Think back to last August. Matt Harvey tore his UCL and was set to undergo Tommy John Surgery at some point in the not-too-distant future. Justin Verlander wasn't terrible, but he was clearly going through the earliest stages of decline. Jose Fernandez was still proving himself. The title of best pitcher in baseball was completely and utterly the property of Clayton Kershaw. Pitchers seem to hold onto that title for a couple of years at a time, so it's not surprising that Clayton Kershaw remains the game's best starter. No that isn't surprising at all. What's surprising, if you subscribe to the theory that Kershaw is a human being at all, is that he's somehow gotten significantly better the year after he emerged as the unquestioned ace of the league.
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Let's examine the facts before us. Kershaw missed about five starts with an injury this season and still ranks second in fWAR with 3.4 (entering Saturday) despite throwing only 87.1 innings to date. To give you an idea, Felix Hernandez leads baseball with 4.8 but has thrown almost 130 innings. Chris Sale, Jake Arrieta, and Anibal Sanchez are the only other pitchers in the top 30 in fWAR who haven't tossed at least 100 innings. Kershaw is second in the league even though he's about 30 innings behind most of his competition. He's all the way down at 7th in RA9-WAR.
But we don't need to worry about cumulative stats like WAR when assessing a pitcher's quality over the first half of a season. Total value matters, but we really care about the performance while on the mound without focusing on time missed due to injury.
So remember when Kershaw was clearly the best pitcher in the sport after last year and signed a $215 million extension? Sure you do. Now let's see how he's respond to the fame and fortune.
My god. But that means ... oh ...
So you mean to tell me that we might not have seen Kershaw's peak? Can we put this into context?
Right now, Kershaw has the best single season xFIP- of any pitcher to throw at least 70 innings in a season not named Eric Gagne in 2003. In other words, the top nine list of best xFIP- is a bunch of relievers and Kershaw. Curt Schilling shows up at 10th with a whopping 52. Kershaw is at 44. Granted, we only have xFIP back to 2002. If you want FIP- dating back to 1969 for instance, Kershaw is 15th among pitchers with at least 70 innings. The list ahead of him consists of relievers and peak Pedro Martinez. That probably says it all.
Well there you have it. Clayton Kershaw was the best, richest, most feared pitcher in baseball five months ago and then decided to get even better. A few weeks ago I asked around regarding which current starting pitchers had a clear path to the Hall of Fame. Verlander, Hernandez, and Kershaw were consensus picks. Some others got votes, but think about this for a second. Kershaw is 26 years old. He's not dominating the league by as much and as young as Mike Trout, but he's not that far off.
Kershaw is entering the years in which a pitcher normally peaks and if he's actually going to peak higher than we've already seen, things are going to get out of hand in a hurry. It's likely, however, that Kershaw is going to peak early and his ages 25-27 seasons are going to be his best. But I probably would have said that about his ages 24-26 season if you asked me that a year ago.
Kershaw is a humanitarian and a world class athlete. And I've gone an entire article about his dominance without feeling the need to mention his near perfect game or any of his otherworldly pitches. It seems superfluous. He's quite likely the best of his generation and the National League hitters who are asked to face him regularly are probably hoping they've seen the worst of it. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear as if they have.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, a contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow @NeilWeinberg44