fanned 15 batters — the most strikeouts ever in a game that didn’t feature a walk. Had shortstop Hanley Ramirez not thrown the ball out of play in the seventh, he would’ve thrown his first perfect game since he struck out every single batter he faced in a high school game.
He caught fire in June and, according to Elias, became the only pitcher in MLB history to win eight consecutive starts within a single season while also delivering at least 80 strikeouts and an ERA under 1.00 during that span.
If his 1.89 FIP (Field Independent Pitching) mark holds up, it’ll be tied for the 10th-highest in the last century. The Dodgers have won 20 of the 24 games he’s started and he’s been heralded as Koufax-esque, not just because of pedigree but because like Sandy Koufax, Kershaw surgically dismantled batters the first time he stepped foot on a major league mound.
When Justin Verlander won the AL MVP Award in 2011, he was the first starting pitcher to do so in more than two decades. Kershaw won the National League’s Cy Young Award that year (this season would be his third and second consecutive) and had a lower ERA and FIP plus a higher strikeout average per nine innings. Plus, he gave up the same number of hits (174) yet received fewer MVP votes than Roy Halladay, whom he beat out for the Cy Young award. It was atypical for Verlander or any starting pitcher to win the MVP award, but it would be even more abnormal for Kershaw to win it in the National League, where a starting pitcher hasn’t taken home the honor since Bob Gibson posited a 1.12 ERA in 1968. But he has the numbers to do it, including a higher WAR than both Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen (his stiffest competition).
Lest we forget the guy missed six weeks at the beginning of the season — practically all of April — because of a back injury.
Kershaw has already passed the strikeout totals of David Price, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Maddux, Tom Glavine and Bob Welch from their respective Cy Young campaigns. His 7.6 WAR ranks 12th among Cy Young winners since 1990, but his 1.67 ERA and 0.81 WHIP (both are lowest since Maddux in ’95) more than makeup for it.
On its face, Kershaw’s 18 wins aren’t tantalizing, but only five starting pitchers since 1985 have won the Cy Young with three or fewer losses and only 12 have ever won the award with an ERA below 2.00. For context, if Kershaw keeps his ERA below 2.00, he’ll join Maddux and Pedro Martinez as the only three to win the award twice with sub-2.00 ERAs.
If he allows an average of three hits per game over his next three starts, he’ll finish with the fewest total hits allowed by a Cy Young winner in more than two decades. He has more doubled his complete-game total from last season and has tripled the amount of complete games that Welch threw in 1990 and Price threw in 2012.
Kershaw is scheduled to have three more starts before season’s end: two against San Francisco, one against the Cubs. Both are outside the top eight in league rankings for batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
Although position players take the field each and every game while starting pitchers are relegated to an appearance every five days, Kershaw deserves a place in the MVP discussion this season. He leads the entire league in rWAR, ERA, ERA+, wins, win-loss percentage, walks-and-hits-per inning pitched, hits per nine innings pitched, strikeouts per nine innings, complete games, win probability added, situational wins and base-out wins saved.
Kershaw’s record seven-year, $215 million contract runs through 2020, and if he continues producing the way he has over the last three seasons, Los Angeles might have a movie-worthy storyline on their hands.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal’s The Daily Fix, Chicago Tribune’s RedEye Chicago, Rivals, Bleacher Report, Denver Post Sports, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio, the ESPN TrueHoop Network, Swish Analytics and The Cauldron. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).