But now it’s time to add Clayton Kershaw’s name to the list. And it may not stop there — Kershaw could soon be the best pitcher of all time.
Kershaw was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers with the No. 7 overall pick in 2006, and made his MLB debut two years later. He went 5-5 with a 4.26 ERA that year, striking out 100 batters in 107.2 innings. Over the next two years he would start to improve — 21-18 with a 2.85 ERA, averaging 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio — before making the leap to greatness during the 2011 season, his first of five consecutive years in which he would finish no worse than third in the National League Cy Young balloting, winning the award in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Kershaw would add an MVP award for his performance during the 2014 season, the first NL pitcher to win the award in nearly a half-century.
Kershaw features three pitches in his arsenal — a fastball, slider and curve — but it is the latter that gives opposing hitters fits. Since he debuted in 2008, hitters have managed a mere .121 average against his curve, striking out 496 times in 921 at-bats ending on the pitch. His slider is no slouch, either, allowing a .155 average against with 693 strikeouts in 1,500 major league at-bats.
It’s this combination of pitches that has helped Kershaw improve as he enters his prime. For example, his strikeout-to-walk ratio in his MVP year was 7.71. Last year it was 7.2. This season it is 19.3. No, that’s not a typo: Kershaw has struck out 77 batters — the most in baseball — while walking just four batters. That high of a mark is probably unsustainable, but projections still have Kershaw ending the year at 8.3, a career high.
With such a high strikeout-to-walk ratio, it’s no wonder Kershaw routinely has one of the lowest ERAs in the majors. In fact, according to ERA+, which is ERA adjusted to league average, Kershaw has the second-highest ERA+ (156) among pitchers with at least 1600 innings pitched through the age of 28. In other words, the league ERA is 56 percent higher than Kershaw’s has been since he entered the big leagues. Only Walter Johnson (172 ERA+) was better at this stage of his career.
Kershaw ranks sixth all-time
in wins above replacement (50.0 fWAR) among pitchers through their age-28 season — and that includes the current year, which hasn’t even reached the all-star break. Even more impressive: the five pitchers ahead of him all have more innings pitched. If we normalize this and look at fWAR per 200 innings pitched among hurlers with a minimum of 1,600 innings, Kershaw rises to the top.
There are currently seven qualified starters over the age of 35 in MLB today, so it is safe to say, barring some catastrophic injury, Kershaw still has a lot of baseball ahead of him. If we take the top 25 pitchers in the game at age-28 based on fWAR, we see that the average added 30.2 fWAR over the rest of their career. The better pitchers added as much as 51 fWAR which, if added to Kershaw’s projected 2016 total of 56.2, would bring him to 107.2 by the end of his career. That would rank him fifth on the all-time leader board, behind Clemens, Walter Johnson, Maddux and Randy Johnson. If we are very optimistic and say Kershaw will add the same 68.2 fWAR Maddux did after he turend 29 years old, that would bump up Kershaw’s final projected total to 124.4, enough to catch everyone but Clemens (133.7), who, rightly or wrongly, still suffers from the stigma of performance-enhancing drug use despite being found “not guilty” on six counts of lying to Congress about the PED issue in 2012.
Ultimately, we need to wait and see just how the rest of Kershaw’s career shakes out before anointing him the greatest pitcher of all time. However, he is certainly on that path.