Steve Dilbeck’s post today in the born-again LA Times “Dodgers Blog” got me thinking about Clayton Kershaw. Almost every review of the Dodger offseason has included a dig at the club’s failure to land a quality veteran starting pitcher, and usually included something along the lines of Kershaw “having talent, but is too young to count on.” It’s not unfair of others to say that, because it’s nothing all Dodger fans haven’t said before – so often, in fact, that it’s basically an accepted fact. You just can’t count on a guy who will only be 22, with just 51 career starts.
Sure, 22′s young. But it’s also not like he’s 18, trying to come to the bigs directly out of high school as though he’s some modern-day David Clyde. And sure, 51 starts isn’t a lot. But nor is it zero starts, and there have been pitchers with far less experience who’ve managed to succeed that quickly.
In fact, there’s been quite a few. If baseball has seen other guys do it, why couldn’t Kershaw take that next step – this year? Let’s compare him to others who have had success at such a young age.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Kershaw is guaranteed to be a Hall of Famer like some on this list, nor am I saying that if he doesn’t meet these lofty standards in 2010, that’s he a failure. Far from it; if he can make it through the season healthy and show some improvement on his walk totals while keeping up a similar level of domination as he already showed last year, that counts as a huge success for me.
So I wanted to know: how often has someone Kershaw’s age pitched at least 162 innings, and did so with at least a league-average ERA or better? Thanks to the invaluable baseball-reference, we can quickly find out that there have been 139 such seasons since the expansion of 1961. Here’s the top seasons:
It’s an impressive list. Eckersley is a Hall of Famer, Blyleven should be, and Gooden would have been if he’d kept his nose clean. Saberhagen won two Cy Youngs, while Vida Blue won an MVP, a Cy Young, and made 6 All-Star teams (as did Sam McDowell). Kershaw’s ERA+ of 141 places him 14th on that list, while his OPS+ against ranks him 7th. Out of 139, that’s pretty good just on its face, but remember – Kershaw did that at only 21, so he still has another season in which to improve his standing in this grouping.
And not to go completely overboard here, but how about comparing Kershaw to the top season on this list, Dwight Gooden’s magical 1985? Each pitcher was about equally difficult to get any hits off of (Gooden: .201 BA, Kershaw: .200 BA), and if anyone did get the bat on the ball, neither allowed many big hits (Gooden: .270 SLG, Kershaw: .282 SLG). Gooden’s obvious advantage was that he threw 276 innings, allowed fewer walks, and had gaudy traditional numbers – going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA.
It’s that which makes me wonder if Kershaw isn’t a little underrated simply by something we should all know doesn’t matter anymore – wins. No one on the list had more than Gooden’s 24 wins (Blue was tied). Kershaw, meanwhile, was tied for 135th out of 139 with his 8 wins. How much differently would we be thinking about him right now if he’d gone, say, 14-4 rather than 8-8? Despite all we know about wins, the fact is that being a “.500 pitcher” still gets you a stigma, even when you strike out 13 and allow 1 hit, yet get a no-decision in your second start of the season, or pitch seven scoreless innings in May and don’t get the win. Or 5.2 scoreless in June. Or seven scoreless in August. Or six scoreless on the next-to-last day of the season.
Point being, Kershaw got robbed of a lot of wins last season, and even though we know that wins don’t matter, in the world of perception, they do. And despite our high expectations for a player so young, it’s not as though Kershaw is blazing a completely new trail, here. Young players can succeed, if they have the talent and opportunity, and I think it’s clear that Kershaw has both.