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Clayton Kershaw’s Cy Young, Roy Halladay, and 23

Clayton Kershaw has been one of the most hyped up young pitchers in the league since he made his debut as a 20-year-old in 2008. In 2011, he made that next step toward becoming one of the league’s true aces. With 21 victories, 248 strikeouts, a stellar 62 ERA-, a 2.47 FIP, 6.8 WAR — whichever way you slice it, Kershaw was an elite pitcher in 2011 and truly deserving of recognition, regardless of age. The fact that he has accomplished so much by age 23 is phenomenal.

At age 23, Roy Halladay was setting the MLB record for the highest ERA in a season, posting a 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings with the Toronto Blue Jays. So much has changed since then, of course, with Halladay bringing in two Cy Young Awards over the past 10 years. This season marks Halladay’s second runner-up finish. If not for Kershaw taking home the pitching Triple Crown (leading in wins, strikeouts, and ERA), one could have imagined a closer vote.

Halladay’s 2011 performance likely earns the Cy Young in any other season. His 8.2 WAR was a commanding first in the league, and his entire profile backs it up. From posting a 2.35 ERA in a hitters’ park in Philadelphia to striking out 6.3 times as many batters as he walked, Halladay continued to define pitching.

The selection of Kershaw over Halladay comes in a year where both were so clearly elite and so similarly great that complaining over the BBWAA’s selection is simply tilting at windmills. What’s more interesting is where both pitchers have come from and where they will go from here.

Whereas Kershaw has always been the Next Big Thing, from his selection as the seventh overall pick through his quick ascension to ace status in the majors, things were far less simple for Halladay. As a 17th overall pick in 1995, Halladay was always somewhat hyped, and he even made a quick debut in the major leagues, starting two games as a 21-year-old in 1998. But he was rushed, and it would show. The next season, 1999, saw a horrid 82/79 K/BB, and 2000 saw the results finally match up to the poor process. The record Halladay set as a 23-year-old, a 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings, lasted until this year, when Brian Matusz of the Orioles allowed a 10.69 ERA in 49.2 innings.

It’s difficult to imagine Halladay as not only a bad pitcher, but possibly the worst pitcher the game has ever seen over a 40-inning stretch. After toiling to improve in the minors, Halladay was able to return in 2001. Then, we saw the beginning of what would be the Roy Halladay we know now. In 21 starts, Halladay posted a 3.16 ERA and a 2.34 FIP, even more remarkable in the context of the steroid era.

The rest is history. Halladay would go on to win the 2003 Cy Young Award with the Blue Jays and supplement it with the 2010 award as well, and he is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. For today, he yields the stage to Kershaw, the phenom who has yet to stumble on his path to greatness.

Kershaw reached the majors in 2008, only two years after the Dodgers tabbed him with the seventh pick in the 2006 draft. In 21 starts as a rookie, Kershaw posted a 4.26 ERA and a 4.08 FIP — mediocre only if you weren’t paying attention. The lefty struck out a stunning 8.4 batters per nine innings and showed that he was merely a few tweaks away from mastering his control (4.4 BB/9) and turning potential into reality.

Since then, Kershaw has been the anchor of the Dodgers’ pitching staff. Kershaw posted a 4.4 WAR season on the back of a tremendous 9.7 K/9 in 2009 and has improved ever since. In 2010, his BB/9 fell to 3.6. In 2011, it all came together, as his walk rate fell to 2.1, and with control has come true greatness. Kershaw’s 6.8 WAR as a 23-year-old matches Felix Hernandez‘s at the same age back in 2009, a year before the King won his first Cy Young. If Hernandez’s age-24 and -25 seasons are any indication, Kershaw is on track to remain one of the game’s elite for some time now.

Although he put up one of his best seasons in a fantastic career, today Roy Halladay gives Clayton Kershaw his time in the spotlight. They have reached this point in vastly different ways, but going forward, there should be no doubt: when it comes to the National League, these two set the standard for pitching.