Comparing Clayton Kershaw's Season to Past Pitchers Who Swept MVP, Cy Young
Already leading the National League in innings, ERA, strikeouts, WHIP and ERA+, Kershaw is a lock to win his second Cy Young award. The only real question is, will the voters make it unanimous or does hometown bias come into play with someone like, say, St. Louis' Adam Wainwright?
There are more questions about what happens with the MVP award. Kershaw is certainly in the mix with Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen, Cincinnati's Joey Votto and a handful of other strong candidates.
However, given the potentially historic season we are seeing from Kershaw with an ERA under 2.00, there could be a strong groundswell of support his way when it comes time to vote.
In anticipation of that moment, we want to compare and contrast Kershaw's 2013 season with the 10 other pitchers to win the MVP and Cy Young in the same season. We will use a combination of standard stats (ERA, WHIP, etc.) and advanced metrics (WAR, ERA+) to judge each performance.
Clayton Kershaw's 2013 Season
Via MLB Advanced Media
Not that Clayton Kershaw needed any outside assistance to be the top candidate for the NL Cy Young award, but as soon as New York Mets star Matt Harvey went down with an elbow injury this race was officially over.
Kershaw, still just 25 years old even though it feels like he has been in the league forever, is going to win the pitching version of the Triple Crown (innings, ERA, strikeouts). But that alone isn't what makes him so dominant on the mound.
Just look at how much better Kershaw's stuff and command have gotten over the years. He has always had a great fastball that can touch the mid 90s, but now his ability to drop that hammer curveball on you and throw it wherever he wants for strikes makes him unhittable.
If the young lefty keeps up his current pace, he will set new career marks for ERA, WHIP and hits allowed per nine innings (6.2). Kershaw's 187 ERA+, which measures ERA against the league with 100 being average, would shatter his previous best of 161 in 2011.
Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers, 2011
Via MLB Advanced Media
Before Kershaw, the player wearing the unofficial tag of Best Pitcher on the Planet was Detroit's Justin Verlander. It's easy to see why when you look at what he did the four years prior to 2013, highlighted by his MVP campaign in 2011.
It is telling that, as dominant as Verlander was in 2011, Kershaw's ERA+ this season is 15 points higher. Verlander will finish with more strikeouts than Kershaw, and doing so in the American League makes it even more impressive.
I also think Verlander will end up with a slightly higher WAR than Kershaw, though it will be close enough not to make a substantial difference between the two.
What stands out about Verlander's MVP season is how strong he finished.
There was a stretch from June 4 through the end of the year where he made 22 consecutive starts of at least six innings, including 19 that went at least seven innings, recorded at least nine strikeouts in six of those starts and allowed two earned runs or less in 14 of those starts.
As impressive as Kershaw's season has been, he hasn't put together a streak of dominance quite like Verlander's.
Dennis Eckersley, Oakland Athletics, 1992
This is the first of a few MVP/Cy Young seasons that I am going to rant about because the BBWAA felt that closers/relievers contributed enough value over the course of a season to not only warrant MVP and Cy Young votes, but actually give enough support to win the awards.
Eckersley had a terrific season in his role, but he threw 80 innings. Kershaw reached 80 innings on May 26. Kershaw is going more than double Eckersley's WAR total.
I would argue Eckersley wasn't even the best relief pitcher in baseball 21 years ago. Doug Jones threw 31.2 more innings with the same number of strikeouts and a comparable walk rate (1.37 per nine innings for Jones, 1.24 for Eckersley).
Whenever people say that sabermetrics and the study of numbers/value is dumb for baseball, I would argue that at least it prevents more scenarios like Eckersley, who ranked 46th in WAR among pitchers, from happening again.
Roger Clemens, Boston Red Sox, 1986
Say what you want about Roger Clemens now, but in his day there were few pitchers who could dominate a game like he did. The Rocketman had 10 complete games in 1986, compared to Kershaw who currently has three.
Kershaw and Clemens do have eerily similar numbers when it comes to strikeouts per nine innings (8.7 to 8.4), walks per nine innings (2.0 to 2.4), hits per nine innings (6.2 to 6.3).
But you look at Clemens' WAR of 7.8, which is going to end up around one full win higher than Kershaw's, it makes you wonder where the difference comes.
I see two big reasons for the discrepancy. Kershaw, depending on when the Dodgers clinch the NL West and Don Mattingly's desire to push his ace, will have four more starts. If we use his season average of roughly seven innings per start, that is another 28 innings. That lifts his 2013 total to 237, or 17 innings less than Clemens.
The other major difference comes when you factor in league-average offensive performance. As impressive as Kershaw's 1.89 ERA is, it is coming at a time when the average NL team is scoring 4.04 runs per game.
By comparison, the average AL team in 1986 was scoring 4.61 runs per game and Clemens was pitching in a more hitter-friendly park than Kershaw. Both performances are very close, but I give the edge to Clemens.
Willie Hernandez, Detroit Tigers, 1984
Via MLB Advanced Media
Yet another instance where the voters locked in on a reliever for the MVP and Cy Young awards, though I will give them some credit this time because at least Willie Hernandez's triumph came at a time when relievers were allowed to work more than one inning.
But even with Hernandez throwing 60 more innings in 1984 than Dennis Eckersley did in 1992, his WAR was essentially the same because he was someone who pitched more to contact and put up a rather pedestrian, by reliever standards, strikeout rate of 7.2 per nine innings.
Kershaw easily trumps Hernandez because he's going to throw at least 80 more innings, with a much better strikeout rate.
Rollie Fingers, Milwaukee Brewers, 1981
And here we go again.
