Clayton Kershaw’s Four Years of Dominance

It’s hard to believe we are already here, but the 2017 regular season has come to a close. Opening day feels like it was just a couple of months ago, and the All-Star break feels like just last week. Still, the season is over for 20 teams, with just the 10 playoff teams remaining. With another regular season in the books, it’s now the best time to look at player stats and see just how this season shaped up. Below are some of the bigger stories of 2017 in the MLB:

  • Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger breaking rookie records, with Judge hitting 52 and Bellinger hitting 39 home runs
  • The Cleveland Indians 22 game winning streak
  • Mike Trout missing 48 games but still finished tied for 3rd in fWAR
  • The Los Angeles Dodgers being the best team in baseball and winning a Los Angeles record 104 games
  • Chris Sale striking out 300-plus batters
  • Giancarlo Stanton chasing Roger Maris’ 61 home runs (though well shy of Barry Bonds’ 73), falling just short at 59

Of course, there is far more to talk about, but these were the stories that dominated the day to day for MLB fans around the world. However, while perusing the Fangraphs leaderboard pages, there is someone noticeably missing from the top of the pitcher’s section for the first time in five seasons: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017. This player is widely considered as the best pitcher of this generation, Clayton Kershaw.

The Start of the Kershaw Era

In 2011, with a result that was even a surprise to some Dodger fans, Clayton Kershaw beat out Roy Halladay for the 2011 NL Cy Young. Despite this being the season that really started the Kershaw Era in the MLB, Kershaw did not lead the MLB in fWAR, but finished second to Halladay at 7.1, 1.2 behind Doc. On the surface, the pitchers were very comparable in ERA, FIP, and xFIP, with the big difference in fWAR appearing to be Halladay pitching in hitter’s park rather than a neutral park as Kershaw did.

The next season was a bit different. By the end of 2012, Halladay had started his decline and was no longer a top pitcher. Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez stepped up to take his spot, pushing Kershaw down with his 5.9 fWAR down to third in the MLB in fWAR. However, this means that Kershaw was the most valuable pitcher in the NL, almost a full win higher than Cliff Lee, Gio Gonzalez and 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey at 5.0 fWAR.

This was the last time before 2017 that Clayton Kershaw did not lead the MLB in fWAR.

Kershaw’s Four Years of Dominance

2013

By the end of 2012, everyone knew how great Clayton Kershaw was, but there were a lot of great high-end pitchers around that time. From 2009-2012, the competition for top pitcher in the game was extremely competitive. Verlander led the pack with 27.2 fWAR, but Lee was just behind at 25.1, Halladay close by at 23.9, Felix at 23, Zack Greinke at 22.2, Kershaw and CC Sabathia at 22.1. Safe to say, jumping into the clear lead would be no easy feat. It’s almost if that was a challenge to Kershaw based on what he started to do next.

Before 2013, everyone knew that Clayton Kershaw was an excellent pitcher. Going into that season, he was just 25 years old, the 7th overall draft pick in the 2006 draft, and had won a Cy Young. The things that Kershaw was great at to that point were striking batters out, severely limiting hits and home runs, and not allowing many runs to score. Had he kept pitching like that, he still would have been one of the few best pitchers in the MLB for a long time.

However, one of Kershaw’s problems early on was his control. He went from 4.35 BB/9 to 4.79 BB/9 to 3.57 BB/9 in his first three seasons. It was in 2011 when he finally gained control on his pitches and went all the way down to a 2.08 BB/9, then 2.49 BB/9 the following season. Through the first five seasons of his career, these were his numbers:

61-37 2.79 ERA 3.01 FIP 3.42 xFIP 9.29 K/9 3.25 BB/9 0.59 HR/9 in 944 IP

Now here is what Kershaw did taking a huge leap forward in 2013:

16-9 1.83 ERA 2.39 FIP 2.88 xFIP 8.85 K/9 1.98 BB/9 0.42 HR/9 in 236 IP

Essentially, Kershaw went from a top 5 pitcher in the league to the absolute best in just one year’s time. This came with more change at and near the top with Felix, Lee, and Verlander sliding down lower in the top 10, and new blood at the top. Kershaw led the MLB for the first time in fWAR at 7.1, followed by Adam Wainwright at 6.6, Matt Harvey at 6.5, and Max Scherzer at 6.1. Kershaw’s 1.83 ERA was the first sub-2.00 ERA since Roger Clemens had a 1.87 ERA with the Houston Astros in 2005. Kershaw won his second Cy Young in that 2013 season.

