Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the National League's best team. After a 92-win season, trip to the NLCS and Cy Young campaign for the dominant southpaw, expectations were set to be sky high for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014.
That was before the team handed Kershaw a seven-year, $215 million contract extension during the offseason.
Now, with the most expensive arm in the history of the sport and a payroll over $200 million, anything short of a World Series appearance and start-by-start dominance from Kershaw will be a major disappointment for Dodgers fans.
Don't expect that type of reaction at Chavez Ravine this season. Although the success of Kershaw and the Dodgers are separate, winning is clearly intertwined.
If Kershaw continues to dominate the sport, Los Angeles will win baseball games. If the Dodgers offense provides the lefty with adequate run support, another eye-popping season will commence for one of the best young pitchers the game has ever seen.
Can we talk about the fact that Clayton Kershaw had a 1.83 ERA last year in 236 innings? ONE POINT EIGHT THREE.— Molly Knight (@molly_knight) March 4, 2014
On the path to greatness, Kershaw's career has begun to unfold alongside the best to ever toe the rubber in any generation.
Among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched—allowing long-time relievers like Mariano Rivera the chance to be part of the discussion—Kershaw's ERA+ of 146 is the seventh best in baseball history, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
At face value, that statistic is amazing. Yet, when considering the names below him on the list—Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, Koufax—it becomes startling.
That dominance hasn't been a product of luck or happenstance. Kershaw's ability to dominate and overpower hitters has been evident by a career strikeout rate of 9.2 K/9. With 1,206 career strikeouts under his belt, Kershaw ranks ninth in punch-outs among pitchers through their respective age-25 campaigns.
Factor in durability—five straight years of 30-plus starts—and it's easy to see why the Dodgers were comfortable allotting $215 million to the ascending ace.
Now, the fun begins.
As Kershaw traverses through his prime and gigantic contract, expectations will only rise. With two NL Cy Young's under his belt, baseball fans know how great he's been. Over the next few years—starting in 2014—a new Kershaw watch will begin: The path to all-time greatness.
On an outing-by-outing basis, fans will come to expect overwhelming dominance. Beyond the causal observer, projections systems and analysts will tout the best pitcher in baseball as a lock for 20-plus wins and excellence across statistical categories.
If Kershaw is sweating the expectations, he's not showing it yet.
According to Jon Weisman of Dodger Insider, the 26-year-old lefty is ready for the increased expectations and doesn't see the negative to the hype surrounding his game and fame:
I don’t think there’s a negative. I think it’s how you look at it. Obviously, there’s gonna be a lot of expectations as it should be, if your salary’s out there and you’re one of the top players in the game, you’re gonna be expected to be one of the best players in the game. That’s fine with me. I look forward to those expectations and look forward to trying to live up to them.
Those expectations won't just follow Kershaw in 2014.
PECOTA—an acronym for Baseball Prospectus' Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm—is notoriously hard to impress. When preseason win projections arrive annually, the projection system routinely groups teams within 10 games of .500.
It's very hard to stand out from the crowd in the eyes of PECOTA. Yet, as Matt Snyder of CBS Sports pointed out, the projection system has the Dodgers slated for a 98-win campaign in 2014.
Led by Kershaw, the Dodgers are expected to dominate the NL West and arrive back to October as one of the few teams in the league with a legitimate chance to make a trip to the World Series.
As baseball fans have seen over the years, October baseball can be very, very difficult to project and predict. It's safe to say that the best team doesn't always win it all. With variance separating similar teams and short series superseding the marathon nature of the 162-game regular season, October can take favorites and render them disappointments.
For the Dodgers and Kershaw, it's hard to imagine a season without a trip to October.
Will the Dodgers and Kershaw live up to expectations this season?
Yet, many fans will call this season a disappointment if Kershaw—after another Cy Young campaign—isn't the winning pitcher in a championship-clinching World Series game.
Those expectations are unfair and over the top.
Instead, expect the following criteria to be met: From Opening Day through the end of the regular season, Kershaw and the Dodgers will dominate the NL West, win 95-plus games and give fans a glimpse at this generation's best pitcher on a weekly basis.
Using that baseline, Kershaw and the Dodgers will live up to expectations. If October turns into a coronation for baseball's most expensive roster, they could exceed them with a championship parade in Los Angeles.