Clayton Kershaw won the 2011 Cy Young Award, and he did so because he had both the traditional stats and the advanced metrics, despite a razor-thin race with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. He didn’t win it in 2012, though he very arguably should have, because R.A. Dickey had both “wins” and a very compelling “old knuckleballer” narrative.
In 2013, Kershaw is again among the best pitchers in baseball, leading the game with a 1.91 ERA and currently standing at fourth with a 2.46 FIP, but his record is merely 10-8. It’s not too difficult to understand why:
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) August 7, 2013
That’s now seven games this year in which Kershaw has allowed two runs or fewer and not earned a win. He has no wins in any starts in which he has allowed three or more runs. Compare that to, say, Detroit’s Max Scherzer, who has five wins when allowing three or more runs.
While I think most baseball fans have done a decent job of accepting the “wins are bogus” line of thinking over the last few years, and it’s even allowed Zack Greinke & Felix Hernandez to win Cy Youngs that they might not have received in years past, the fact remains that there’s still a sizable portion of the public (and voters) who still rely on that as some sort of indication of pitching success. For example, Rick Sutcliffe noted on the broadcast of Monday night’s game that he felt Adam Wainwright was in the lead for the award simply because he has 13 wins, which is of course ridiculous.
That’s not to demean Wainwright, who has been unbelievable this year (156/21 K/BB!), or Mets sensation Matt Harvey, who has a better K/9, BB/9, and FIP than Kershaw (albeit over 27 fewer innings). You could probably make a pretty good case for any of the trio right now — no, not you, Francisco Liriano — and obviously we’ll need to revisit this once the final two months of the season are in the books.
But with a 10-7 record, what can Kershaw realistically end up with? The Dodgers have 50 games remaining, so let’s call that 46 by the time his next start comes up. That gives him about nine starts remaining in the regular season, and we’ll go with that for now, even though I’m not entirely convinced that we won’t see Stephen Fife back up to give everyone an additional day or two of rest, especially if the NL West is all but wrapped up in September.
He’s won 10 of his 24 starts, roughly ~41%, and if that pace keeps up he’d win 3.6 of his remaining nine, so let’s say four. Toss in a loss or two and a few no-decisions, and if 14-9 sounds familiar, well, that’s exactly what he had last year. It’s not unprecedented to win a Cy Young with that — Felix Hernandez was 13-12 when he win the AL award in 2010 — but Hernandez’ 2.27 ERA made him the only candidate that year even under three.
Really, that’s the answer here. Kershaw’s not going to top Wainwright in wins, and he’s not likely to lead the league in K/9 or BB/9 or FIP, either. (He may get “raw strikeouts,” because he’ll pitch more than Harvey, and that is valuable in itself.) But he does carry that sub-2 ERA, and that’s a number that remains eye-popping despite the well-known flaws in that stat. If Kershaw finishes with an ERA that begins with a “one”, it will be one of just ten similar pitcher-seasons in the last 30 years, and the first since Roger Clemens in 2005.
That’s the stat that’s going to help Kershaw overcome what’s likely to be a decent-but-not-great record, and while I’d love it if we never even had to discuss his wins ever, we all know that it’s going to be present in the minds of voters. If his ERA starts with a one, he wins. If it doesn’t, even if it’s 2.03 or 2.11 or something? I’m not so sure.
Besides, Kershaw has to win the Cy Young, because it will be incredibly awkward if he doesn’t — as Schoenfield rightfully points out, Kershaw’s greatness plus a lack of a Miguel Cabrera / Mike Trout standout star in the National League puts him squarely in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. Imagine if a pitcher won MVP but not the Cy Young? As a fan of chaos — if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll note that I’ve been rooting for Alex Rodriguez to hit 28 homers this week — that’s a pretty fun idea, I have to admit. But personally, I’d rather Kershaw just win every award that he deserves. Wins be damned, as usual.