At 23, Clayton Kershaw is already one of the best pitchers in the National League but is he the best this year?
When Clayton Kershaw opened the season with seven shutout innings against San Francisco, it was a sign that the 23-year-old was ready to build on a season of promise last year. And he’s done just that.
Despite the Dodgers circling the NL West drain, Kershaw has put himself in position to be the first Dodger pitcher to win the Cy Young since 1988. He’s not only proven himself capable of finishing games this year, but he’s become more dominant as a power pitcher with outstanding control.
In my last article, I made the case for Matt Kemp as the National League MVP; now it’s time to state Kershaw’s case as the National League’s best pitcher.
Kershaw's main competitor for the Cy Young is last year's winner, Roy Halladay. So let's compare what the two have done this year.
Kershaw leads the majors in strikeouts and is tied for the league lead in wins with 15. He’s also top five in ERA, second in shutouts, third in walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP), and tied for second in walks, wins above replacement and opposing batting average.
The only pitcher that can has as many top five positions among league leaders is Roy Halladay, who has pitched six more innings than Kershaw.
Meanwhile, both are the only pitchers in the top five in the Triple Crown categories (wins, strikeouts and ERA), both have the same win total and while Kershaw has the edge in strikeouts, Halladay has a slight edge in ERA.
Of course, Halladay has another edge in pitching the Phillies to the best record in baseball.
This may be the toughest argument for Dodger fans to win because it’s possible that Halladay, who won the Cy Young award last year, could cruise in September and still repeat. Yet the way Kershaw has pitched in the second half (6-1, 1.53 ERA), he may be setting the stage for a September finish to sneak up and win the award.
Last year, Felix Hernandez went 13-12 and the Seattle Mariners finished in last place; but Hernandez won the American League Cy Young. King Felix led the league in ERA and wins above replacement, while finishing second in strikeouts and WHIP.
The year before, Zach Greinke won the AL Cy Young despite only 16 wins and the Kansas City Royals finishing in last place. He led the AL in ERA, WAR and WHIP and finished second in strikeouts.
While it’s rare to reward MVPs to stars of losing teams, there’s recent precedence which could factor in Kershaw’s favor, as he’s simply making the most of what he’s been given.
Kershaw has won over a quarter of the Dodgers' games. While other candidates have done more than their part to help their teams be contenders, all Kershaw is doing is matching them while pitching for a last-place team.
He’s now become must-see every time he’s on the mound. He showed his star power by making his first All-Star team and he’s carried that into the second half.
If you take Kershaw away from the Dodgers, they’d be one of the worst teams in the league. If you take Roy Halladay away from the Phillies, they’re still a great team.
It’s hard not to argue that Kershaw means just as much to the Dodgers as AL Cy Young front-runner Justin Verlander does to the Detroit Tigers.
Cliff Lee (14-7, 2.71) is second in the NL in strikeouts with a league-leading five shutouts and has been as good as anybody in the second half (not to mention his surprisingly hot bat).
Cole Hamels (13-7, 2.62) has been reborn this year, leading the NL in WHIP while being in the top 10 in ERA, strikeouts and wins as the Phillies' No. 3 man.
The Phillies' problem may be their collective greatness. Who’s the best pitcher on the staff? Hamels, Lee and Halladay could cancel each other out as Halladay, while dominating, isn’t running away with the field like he did last year.
Jair Jurrjens (Atlanta Braves) has had a remarkable season, but since July 1, he’s gone 1-2 while seeing his ERA rise from 1.87 to 2.71. He’ll be a contender with 13 wins, but Kershaw has him beat in nearly every category for the moment.
Tim Lincecum (San Francisco Giants) is having a quiet season in the National League top five for strikeouts and ERA. Kershaw has outdueled him twice and it’ll take a lights-out month for him to win a third Cy Young award.
A sleeper candidate is Ian Kennedy, who has Kershaw’s win total and has a 2.74 ERA since late April (3.22 overall). Arizona is in a playoff race too, which could help his case better versus Kershaw.
In theory, I only see Halladay as Kershaw’s only competition, while Lee or Hamels (and possibly Kennedy) could threaten some of their teammates’ thunder.
Clayton Kershaw has finally built on his promise and is showing why he’s not just the Dodgers ace, but one of the best pitchers in baseball. Even if the Dodgers haven’t won much, his numbers are up there with his peers.
It’s probably Roy Halladay’s award to lose, and having Ian Kennedy in the same division in a pennant race will make it hard for voters to reward Kershaw.
Kershaw may have to continue pitching lights-out down the stretch and win 20 games to firmly place himself in the thick of the race. But for my money, his Cy Young resume is as solid as anyone's.
If his team’s record is his only drawback, voters have shown the last few years that the individual body of work can transcend team performance. Team success may hurt teammate Matt Kemp’s MVP candidacy, but the same standards shouldn’t keep voters from rewarding Kershaw for his accomplishments.