2014

Going into 2014, Clayton Kershaw was widely regarded as the best pitcher in the MLB, with few in real competition with him. Of those that were, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander were right up there with him. Unfortunately for Verlander, he fell to a 4.54 ERA in 2014 ending his reign near the top of the leaderboards. Felix, however, had an elite 2014 season pitching to a 2.14 ERA, 2.56 FIP, and 6.1 fWAR season in 236 innings pitched.

Interestingly enough, not only was this not enough to best Kershaw, but Corey Kluber emerged seemingly out of nowhere to win his first career Cy Young award with a 2.44 ERA, 2.35 FIP, and 7.4 fWAR in 235.2 IP that season. Despite the greatness from the pair of Felix and Kluber, Kershaw doubled down on his historic 2013 season with the following numbers:

21-3 1.77 ERA 1.81 FIP 2.08 xFIP 10.85 K/9 1.41 BB/9 0.41 HR/9 in 198.1 IP

Not only did Kershaw improve upon his insane 1.83 ERA from the previous season, he upped his K/9 by a massive 2 per 9 innings while cutting his walks down by more than 25%, all while keeping his already very low HR/9 down to the same level. The one hiccup he encountered was a trip to the disabled list to start the season, not truly starting his season until 5/6, outside of a March start in Australia against the Diamondbacks.

Not only was this good enough to lead the MLB in fWAR for the second straight season, or to win his third Cy Young award in just four seasons, but it won him the 2014 NL MVP award to boot. This was a truly special season, and there was no way he could improve upon that…right?

2015

It’s hard to believe, but in 2015, and for the third straight season, Kershaw was better than the previous season. His BB/9 and HR/9 both went up a tiny bit while his ERA went skyrocketing all the way up to…2.13. But the big thing here was getting back up to 232.2 innings pitched after pitching just under 200 the season before. At the same time he upped his K/9 to an absurd 11.64, striking out 301 batters in the process. Kershaw’s 301 strikeout season was the first 300 strikeout season since both Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling accomplished the feat in 2002.

Even with a 300 strikeout season, Kershaw had some serious competition. Jake Arrieta continued his great pitching from midway through the 2014 season, en route to a 1.77 ERA himself with a 7.3 fWAR season. As well, Kershaw’s Dodger teammate Zack Greinke put up one of the best seasons ever when going by ERA with a 1.66 ERA. Although his ERA was one of the best we have ever seen, his peripherals did not quite match, with ‘only’ a 2.76 FIP, and had a 5.8 fWAR for the season.

The Cy Young discussion that fall was one of the greatest in my lifetime. Many people were split on how to vote. Do you vote for the guy who put up 300 strikeouts, something that is about as rare as a sub-2.00 ERA, while still putting up a low 2.00 ERA? Do you vote for the pitcher with the best ERA since mid-90s Greg Maddux, despite much lower strikeout numbers? Or do you split the difference and go with the guy with the great strikeout totals and an ERA in the middle of the other two?

Kershaw – 16-7 2.13 ERA 1.99 FIP 2.09 xFIP 11.64 K/9 301 K 1.62 BB/9 0.58 HR/9 in 232.2 IP

Greinke – 19-3 1.66 ERA 2.76 FIP 3.22 xFIP 8.08 K/9 200 K 1.62 BB/9 0.57 HR/9 in 222.2 IP

Arrieta – 22-6 1.77 ERA 2.35 FIP 2.61 xFIP 9.28 K/9 236 K 1.89 BB/9 0.39 HR/9 in 229 IP

As it turned out, the majority of voters went with the last option, splitting the difference between Kershaw and Greinke and award Jake Arrieta his first career Cy Young Award. This was the first time since 2011 that Clayton Kershaw did not either win the NL Cy Young award or finish second in the voting.

After such a dominant year, the question was asked yet again of “Can he improve upon his previous greatness once again?” In 2016, he answered with a resounding “Yes!”, but in an abbreviated manner.

2016

After losing out on the NL Cy Young for the second time in four years while putting up arguably better overall numbers than the winner, Kershaw took yet another huge step forward. Whereas his last couple of steps forward were to cut his walks in half and then add a couple of strikeouts per 9 innings, this time he decided he didn’t want to walk anybody anymore.

In 2016, Kershaw broke the record for best K/BB in the history of the MLB with an absolutely mind-blowing 15.64 K/BB. That means for every 1 walk he gave up in 2016, he struck out more than 15 and a half batters. His BB/9 was a laughable 0.66. His WHIP was one of the best ever down to 0.72. To put it plainly, 1999 and 2000 Pedro Martinez was going to be looking over his shoulder as the best pitched seasons ever.

