Is It Unreasonable to Expect Great Things From Clayton Kershaw?

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.

Or can you?

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:

Rk Player ERA+ 6 IP Year Age Tm Lg G GS W L ERA HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1 Dwight Gooden 228 276.2 1985 20 NYM NL 35 35 24 4 1.53 13 .201 .254 .270 .524 52
2 Vida Blue 185 312.0 1971 21 OAK AL 39 39 24 8 1.82 19 .189 .251 .272 .523 55
3 Mark Prior 178 211.1 2003 22 CHC NL 30 30 18 6 2.43 15 .231 .283 .352 .635 68
4 Sam McDowell 161 273.0 1965 22 CLE AL 42 35 17 11 2.18 9 .185 .286 .244 .531 56
5 Bert Blyleven 158 325.0 1973 22 MIN AL 40 40 20 17 2.52 16 .242 .284 .334 .618 71
6 Mark Fidrych 158 250.1 1976 21 DET AL 31 29 19 9 2.34 12 .235 .277 .301 .579 67
7 Larry Dierker 151 305.1 1969 22 HOU NL 39 37 20 13 2.33 18 .214 .261 .316 .578 68
8 Gary Nolan 147 226.2 1967 19 CIN NL 33 32 14 8 2.58 18 .228 .282 .335 .617 74
9 Oliver Perez 145 196.0 2004 22 PIT NL 30 30 12 10 2.98 22 .207 .295 .359 .655 73
10 Bret Saberhagen 145 235.1 1985 21 KCR AL 32 32 20 6 2.87 19 .241 .271 .357 .628 70
11 Jon Matlack 144 244.0 1972 22 NYM NL 34 32 15 10 2.32 14 .234 .289 .333 .623 85
12 Dennis Eckersley 144 186.2 1975 20 CLE AL 34 24 13 7 2.60 16 .215 .310 .322 .631 79
13 Britt Burns 143 238.0 1980 21 CHW AL 34 32 15 13 2.84 17 .241 .293 .348 .641 74
14 Clayton Kershaw 141 171.0 2009 21 LAD NL 31 30 8 8 2.79 7 .200 .306 .282 .588 63
15 Bill Stafford 140 195.0 1961 21 NYY AL 36 25 14 9 2.68 13 .232 .294 .329 .622 76
16 Mark Buehrle 140 221.1 2001 22 CHW AL 32 32 16 8 3.29 24 .230 .279 .377 .656 68

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.

0 comments

Trackbacks

  1. [...] have stirred some feelings among Dodger fans, MSTI takes the Dodger blogger point of view that is it not unreasonable to expect great things from Clayton Kershaw while ESPN Insider and Seattle Blogger David Cameron asked "Is Clayton Kershaw Already [...]