10 years of Clayton Kershaw.

By: Dr. Spock



Today marks the 10th anniversary since Kershaw made his first appearance for the Dodgers. 

From CBS Sports:

"Ten years ago, on May 25, 2008, a 20-year-old lefty made his major-league debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the St. Louis Cardinals less than two years after he was drafted out of high school. He struck out the first batter of the game before issuing a walk and then giving up a double to Albert Pujols. But he struck out the next two hitters, and the career of one of the best pitchers of all time was off and running.

Clayton Kershaw has been in the majors for 10 years as of Friday, and he has been more than just the best pitcher in baseball -- he has had one of the best starts to a career of any pitcher we've ever seen.  

"I was pretty calm," Kershaw said that day. "I didn't expect to be, but it wasn't too bad. It might be hard to believe, but I really wasn't that nervous. I just knew that I could do it. These hitters are just like other hitters, except a little better and a little more experienced. So you've got to be smart."

And there were more takeaways from that day that would go on to prove to be accurate.

  • Russell Martin, his catcher that day: "He's going to be a great one, I think. We'll find out. In 15 years, you guys can let me know."
  • Joe Torre, his first manager: "He's certainly unique, with this kind of poise and stuff and polish at this age. He's the real deal."
  • And Pujols, who faced him for the first time that day: "I thought he had good stuff. I think it's fair to say he can have success at this level."

Here we are, a decade later, and those statements all seem pretty prophetic. Kershaw has been a once-in-generation talent and there are a few ways to look at that. 

ERA+ 

ERA+ is a stat that adjusts a pitcher's ERA for ballpark and compares it to the rest of the league -- 100 is average, and a score above 100 indicates the pitcher performed better than average.

Kershaw has a career ERA+ of 160 -- the all-time record is 154 by Pedro Martinez. In his first 10 seasons, Kershaw's ERA+ was 161, trailing only Walter Johnson (182) and Pedro (169) in a player's first 10 years in the big leagues.

Best ERA+ in first 10 seasons

MLB History (min. 1,000 IP)

PlayerERA+

Walter Johnson

182

Pedro Martinez

169

Clayton Kershaw

161

Pete Alexander

150

Roger Clemens

145

WAR

Kershaw has already been worth 59.8 Wins Above Replacement, which is more than 25 Hall of Fame pitchers, including Whitey Ford and Sandy Koufax.

Among those who debuted in the live ball era (since 1920), he's third in WAR in a pitcher's first 10 seasons, behind only Lefty Grove and Roger Clemens.

And he's third among active pitchers in WAR, barely behind CC Sabathia (60.5) and Justin Verlander (60.4), despite being 12th in innings pitched.

Generational dominance

Kershaw has turned in several of the best individual pitching seasons we've seen in this generation.

Since the mound was lowered after the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, Kershaw has two of the 12 best ERA seasons in the majors (1.77 in 2014 and 1.83 the following year). Only four starting pitchers have multiple seasons with an ERA below 2.00 since the mound was lowered in 1969: Greg Maddux, Clemens, Martínez and Kershaw.

In 2015, when he finished third in the Cy Young voting, he led the majors with 301 strikeouts, the first 300-K season since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both did it in 2002. He joined Johnson, Schilling and Martínez as the only pitchers with a 300-K season since Nolan Ryan retired.

The following season, a year cut short by injuries, he had 172 strikeouts and just 11 walks. That strikeout-to-walk ratio of 15.6 is by far the highest in a season in the modern era (since 1900) by a pitcher who made 20 starts.

That was shaping up to be his best season -- he finished with numbers that would've been career bests in ERA, ERA+, FIP, WHIP, K-to-BB ratio, opponents' BA, opponents' OBP and opponents' slugging percentage. And he was on pace for the best WAR season of his career.

Look at it this way. In the seasons that he did not win the Cy Young award, he has a 2.58 ERA with a 3.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Only 46 other pitchers have had a single season with those numbers in the live ball era, and Lefty Grove never did it.

Odds and ends

A few other things that are hard to believe about Kershaw:

  1. He's one of five pitchers to lead his league in ERA at least five times -- the others are Lefty Grove (9), Roger Clemens (7), Sandy Koufax (5) and Pedro Martínez (5).
  2. He's fifth all time in strikeouts in a pitcher's first 10 seasons, and he's second in strikeouts in a pitcher's first 300 appearances (trailing only Randy Johnson).
  3. He's only 30 years old, and he already has the third-most 10-K, zero-BB games (22) in major-league history. He trails Randy Johnson (36) and Curt Schilling (27) and is one ahead of Roger Clemens.
  4. Baseball-Reference uses Similarity Scores to compare pitchers at different points of their careers. The three pitchers Kershaw is most similar to through age 29 (he's 30 this season) are Pedro Martínez, Tom Seaver and Roger Clemens.
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