Sadly, a mid-season back injury cost him the months of July and August and ended up with just 149 innings pitched. Although the injury cost him any real chance at the Cy Young, something like 70 or 80 missing innings pitched wasn’t going to stop Clayton Kershaw from being the best pitcher by fWAR in 2016:

12-4 1.69 ERA 1.80 FIP 2.28 xFIP 10.39 K/9 0.66 BB/9 0.48 HR/9 in 149 IP

It’s not as if 2016 was a bad year for pitchers, as there were actually many great pitchers during the season. There were just a few, if not any others as flat-out dominant as Kershaw. Unfortunately, he did not qualify for the ERA title, being 13 innings short.  Though with a 140 innings qualifier, he still led the MLB by over 0.50 points by ERA. His lead in FIP was nearly just as high, 0.49 points better than Noah Syndergaard. His 6.5 fWAR just edged out Syndergaard at 6.4 in second place in the MLB, who pitched 183.2 innings himself, a good 34 innings more than Kershaw.

Even when Kershaw pitched 30-70 fewer innings than his competition in the MLB, he was so unbelievably excellent in 2016 that he managed to lead the league yet again in fWAR.

2017 Ends the Streak at the Top

After four seasons straight of Clayton Kershaw at the very top of the league, fighting off new contender after new contender trying to take his crown, 2017 finally sees him taken down. In part, this is due to missing a month and a half due to another back injury, but he was just not his usual dominant self this season:

18-4 2.31 ERA 3.07 FIP 2.84 xFIP 10.39 K/9 1.54 BB/9 1.18 HR/9 in 175 IP

When looking at these numbers, the only thing that is really different from any season of the last five years is the HR/9. Much like the rest of the MLB, Kershaw’s home run numbers spiked. Kershaw gave up about twice his career average this season, and it is going to be the difference between winning the NL Cy Young and finishing second or third most likely. The home run problem was so bad for Kershaw that he actually gave up the first grand slam of his career recently.

It is still quite funny that a 2.31 ERA and 3.07 FIP from Kershaw is considered a disappointment. The 2.31 ERA is the highest he’s had since a 2.53 ERA in 2012, and the 3.07 FIP is the highest he’s put up since a 3.12 FIP in 2010. It really shows just how all-time elite Kershaw has been over the last five-plus years to put up these numbers and have so many people think he could have done so much better.

2018 and Beyond

What does Kershaw’s 2017 mean for the future? 2018 will be the first season Clayton Kershaw does not pitch in the majors as a 20-something-year-old, as he turns 30 in March. Outside of a few freak-of-nature Hall of Fame pitchers like Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux, most pitchers don’t stay at this level as they get older. The wear and tear on a pitcher’s arm can burn them out at an unfair rate.

Just looking at Felix Hernandez, only 31 himself currently, has 2500 innings pitched and his last three seasons have seen a severe decline from his former self. Before 2015, Felix regularly put up 230 innings with little to no problem. From there he’s gone to 201.2, 153.1, and now just 86.2 this season. For a starting pitcher, it’s incredibly hard to stay healthy enough to stay on top for so long.

However, if we believe that Kershaw can rebound to another 200-plus inning season, I see no reason not to include him as someone to compete for the top fWAR spot next season. The competition looks as stiff as ever, with Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, and Max Scherzer all pitching at the best levels of their careers, but outside of huge outlier season by HR/9, Kershaw was exactly who he’s been for over half a decade. If we are lucky enough to see him healthy next season and after, we are very likely to see a similar level of production that we are used to…though maybe no more 300 K or sub 2.00-FIP seasons.

All-Time Significance

What I really wanted to do with this article was give Kershaw recognition for something that is just so hard to accomplish. There has not been another pitcher to lead in fWAR in back to back seasons since 2005 and 2006 with Johan Santana. Before that, in 2000 and 2001 by Randy Johnson.

The last pitcher to lead in fWAR for three straight seasons was Roger Clemens in 1990, 1991, and 1992. Clemens also led in 1987 and 1988 with Brett Saberhagen sandwiched between in 1989, giving him the fWAR in five out of six seasons from 1987-1992. Steve Carlton was the last pitcher to lead the MLB in fWAR for four straight years, doing so from 1980-1983 (1980, 1981, 1982, 1983). Before him, Lefty Grove led from 1929-1932 (1929, 1930, 1931, 1932), also having led in 1926 and 1927 and other scattered years in the 30s.

When looking at the players mentioned here, they are all absolutely Hall of Fame talents. Some of them may not be in due to a P.E.D. controversy as with Clemens, or they were burnt out too earlier after a decade of Hall of Fame pitching like Santana, who will be eligible for the first time next year. Whether they all end up in the Hall of Fame or not, these are some all-time great starting pitchers, and Clayton Kershaw has done something that 99.99% of other starting pitchers in MLB history have never done. The stretch of time from 2013-2016 from Kershaw is something we may not see again for decades from another pitcher, and should very much be cherished.