We Should Be More Appreciative of Clayton Kershaw's Dominance
Ho-hum. Another year goes by, and baseball fans are treated to another season of sub-2.20 ERA, sub-0.90 WHIP, 250-plus strikeout dominance from Clayton Kershaw. That's now five straight seasons with an ERA under 2.55. It's almost kind of boring at this point.
Amid a historical season for starters, one that saw two pitchers with an ERA under 1.80 and 11 with an ERA under 2.80, most barely noticed another unbelievable season from Kershaw. In fact, Kershaw didn't win the National League Cy Young for the first time since 2012, and some have been bold enough to suggest that he may not be the best pitcher entering 2016.
It's time to put an end to this nonsense.
Not only is Kershaw clearly the most dominant pitcher in the Majors, but he may also go down as the most dominant pitcher in the current history of the MLB from a statistical standpoint by the time his career is finished.
That is a big claim to throw around with such a rich history of dominant starting pitchers, but the stats support it.
Kershaw's 2015 in Perspective
While Kershaw didn't win the Cy Young in 2015, advanced stats suggest he was still the best pitcher in the league.
He didn't get the luck that Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke did with batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and thus was unable to match their sub-2.00 ERAs. However, Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA) and xFIP, the two most popular ERA estimators, show that Kershaw remains a clear step ahead of the competition.
|2015 Starting Pitchers||xFIP||SIERA|
In addition to leading the league in both ERA estimators, Kershaw posted the league's best K-BB%, which subtracts the pitcher's walk rate from his strikeout rate. He ranked first in the league in strikeout rate and fifth in walk rate. 2015 marked his second consecutive season with a walk rate under five percent, which is great news for Kershaw, who struggled with control early in his career.
Kershaw's aversion to issuing free passes allowed him to go deeper into games and ultimately lead the league in innings pitched. 2015 marked Kershaw's third season with more than 230 innings pitched. His elite stamina and durability will be a vital part of his being able to maintain an elite level of production long into his career.
Kershaw's ridiculous numbers are made possible by his overpowering four-pitch arsenal, which took another step forward in 2015. Kershaw's fastball, his best pitch, clocked in at 93.6 miles per hour in 2015, which was the hardest he's thrown in a season since 2009. FanGraphs ranked Kershaw's fastball as the best in the league in 2015.
In addition to the league's most effective fastball, Kershaw's slider ranked seventh, while his curveball ranked third. His curveball's 16.5 wCB (total runs saved by a pitcher using their curveball) was a career high, and it was his put-away pitch in 2015. Opponents hit just .116 against it, and he posted a strikeout rate of 51.9 percent with his curveball.
His curveball was a big contributor to his improvement in the most impressive aspect of his game: his elite strikeout ability.
Redefining the Art of the Strikeout
In addition to leading the league in strikeouts and strikeout rate, Kershaw had the nastiest stuff in the league, which is reflected in his league-leading 15.9 percent swinging strike rate. His 15.9 percent swinging strike rate was the highest single season mark since Randy Johnson put up a 16.3 percent swinging strike rate in 2002.
He also had the second-lowest contact rate in the Majors, as hitters only made contact on 69 percent of his pitches. Kershaw's career swinging strike rate and contact rate are both trending the right direction, as the ace is becoming nearly unhittable.
While his strikeout ratios are ridiculous, what is most impressive about Kershaw's dominance as a punch-out artist is the fact that he was the first pitcher to top 300 strikeouts since Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson in 2002, a feat many were beginning to wonder if we'd ever see accomplished again. The closest any pitcher has come within the past 10 years is Yu Darvish, who put up 277 in 2013.
Kershaw's 301-strikeout season ranked 62nd all-time, but it is important that we establish some context when examining the history of the strikeout.
The majority of the single-season strikeout leaders pitched in the 1800s, when pitchers regularly threw over 500 innings. For example, Matt Kilroy set the record for most strikeouts in a season, with 513 in 1886. He threw 583 innings that season.
Nolan Ryan is another name that appears often on the single-season strikeout leader board. Ryan set all of his records in the 1970s when it wasn't uncommon for pitchers to make 40 starts in a season and top 300 innings.
Even in 2001, when Randy Johnson posted 372 strikeouts, pitchers were allowed to throw far more innings. That season, 21 pitchers topped 220 innings, and the leader in innings thew 256. To put that in perspective, last year's leader, Kershaw, threw 232 innings and just seven pitchers topped 220 innings.
I don't mean to take anything away from the numbers those pitchers put up. Being able to top 500 strikeouts is ridiculously impressive. I just want to provide some historical context to put Kershaw's dominance in perspective.
So, instead of just looking at raw strikeout totals, let's look at K/9 when comparing Kershaw.
Among starting pitchers with at least 1,500 career innings, only Randy Johnson (10.61) and Pedro Martinez (10.04) can rival Kershaw's 9.75 K/9 rate. Kershaw's K/9 last season was 11.64, and he's seen a steady incline in that number in his time in the league. It's quite possible that Kershaw could eventually end up with the highest K/9 of all pitchers by the time he is done.
The WAR Machine
Through his eight-year career, Kershaw has the second-highest FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) per inning and the third highest fWAR per start, trailing only Pedro Martinez and Lefty Grove.
Kershaw has been especially dominant in the fWAR category over his past three seasons, with an fWAR above 7.0 each year. While some pitchers have bested Kershaw's recent three-year run with runs of their own, no pitcher in the last 50 years has been more dominant in their era than Kershaw, who is a man among boys when it comes to fWAR.
|1996 to 1998||fWAR|
|1998 to 2000||fWAR|
|2013 to 2015||fWAR|
Statistics alone obviously don't determine greatness. As long as you understand the context of the different eras in which players played, stats can provide an interesting perspective when comparing players.
Speaking of context, it's worth noting before we examine these stats that Kershaw has pitched in one of the most difficult eras for a starting pitcher to accumulate stats. In addition to pitchers throwing fewer innings, there are far more runs scored in today's baseball than in the past. The late 1990s into the early 2000s was the highest-scoring era in MLB history, accounting for the nine highest-scoring seasons. Second to that is the era in which Kershaw has pitched. The eight years he has been in the league all rank in the top 22 seasons in terms of runs scored.
With that in mind, here are Kershaw's numbers compared to the ten highest-rated pitchers according to Ranker.com's public poll of the greatest pitchers of all-time. The poll has more than 60,000 votes, so we can really see who the public thinks is at the top of the all-time list.
As you can see, Kershaw excels in pretty much every category. The only pitcher who stands out as a more complete pitcher is Pedro Martinez, while a few others are better in certain categories.
Kershaw clearly belongs among the elites from a statistical standpoint.
If this proves anything, it is that the notion that Kershaw isn't the best in the game right now is just foolish. There are some very talented pitchers, but Kershaw clearly stands out as the best.
It remains to be seen how he will measure up to some of the greatest names in the history of baseball, but it is clear that he already belongs in that discussion.
The fact that he just turned 28 and is clearly still improving is a scary idea for Major League hitters and an exciting one for baseball fans. Going forward, don't try to make arguments for other pitchers over Kershaw. Don't freak out over a stretch of two or three bad starts like people did at the beginning of last year.
Just sit back and enjoy the awesomeness of Kershaw's historical career.