Clayton Kershaw Pitched Like a Reliever

You might have heard that Clayton Kershaw is good at pitching. He’s Hercules and Sandy Koufax merged together at the molecular level. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to throw over tall buildings with a single curve. He’s SuperPitcher. Much like Mike Trout, Kershaw is the sort of athlete who could easily serve as the genesis of a daily newsletter with interesting factoids about said athlete. The more you dig around on statistical leaderboards and in his ledger, the more ridiculous little nuggets of gold you can dig up.

Take, for instance, this:

2016 WHIP Leaders, Min. 60 Innings
Pitcher IP WHIP
Kenley Jansen 68.2 0.67
Andrew Miller 74.1 0.69
Clayton Kershaw 149 0.72
Zach Britton 67.0 0.84
Ryan Dull 74.1 0.87
Nate Jones 70.2 0.89
Mark Melancon 71.1 0.90
Dan Otero 70.2 0.91
Christopher Devenski 108.1 0.91
Seung Hwan Oh 79.2 0.92

One of these things is not like the other. WHIP isn’t a perfect indicator of pitcher success, because the number of hits allowed by a pitcher is impacted by the defense playing behind him, and walks are affected by the framing quality of a pitcher’s catcher. It is, however, a generally fun statistic and is usually useful when one is in pursuit of a general picture of a pitcher’s ability to limit baserunners. The full leaderboard is here, and as you can see, it generally consists of pitchers who kicked ass in 2016.

Let’s talk about the top portion of that leaderboard, though, which has been reproduced in the table above. Of the 10 pitchers included here, Kershaw is the only one who’s a full-time starting pitcher. (Devenski started five games but had the bulk of his success in relief.) You have to go down to the 16th spot on the leaderboard to find the next starter, Max Scherzer (who’s followed by Kyle Hendricks and Rich Hill). Scherzer’s WHIP was 25 points higher than Kershaw’s. This is largely due to the fact that Kershaw walked just 11 men all year, and would have set the modern record for strikeout-to-walk ratio had he been a qualified starter.

One of the great injustices of baseball is that Kershaw hurt his back last year, because we’ll never know if he would have been able to keep up that sheer lunacy over the course of a full season. His 1.69 ERA in 149 regular-season innings was lower than Pedro Martinez‘s 1.74 in his ridiculous 2000 campaign. Kershaw also bested Pedro’s 2000 in FIP and WHIP, with Pedro taking the edge in DRA. If you look at all starting-pitcher seasons since 2000, set the minimum innings requirement at 140, and sort by WHIP, Kershaw’s 2016 and Pedro’s 2000 represent the top two figures. Four of the top 10 seasons over that timeframe belong to Kershaw. The fact that we’re even conducting a flawed (Pedro threw 217 innings that year, and in a different offensive era) comparison of these two men and not totally throwing the stats out with the bathwater is remarkable.

So, instead, we’ll do some more comparisons with relievers, since the only baseball we have right now is poorly shot Twitter videos of guys throwing bullpens and the looming dread of wondering who will be next to fall victim to the elbow-ligament gremlins. Kershaw pitched like an elite reliever, except he did it in six- to nine-inning bursts. The only two better WHIP marks in 2016 were produced by Kenley Jansen, who just signed for $80 million, and Andrew Miller, who was just traded for a package that included two top-100 (if not top-50) prospects and two really good reliever prospects, and who has a slider that challenges our conception of the phrase “cruel and unusual.” Kershaw’s 0.72 WHIP in 2016 would tie him with Koji Uehara and Takashi Saito for the 10th-best best single-season WHIP by a reliever since 2010. Outside of one shining moment of insanity, Clayton Kershaw wasn’t a reliever in 2016. The time he came out of the bullpen didn’t count towards his regular-season statistics.

There’s no legally embeddable video of Kershaw’s entire appearance that night in Washington. There’s video of the results of the two plate appearances by Daniel Murphy and Wilmer Difo, but they don’t capture the remarkable intensity of that moment. Kershaw had just thrown well over 100 pitches just two days prior, and had missed time with that back injury. He had been ruled out as a relief option before the game. Yet, for one night, the world was exposed to Kershaw the Reliever, who in all honesty had been who Kershaw was all year. FOX Sports didn’t cut to commercial when he entered and took his warmup tosses before he squared off with one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. It looked, for all purposes, like a standard Kershaw pitching appearance, because it was.

We’ll never know if Kershaw could have kept that up for another 50 to 60 innings. The law of averages, and the law of wanting to believe that baseball can’t be governed by reality warping pitching gorgons, says that Kershaw would have been somewhat more human over those weeks. Starting pitchers simply aren’t supposed to be that good. They’re supposed to be somewhat hittable, and indeed, you can in fact get a hit off Clayton Kershaw, if the invisible random-number generator of the universe is feeling kind to you that day. He’s only thrown a no-hitter once, as hard as that is to believe. No-hitters are rare. Kershaws are rarer.

Somehow, Kershaw is only 28 years old, in the theoretical prime of his career. The back issue is hopefully gone. We project Kershaw to be worth 7.3 wins above replacement this season, and to log his usual 200-plus innings. All, ideally, should be well. Kershaw was historically good in 2016. We’re not supposed to anticipate repeats of performances that hold court in the same great hall as those of the mighty Pedro.

Nobody will fault you for counting Kershaw out from doing just that. It’s likely the responsible thing to do. You probably shouldn’t hold your breath for another probability-defying season.

But what if you did? Is there a man in baseball better suited to shattering the meaning of dominant than him? There isn’t. He probably won’t do it again. He’ll probably be merely amazing, and not a regular nine-inning installment of one of the best relievers in recent memory.

Nobody would be shocked if he did it again. That’s what makes Clayton Kershaw so special. It’s why we’re so blessed to see him right before our eyes. He probably won’t do it again, but he could.

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Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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