The leading NL Cy Young Award contender is Kershaw, obviously

Jeff Gross

Matt Harvey may be a more exciting pitcher and Adam Wainwright has been a good pitcher for longer, but Clayton Kershaw is having a historically good season, on top of his prior excellence. He could allow 11 earned runs in his next start, not record an out, and still lead the majors in ERA. Sabermetricians should be careful not to misapply regressed statistics like FIP and xFIP when judging Kershaw's performance, or they'll miss how good the Claw is.

This should be the third Cy Young Award for Clayton Kershaw in a row. Look back at last year's stats and be honest with yourself that R.A. Dickey only won it because he throws a novelty pitch. Kershaw deserved to win the Cy Young Award in 2011 (and did), deserved it last year, and deserves it again this year. This is one of the finest stretches of pitching anyone has ever produced in the game. We're talking Pedro Martinez in 1997–2003, Greg Maddux in 1992–1995, Sandy Koufax in 1962–1966. Seriously. Look over Kershaw's five full seasons in the big leagues.

Year ERA BABIP K% BB% HR/9 IP
2009 2.79 .269 26.4 13.0 .37 171.1
2010 2.91 .275 25.0 9.6 .57 204.1
2011 2.28 .269 27.2 5.9 .58 233.1
2012 2.53 .262 25.4 7.0 .63 227.2
2013 1.72 .231 25.0 5.7 .41 198.1

That's a steady climb toward brilliance. And yet, some sabermetric theories don’t quite give Kershaw his due. Defense-independent pitching being all the rage, the Claw’s brilliance is robbed from him by automatic regression. Whereas Kershaw leads everyone in the majors in ERA by half a run, he is fourth in FIP and sixth in xFIP. As a consequence, he trails both Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright in the all-important WAR category in FanGraphs' FIP-based formula. It puts him among peers again. Basically, Kershaw's ERA this year is so staggeringly low that any argument for another Cy Young candidate has to find a way to ignore it. But to ignore it is irresponsible.

Regression-based statistcs are useful when we want to approximate a pitcher's actual or future performance given uncertainty about the pitcher's relationship to specific variablesBABIP and home run rate, for example. But Kershaw has proven for several years now that a league-average BABIP is a terrible estimate of his true ability level and future performance. He may pitch in Dodger Stadium, but his career road BABIP, .270, is hardly different from the .265 he posts at homeand considerably below NL starters' average over that time frame (.294).

Even this season's absurdly low .231 BABIP looks realistic when you look at his splits. The highest it's been in any month is .267 (in June), and it hasn't been close to that otherwise. The red dotted line in the graph below is the NL season average and the green dotted line is Kershaw's season average. If anything, it looks like June was an outlier and was "corrected" by the .200 BABIP he posted in July. BABIP is also down this year among all three of his major pitches (fastball, slider, and curveball).

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Oh, and the mean rate for NL starters to allow home runs since is 2009 is 0.98/9 innings. Kershaw's rate since then is 0.58, so regressing his home run rates is also not particularly useful when looking at his xFIP.

The picture looks different when you take out the regression. Here's NL pitchers' WAR based on RA9 instead of FIP:

RA9 WAR
Clayton Kershaw 7.9
Matt Harvey 6.0
Patrick Corbin 5.9
Adam Wainwright 5.4
Jose Fernandez 4.8

The Claw towers over everyone. For much the same reasons, he also leads all pitchers by a wide margin in WAR at Baseball Reference, which uses runs instead of FIP as its basis. Kershaw's exceptional performance deserves to be treated with an appropriate level of respect. The numbers he's posted need to be looked at on their own merits and not regressed to the league average. Some degree of improvement beyond his past seasons could be expected anyway, given his youth—he's still just 25!

With all those caveats in mind, let's compare Kershaw directly with his main competitors for the NL Cy Young, Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright.

AVG ERA IP/GS K% BB% K/BB HR/9 waaWL%*
Clayton Kershaw .180 1.72 7.3 25.0 5.7 4.37 .41 .705
Matt Harvey .199 2.27 6.9 27.7 4.5 6.16 .35 .660
Adam Wainwright .240 2.58 7.4 23.5 3.2 7.28 .45 .667

Kershaw leads by plenty on runs and hits, as well as projected winning percentage, and has gone as deep into games as Wainwright has. All three pitchers have posted tiny home run rates. Kershaw and Wainwright have gone slightly longer into games than Harvey has. The only knock against the lefty is that he is only ranked fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio, while the others are ranked higher. I choose to downplay something like K/BB ratio when a guy would have the 10th-lowest single-season ERA of the Live Ball Era if the season ended today. And he's only gotten better in the second half, while Wainwright and Harvey have slipped.

If things stay the way they are, Kershaw will lead the NL in ERA and WHIP for the third straight year, and H/9 for the fourth in five. He'll have allowed one or fewer runs with at least seven innings pitched in 16 of his 27 starts. (And he'll have done with some of the worst run support given to any starter this year.) He'll finish first in Win Probability Added and RE24 for pitchers, too. This is Koufaxian domination, a stretch of games and seasons when any start could become a complete game shutout. It's pitching at its finest, and it should be recognized as such.

*waaWL% is a statistic provided by Baseball Reference which estimates the winning percentage of a team starring a given player and an otherwise completely average roster.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.

Dan Rozenson is a writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SixToolPlayer.

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