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Is Clayton Kershaw on His Way to NL Cy Young Award Dynasty?

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Is Clayton Kershaw on His Way to NL Cy Young Award Dynasty?
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Maybe they'll have to rename it the "Clayton Kershaw Award" before long. If not officially, then perhaps colloquially.

That's a down-the-road musing that we'll get back to in good time. But for now, news!

Wednesday evening brought the announcement of the 2013 Cy Young Award winners. Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer was revealed as the American League winner, and the National League winner was revealed to be the guy who practically had the award won months ago.

All the Baseball Writers Association of America did was make it official:

Kershaw received 29 of 30 first-place votes. Meaning, yeah, there was one voter who was not impressed by his NL-best 1.83 ERA, 232 strikeouts, 0.92 WHIP and 194 ERA+ over 236 innings.

Everyone else leaned the same way Bleacher Report's own Will Carroll leaned. He voted for the NL Cy Young this year, and his determination was that the Los Angeles Dodgers ace lefty "met every possible definition of 'best' for me in 2013."

Since 28 other voters agreed, Kershaw now has another Cy Young Award for his mantelpiece. He now has two, both of which have come in the last three years.

Due to various circumstances and forces at work, we have to pose the question of how many more Cy Youngs Kershaw has coming his way. Having won two in three years, is he already on his way to a sort of Cy Young dynasty in which he's going to suck the darn things up like a tractor beam?

This is a question with a bold premise. Such questions tend to be more crazy than rational.

But this one? No way. This one is quite rational. Spock-approved rational, even. So let's discuss.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

It's not like we haven't seen pitchers go on Cy Young binges before. Roger Clemens' seven Cy Youngs were pretty spread-out, but Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson both won four in a row and Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax and Jim Palmer all won three in a four-year stretch.

Kershaw just needs to win next year to match the feat of the latter three. He'll have to win three more to match Maddux and the Big Unit, but that's hardly a far-fetched notion in light of who he is and where he's headed.

Who is Clayton Kershaw? Well, one important bullet point is that he's still only 25 years old, and that's a fact that happens to open up a door for all sorts of statistical milestones with which to highlight his excellence.

Kershaw has already logged over 1,000 innings, and has a 2.60 career ERA to go with it. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the last pitcher to do all that before 26 was Dwight Gooden. The last lefty to do it was Fernando Valenzuela.

That's good, but the following is better.

Kershaw owns a career ERA+ of 146. Among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched through their age-25 seasons, that ERA+ ranks third-best all time. The only two guys ahead of Kershaw are Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood. Just behind him are Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens and Hal Newhouser.

So the next time you get an excuse to say that Kershaw is off to one of the greatest career starts in major league history, go ahead and do so. That's not hyperbole. That's fact.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Don't mention the neckbeard, though.

Now, as for where Kershaw is going, we can all look at each other, nod understandingly and collectively accept that it's unfair to expect him to continue to post sub-2.00 ERAs now that he's done it once. Sub-2.00 ERAs don't happen all that often, and there's usually some luck at work when they do.

Kershaw's 1.83 ERA is no exception. He was outstanding in 2013, but the .251 BABIP he enjoyed is about 20 points lower than his career norm, according to FanGraphs. His LOB% (left-on-base percentage) finished above 80 percent for the first time in his career.

Likely starting as soon as 2014, the hits are going to start falling more consistently and baserunners are going to start scoring more consistently. 'Tis the way of the pitching world.

But this is not to say that Kershaw is due for a harsh reality check. His track record says he's an excellent pitcher, and the numbers below that track record agree.

Consider the following:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Explanation time. "FIP" is Fielding Independent Pitching. "xFIP" is Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. "SIERA" is Skill-Interactive ERA. And "ERA," well, you know what ERA is.

As for the other three, they're ERA estimators. Their job is to take things that are beyond a pitcher's control out of the equation and come up with an ERA that he actually deserved based on how he pitched.

In Kershaw's case, what we see is that his ERA has a habit of finishing beneath what his ERA estimators say he deserved. But those same ERA estimators have largely followed the same path his ERA has followed. There are no wild and random deviations. Which is good, because wild and random deviations can foretell trouble ahead.

Nope, what these things say is that Kershaw is darn good. Maybe not as good as his ERAs suggest, but darn good. The run he's on is certainly more a product of extraordinary pitching than extraordinary luck.

Then there's the scary part, which is, again, that Kershaw is still only 25 years old. Tom Tango, he of The Book fame, has done research that found that pitchers peak between the ages of 27 and 29. For examples, think Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia.

Kershaw wouldn't appear to be following the path of a normal starting pitcher. But maybe he is. And if he is, then his peak is still out there. And if his pre-peak self is this good, then his peak self...Yowza.

So who is Clayton Kershaw? A stupendous pitcher. What's in his future? More stupendous pitching. Possibly more stupendous than we can even imagine. Certainly Cy Young-caliber, anyway.

All he has to do, as they say, is stay healthy. Considering that his next trip to the disabled list will be his first, it's a solid bet that he will.

Of course, there's more to Kershaw forging a Cy Young dynasty than just his pitching. We also have to consider his employment status and what it means.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Kershaw is employed by the Dodgers, of course, and will likely remain employed by the Dodgers for a good many years. Free agency is approaching, but the Dodgers are baseball's most free-spending team and ESPN's Buster Olney reported in October that Kershaw has already been offered a $300 million contract extension. In all likelihood, he's going to sign such a deal eventually.

If he does, Kershaw will find himself benefiting from two things on an annual basis: a very pitcher-friendly ballpark and an enormous wealth of talent around him.

Kershaw owns a 2.20 ERA at Dodger Stadium in his career, and a 3.06 ERA away from Dodger Stadium. While he's obviously done his part, Dodger Stadium would have that sort of effect on Kershaw's ERA.

Via ESPN.com's Park Factors, here's where Dodger Stadium has ranked among MLB's 30 teams as a run-scoring environment since Kershaw came into the league in 2008:

Dodger Stadium Park Factor Ranks by Year
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
29 28 23 22 25 28

ESPN.com

It's not the worst hitters' park in the league, but Dodger Stadium is up there (or down there?). If Kershaw signs an extension, that's where he'll be making roughly half his starts from here to who-knows-when.

That'll help him continue to post low ERAs, and the award's track record says he'll need those if he wants to keep winning Cy Youngs. What the award's track record also says, regrettably, is that he's going to need to keep winning games.

Those are beyond Kershaw's control. He's just a humble pitcher, after all. It's not up to him how good his teammates can be on a given night.

However, Kershaw shouldn't have to worry about that if the Dodgers keep doing their thing.

The Dodgers have already spent loads and loads of money to bring talent aboard, acquiring players like Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig since the summer of 2012. Since their absurd TV deal pretty much assures they're not going to be running out of money, it's safe to assume they're not going to stop spending it on players to put around Kershaw.

Look out across the National League, and you don't see any members of the competition who are in the same boat as Kershaw.

Kershaw's the best pitcher in the league, so he obviously has that going for him. Adam Wainwright and Cliff Lee are great, but much older than Kershaw. Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez are great and young, but Harvey just had Tommy John surgery and both he and Fernandez play for clubs that may not be contending anytime soon. Maybe Gerrit Cole will make good on his potential and emerge as a dominant force in the National League, but it's a bit early to make any guarantees there.

So this Cy Young dynasty we've been pondering all this time? Yeah, it could happen. Kershaw's the right man for the job, and in the right position to carry it out.

Just in case, he should go out and buy a bigger mantelpiece.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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