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Clayton Kershaw’s Historic Trajectory

Opening Day was a festive occasion for Los Angeles Dodgers fans this year, and not just for the usual reasons. Spectators streamed into grand old Dodger Stadium, fresh off a winter renovation worth $100 million, content in the knowledge that for the first time since 2003 they would be watching a team that wasn’t owned by the despised and departed Frank McCourt. New stars Adrian Gonzalez [1] and Carl Crawford [2] dotted a lineup that just a year before had included low-budget placeholders like James Loney [3] and Juan Rivera [4], as the Dodgers welcomed the defending champion San Francisco Giants to town.

By the end of the day, the Dodgers stood victorious with a 4-0 win, but the score hardly told the story. Homegrown ace Clayton Kershaw [5] had not only thrown a complete game shutout, he’d taken matters into his own hands to break a scoreless tie by hitting his first career homer, a shot to center off George Kontos [6] in the eighth. No pitcher had pulled off the same feat — a shutout and a homer on Opening Day — in six decades.

The young lefty had somehow found a new way to impress, and if Dodger fans take such feats for granted, they might be forgiven. Their ace has been so consistently excellent that even a rare poor outing, like Wednesday night’s loss to San Diego, comes as something of a surprise. Before getting touched for five runs (three earned) by the Padres, Kershaw had gone 17 straight starts having allowed three runs or fewer; it’s become almost expected to assume he’ll dominate at this point.

Yet to merely place him among the ranks one of the greatest pitching talents in the game today is almost an injustice, because the same could be said about David Price [7]Stephen Strasburg [8]Justin Verlander [9] or a half-dozen other members of the true pitching elite. With every start, Kershaw is continuing to lay the groundwork for a career that is already on the path to baseball immortality.

When Kershaw struck out San Diego first baseman Yonder Alonso [10] with a letter-high fastball in the second inning Wednesday night, he became just the 16th pitcher in big league history to strike out 1,000 hitters before the end of his age-25 season. The list is a who’s who of pitching royalty, including seven Hall of Famers — Bert Blyleven [11], Don Drysdale [12], Bob Feller [13], Catfish Hunter [14], Walter Johnson [15], Christy Mathewson [16] and Hal Newhouser [17] — one active pitcher well on his way (Felix Hernandez [18]) and one derailed only by off-field issues (Dwight Gooden [19]).

No hits

Kershaw gives up hits at a historically low rate.

Ed Reulbach [20] 999.1 6.40
Sam McDowell [21] 1305.0 6.79
Walter Johnson [15] 2070.1 6.89
Clayton Kershaw [5] 972.1 6.95
*Through age 25

If Kershaw maintains his current strikeout pace, he’ll end the season with around 1,215 career punchouts. That would not only give him the ninth-most in history by age 25, it would make him the second-most prolific lefty pitcher by that age, behind only former Dodgers great Fernando Valenzuela [22].

As impressive as that is, Kershaw ranks even higher on the list of pitchers who simply do not allow hits. In the history of the game, dating to the 19th century, exactly four pitchers have thrown as many innings as Kershaw has (972 1/3) through their age-25 season and allowed fewer than seven hits per nine innings (see table).

Ed Reulbach [20] and Johnson made their debuts more than a century ago in a game that scarcely resembled what we see today. “Sudden Sam” McDowell’s strikeout prowess was perhaps matched only by his complete inability to know where the ball was headed when it left his hand.

As one might expect, standing among legends in strikeouts and limiting hits puts Kershaw high on the most notable list of all: run prevention. ERA+ is a simple yet effective way to measure runs allowed for pitchers from different eras, because it’s adjusted to include park factors and the league average. A score of 100 would be exactly league-average for a given year; each point above that is equal to 1 percent better than average.

List of greats

In terms of ERA+, Kershaw is in elite company.

Walter Johnson [15] 2070.1 176
Ed Reulbach [20] 999.1 154
Smokey Joe Wood [23] 1416.0 150
Roger Clemens [24] 1031.1 141
Tom Seaver [25] 1039.0 141
Hal Newhouser [17] 1609.0 141
Clayton Kershaw [5] 972.2 140
*Through age 25

Kershaw is one of only three in the last 60 years to post a career ERA (with 970 innings pitched through age 25) at least 40 percent better than the league average. Standing with Roger Clemens [24] and Tom Seaver [25] as his only contemporaries in that time is more than a little impressive, given that both ended their careers in the conversation for “best pitcher ever.”

If we shift our view to more advanced statistics using fielding independent pitching (FIP), the story remains the same except that more all-time greats enter the picture. Narrowing the scope to post-World War II play, just 10 pitchers top Kershaw’s 3.01 FIP at this point in his career. Again, we see Blyleven, Clemens, Gooden and Seaver, but now we also find Steve Carlton [26] and Don Sutton [27] — Hall of Famers both. With rare exceptions, if a pitcher has accomplished as much at this age as Kershaw has, it means that something very, very special is happening.

That truth was displayed when Kershaw won the NL Cy Young [28] Award in 2011, becoming not only the youngest winner since Gooden in 1985, but one of just 13 hurlers to win the unofficial Pitching Triple Crown — leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts — since the Cy Young [28] came into existence in 1956. He followed that with an equally outstanding 2012, which arguably should have earned him back-to-back awards, losing to R.A. Dickey [29] largely on the strength of the knuckleballer’s fantastic narrative.

Five years ago, a 19-year-old Kershaw shocked legendary broadcaster Vin Scully — who has seen a few things in his time, to put it lightly — with a spring training curveball so vicious that Scully dubbed it “Public Enemy No. 1.” Even at the time, that began comparisons to Dodger Hall of Fame lefty Sandy Koufax [30], an absolutely unfair burden to place on a player less than two years out of a Texas high school.

Since then, Kershaw has done nothing but meet and exceed those expectations, and at some point in the near future, the Dodgers are almost certainly going to sign their ace to a long-term deal that will likely make him the first $200 million pitcher in baseball history. That’s great news for Dodger fans, but it’s good news for baseball as well; with every start, Kershaw continues on a trajectory that might end with his living among the all-time greats. Unless he happens to be mowing down your favorite team on a given night, it’s worth pausing to admire this kind of performance while it’s right in front of us.