Clayton Kershaw Is the Best Pitcher in Baseball, and It's Not Close
Here’s a terrifying sentence for anyone who makes a living by swinging a bat: Clayton Kershaw is getting better.
In fact, not only is Kershaw posting career-best numbers nearly across the board, he’s off to one of the best starts in baseball history.
Following the trail blazed by FIP and xFIP, Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA) is the most recent in a line of upgrades to ERA. It attempts to accurately tell us how well a pitcher is actually performing by putting the proper weight on strikeouts, walks and balls in play. (You can read more about it on FanGraphs.)
FanGraphs started tracking SIERA in 2002, and no one has dominated the game quite like Kershaw has through his first nine starts of 2016. Actually, it’s not all that close, with his stiffest competition being some guy named Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw has been excellent for a while, but he took his game to new levels in 2014. Prior to his 2.09 SIERA that season, his best clip was a 2.80 mark in 2011 -- which is still ridiculously good but not quite the level of supremacy he’s shown since 2014.
We’re in an era with some truly spectacular pitchers -- Jake Arrieta, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale, to name a few -- and none of them can get within shouting distance of Kershaw. Over the last two seasons, no one has been in his galaxy.
|Pitcher||SIERA since 2014|
Somehow, Kershaw keeps getting better. Through nine starts this season, his 1.92 SIERA, 34.8% strikeout rate and 1.6% walk rate are all career-best numbers. His walk rate tops all qualified starters this year while his strikeout rate is bested only by Jose Fernandez.
As simple as it sounds, Kershaw’s improvement this season has been spearheaded by his ability to throw strikes that hitters can’t hit.
His swinging strike rate -- the percentage of strikes that were swung at and missed -- is 15.9%, which ties for the best mark of his career and is tops in the game. Aside from his nearly nonexistent walk rate, his Zone%, the number of pitches thrown in the strike zone, is 54.5%, a career high which is well above his 50.9% career average. Yet, despite peppering the zone, hitters are only making contact on 68.3% of their swings, which is another career-high clip for Kershaw.
The rare times when he’s not throwing pitches in the zone, he’s still getting guys to swing and miss. Batters are only making contact on 39.7% of their swings at pitches outside the zone, putting Kershaw’s O-Contact% at 39.7%, which is -- you guessed it -- another career-best mark.
Kershaw continued his early-season death march Tuesday against the Los Angeles Angels, firing 8 innings of 1-run ball and fanning 11 without issuing a walk.
Looking at his game log from this season is laughable. He’s breaking baseball.
|Opponent||Innings||Hits||Earned Runs||Home Runs||Walks||Strikeouts|
There’s so much heavenly stuff in there.
Kershaw has 88 strikeouts and 4 walks, for crying out loud, good for a silly 22:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- the absurdness of that number can't be overstated. He has recorded double-digit whiffs in each of his last six outings while allowing no more than one walk in any of those starts, which is an MLB record, according to Elias. In total, he’s fanned 68 and walked 2 over his last six starts (lol).
Kershaw is impossible. He is coming right after hitters, and he is still striking them out. Those two things are usually mutually exclusive. Attacking the zone -- giving the best hitters in the world pitchers to hit -- typically leads to balls in play, not punch outs.
He’s not perfect, though. Kershaw made a questionable decision Tuesday to test Mike Trout’s arm. The result was predictable.
.@MikeTrout had to remind Clayton Kershaw about his ARM.https://t.co/1hM5AuAHHt
— MLB (@MLB) May 18, 2016
Kershaw got the last laugh, though, as Trout went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Dodgers’ 5-1 win.
Kershaw always gets the last laugh.
Common sense tells us Kershaw can’t really get much better from here -- right? -- but I’m not going to be the one to set limits on his greatness. If anything, going off his track record, he may just keep improving. That’s great news for baseball fans, but it's terrible news for National League hitters.
The Dodgers need him to keep it up, too. Los Angeles is 8-1 in games Kershaw pitches and 13-18 when he doesn't throw. Despite the slow(ish) start, the Dodgers are just 1.5 games out of first in the National League West and have a 61.9% chance to make the playoffs.