Instead of trying another rant about relievers, I am going to try and figure out why Fingers (or Willie Hernandez and Dennis Eckersley after him) was so appealing to voters for both a Cy Young and MVP award.
I understand that the way the game was observed and taken in 20 to 30 years ago is completely different. We have advantages with stats and metrics thanks to the Internet and the wealth of ridiculously smart people behind the scenes that past generations just didn't have.
So it is a bit easier to accept that when voters see a pitcher like Fingers, who was terrific in his role for a number of years, post an ERA of 1.04, they gravitate towards that number without putting it in context.
But you can't compare the added value and dominance of a starter like Kershaw, who is throwing 150 more innings with a slightly higher ERA, WHIP, and significantly higher strikeout and strikeout-to-walk ratio because it's no contest every time.
Even a league average starter who throws 160 to 170 innings is going to have more value than a player like Fingers because they are getting nearly twice as many outs for the team.
Vida Blue, Oakland Athletics, 1971
It is interesting looking at a starter today compared to 40 or 50 years ago because so much has changed. The way rotations are built is different. The way teams use starters and relievers has completely altered the approach to starting. We could go on for hours about all the changes.
When we see abnormally high WAR totals for pitchers, like Vida Blue's 8.7 in his MVP/Cy Young season, it is going to catch your eye. But you have to take into account starters were throwing in more games and finishing more games.
Blue's 39 starts in 1971 are six more than Kershaw's career high. Blue had 24 complete games in 1971; Kershaw has 11 in six years. Blue's 312 innings in his award-winning season are 79 more than Kershaw's career-high of 233.1 in 2011.
How do we really compare the two pitchers from vastly different eras? It's hard to say. I don't know if it can truly be done in a way that is fair to either pitcher.
I mean, Blue and Kershaw both average 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. But because Blue will end up with around 70 to 80 more innings, his rate is more impressive.
That said, I think we can give Kershaw an edge in this particular race because Blue's season came two years before the AL adopted the designated hitter and the league as a whole was averaging 3.87 runs per game. That's why you may notice Kershaw's ERA+ is slightly higher.
Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers, 1968
I have run into a small problem talking about pitchers from the '60s and '70s being able to add significantly more value because they were throwing more innings. Denny McLain's 6.8 fWAR will fall roughly in line with Kershaw's final total.
Even with McLain throwing 100 more innings, that fWAR total is telling. The biggest concern for me is that McLain gave up 31 home runs, most in the league. By comparison, Kershaw has given up nine home runs in 209 innings.
McLain's ERA+ of 154 is also 33 points lower than Kershaw. Why? Because, as we've mentioned before, the offensive output in the American League wasn't very good. That also makes all the homers he allowed even more alarming.
Yes, McLain only gave up 241 hits. But one out of every eight he did give up wound up leaving the yard, which is too high a rate and knocks his overall value down when you analyze his performance.
Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardinals, 1968
How do we possibly compare Kershaw's season to the one that is generally regarded as one of the two or three greatest in the last 50 years?
Bob Gibson was so good in 1968 that MLB decided to change the height of the pitcher's mound the next season to give hitters a chance. (Okay, maybe it wasn't all Gibson, but it does make for great mythology about the Hall of Famer.)
This was one of the last years where NL teams would average more runs per game than the AL (3.43 to 3.41). That is what makes Denny McLain's ERA+ and WAR relatively modest, whether you compare them to Kershaw or Gibson.
By contrast, no matter what formula you use, Gibson's MVP/Cy Young season holds up incredibly well. His ERA+ of 258 ranks seventh all-time. He had 13 shutouts and 28 complete games.
Kershaw isn't touching Gibson's 1968 season, I don't care how good he is over the final month of 2013. He could throw four no-hitters, it would still pale in comparison to the whole of what Gibson accomplished.
Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1963
You can't talk about Kershaw without hearing someone bring up Sandy Koufax. That's not a surprise considering they both debuted for the Dodgers at a young age (19 for Koufax, 20 for Kershaw), tall and lanky lefties, as dominant as any pitcher in baseball.
What's interesting about this particular Koufax season is it wasn't his best. It is insanely good and can stand with any single-season pitching performance ever, but he was better in 1965.
Kershaw is very close to Koufax in ERA, strikeout rate and hits per nine innings, a little further behind in WHIP and actually 26 points ahead in ERA+.
When you have a race that close, the determining factor comes when you evaluate performance against the rest of the league. Koufax's 1.88 ERA came at a time when the average NL team was scoring 3.81 runs per game and the league average ERA was 3.29.
Kershaw's 1.89 ERA comes at a point where the average NL team scores 4.04 runs per game and the average ERA is 3.76. While I can appreciate Koufax's fielding independent pitching of 1.85 being one-half run lower than Kershaw's (2.36), I would favor Kershaw in this argument because he's doing it in an era with better offensive teams.
Don Newcombe, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1956
Don Newcombe, the first pitcher to win the MVP and Cy Young awards in the same season, actually presents one of the worst cases among the starting pitchers to compete with Kershaw's 2013 season.
Despite all of the shiny victories, a lot of Newcombe's success was luck—a .224 BABIP was 41 points below his career mark and he struck out less than five hitters per nine innings—and the defense behind him.
In fact, if you go by the 3.48 FIP, Newcombe was barely better than league average (3.77). The only decided advantage that the Brooklyn Dodgers star has over Kershaw when all is said and done will be innings pitched.
I love innings pitched and will continue to say that it is one of the most underrated stats used when evaluating the Cy Young contenders, but that alone isn't enough to make a case for Newombe's 1956 season over Kershaw this year.
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