Back in February, we discussed the disappearing 300-strikeout pitcher, and how it was something of a paradox that no one was reaching the milestone in the era of inflated strikeout totals. This article was emailed and tweeted back to me over a half-dozen times on Sunday, with most of them being a charming variation of "I'LL BET YOU FEEL STUPID NOW," which ... dammit. The conclusion wasn't that no one would ever get to 300 strikeouts again. The conclusion was that it was going to take a historically great season from a historically great pitcher.
Hello, Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw was already the best pitcher alive. Has been for a few years. Now he's the best pitcher alive with a shiny round number to hang above the metaphorical fireplace. Last season, he missed more bats than he ever had, taking a leap from a pitcher who averaged about a strikeout per inning to a monster who would sneak a couple extra strikeouts in just about every start. He was one of the best in baseball at missing bats. Then he became one of the best of all-time. In order for him to get to 300, though, he would have to evolve even further, either striking out batters at a higher rate or pitching more innings.
He did both. He's averaging two strikeouts more per nine innings than he did in his first Cy Young season. He's averaging almost three strikeouts more per nine innings than he did in his second Cy Young season. Kershaw flew a jetpack to the moon of absurdity, thought it smelled weird there, and flew to the moon of complete and utter nonsense, instead. Pedro Martinez was already there, grilling some meat and having a great time.
This is how people think pitchers usually evolve, that they have raw stuff that gets refined over the years, and eventually the polished stuff and veteran acumen combine to make a far superior version of the same pitcher. This is not how pitchers usually evolve. Sometimes the stuff wavers, sometimes the pitchers reach their command ceiling early. Sometimes, oftentimes, they plateau. And very, very rarely, they just keep getting better and better. That's where Kershaw is right now, just a maelstrom of unhittable, perfectly placed curveballs and fastballs. I think my favorite pitch of his right now might be his slider, mostly because I often need the radar readings to know it was a slider in the first place.
"Why did Belt miss that pitch by a foot? He should have ... oh, slider. Daaaaamn."
Kershaw has leveled up enough to walk around bored in the RPG of baseball if he wants to, fighting random encounters by mashing the A-button repeatedly. But he's not bored. Not at all, which makes him extra terrifying. He's always a threat to build an entirely new structure on what should have been his finished ceiling, and it's mesmerizing.
If this reads like a hagiography, good. It should. Kershaw is the best pitcher since Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, and we're seven years into his career. He's just 27. This could keep going for a while.
There are a few weeks to argue Kershaw vs. Zack Greinke vs. Jake Arrieta, and they will be fantastic arguments. This is not Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera (non-Triple Crown division), in which one side was clearly right and the other side was clearly old. This is going to be a fantastic awards debate, with no correct answer. There will be only shades of correct, and that's fine.
When it comes to the WAR that's calculated using the actual runs a pitcher allowed, Greinke leads the National League. Arrieta is a close second. Kershaw comes up third, a full win behind Arrieta and almost two behind Greinke. For years, I've used this version (Baseball-Reference's) in my articles because it's a little easier to comprehend for the uninitiated baseball fan, a little easier to run queries for in Play Index. But there probably isn't a "best" version of WAR. They're both describing different things, both of them applicable when looking for the best pitcher, depending on what you're looking for.
When it comes to the Cy Young, I'm looking for the best pitcher. Those are the guidelines, at least. For the first time in my fake-voting history, I'm going abstract and looking at what should have happened when luck and defense are removed from the calculus. According to FanGraphs' WAR, Kershaw had the best season in baseball, and it wasn't particularly close. The difference between him and Arrieta/Greinke had to do with batting average on balls in play -- Kershaw was up with the MLB average, with the other two having historically fantastic seasons. Some would argue they're having historically lucky seasons.
That's a little much for me. I know Greinke is still trying to crack the code of hard contact, and he's not ready to throw his hands up and say BOY HOWDY, AM I LUCKY THIS YEAR. When it comes to results, Greinke allowed fewer hits than Kershaw. He allowed fewer runs. That counts, and I will not pooh-pooh arguments suggesting as much.
When it comes to the best pitcher, though, I'm smitten with Kershaw. His 300 strikeouts, complemented with eerie control, suggest a pitcher who can do whatever he wants. If a pitcher's one goal is to keep the hitter from hitting the ball hard, Kershaw is doing it better than any pitcher over the last 15 seasons ... by keeping the hitter from hitting the ball at all. Here are the last 10 times a pitcher has finished with a Fielding Independent Pitching mark under 2.00 and 200 innings or more:
- Clayton Kershaw, 2015 (1.99)
- Pedro Martinez, 1999 (1.39)
- Dwight Gooden, 1984 (1.69)
- Tom Seaver, 1971 (1.93)
- Bob Gibson, 1968 (1.77)
- Sandy Koufax, 1965 (1.93)
- Sandy Koufax, 1963 (1.85)
- Hal Newhouser, 1946 (1.97)
- Walter Johnson, 1917 (1.98)
- Grover Cleveland Alexander, 1917 (1.84)
Which is to say, this sort of season comes along every 10 years or so on average, dating back to just before World War I. The pitchers who do it usually make the Hall of Fame. That's because they're the best pitchers. That's why Kershaw is lapping the field according to FanGraphs' numbers. When it comes to making hitters swing and miss -- the exact opposite of what they're trying to do -- Kershaw is on a very, very short and impressive list.
He has the 300 strikeouts. He should have the Cy Young. Give him next year's, too, if you want to save some time. If it feels like you aren't appreciating this enough, it's because you probably aren't. Go sit in a corner and think about Clayton Kershaw. Then when you're done, do it again. We're watching something indescribable.
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SB Nation presents: All that's happened with the Dodgers during Vin Scully's tenure