As a senior in college, I have spent much of the last three years watching people make bad decisions. I am confident, though, that I have not seen anything that compares to a decision made earlier this summer, when the National League players, coaches, and managers initially decided to leave Clayton Kershaw off the 2015 All-Star Game roster. Going into the All-Star Break, Kershaw was second in the NL in fielding independent pitching (FIP) (2.46), second in FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR) (3.8), first in strikeout rate (K%) (32.7%), and first in expected FIP (xFIP) (2.17). To most people, Kershaw was still the consensus "best pitcher in the world," even if Max Scherzer and Chris Sale were having comparable first halves.
It seems safe to say that Kershaw's 6-6 record and 2.85 ERA were the main reasons he was initially left off the roster. After all, these are the only statistics where Kershaw wasn't clearly one of the best two or three pitchers in the National League heading into the All-Star Break. I find it odd that major league players, coaches, and managers (who supposedly understand the game better than we ever could) cannot understand what factors make a pitcher good and what things a pitcher can and cannot control, but that is a conversation for another day.
Of course, Kershaw has been even more dominant since the All-Star Break, posting a 1.04/1.49/1.98 ERA/FIP/xFIP line with 3.5 fWAR in 78 innings pitched. Because of a better second half batting average on balls in play (BABIP) (.246) and strand rate (88.6 percent), Kershaw's 2015 ERA of 2.15 is now in line with his peripherals, leading to increased chatter about him winning a third straight National League Cy Young Award. While I would argue that Kershaw has actually been one of the top Cy Young candidates all year, I agree that, given the way things stand right now, he should be the prohibitive favourite for the award.
As our own Neil Weinberg pointed out over at Fangraphs a few weeks back, Kershaw's primary competition for the Cy Young award will probably come from his own teammate Zack Greinke, who currently has a flashy but misleading 1.59 ERA. Greinke is second among starting pitchers with a .235 BABIP and first in strand rate at 85.9 percent (nearly four percentage points higher than the next best strand rate). Greinke's career numbers include a .300 BABIP and a 74.8 percent strand rate, so it is pretty safe to say that Greinke has had an unusually fortunate season in 2015.
Kershaw, on the other hand, has been successful despite not having the same amount of luck. While his ERA ranks third behind Greinke and Jake Arrieta (2.03), Kershaw is first among all MLB starters in a wide range of metrics: K%, K-BB%, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. All told, Kershaw leads all pitchers with 7.3 fWAR, well ahead of Arrieta (5.8 fWAR) and Greinke (5.3 fWAR). If we want to go one step further, it could be argued that Kershaw is also a candidate for a second straight NL MVP award, as he trails only Bryce Harper in fWAR. I find this scenario unlikely, though, given Harper's sizeable lead at the moment, and that the award will not simply be the fWAR leaderboard. In fact, it is quite possible that Kershaw will finish as the runner up in the Cy Young race, as there are still plenty of voters who will find it difficult to look beyond Greinke's remarkably low ERA.
Kershaw coming up short in the NL Cy Young race this year would be unusual, especially given that he appears to be having the best season of his already sparkling career. Has anything changed to make him that much more effective? Well, according to Brooks Baseball, his average fastball velocity is at its highest point since 2009, which may explain his career best 33.7 percent strikeout rate. That, and Kershaw is also doing a better job of keeping the ball on the ground, as his GB/FB ratio is a career best 1.88 this season. While he probably won't match his ridiculously low 49 FIP- from last season due to his slightly above average HR/FB ratio this year, he is projected to provide more overall value this year than he did last year, as his rest of season ZiPS projection has him finishing the year with 8.4 fWAR.
If Kershaw is able to best Greinke for the NL Cy Young award, as I believe he should, he will be in rare company with four Cy Young Awards. Being mentioned alongside players like Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens indicates how great Kershaw is. What's more, is that in 2012, the one year in the last five that Kershaw didn't win the award, he still led NL pitchers in fWAR, so a case could be made for him winning five Cy Young Awards in a row. After all the early-season panicking over his numbers, Kershaw has gone on yet another unbelievable run of dominance, showing once again that his "best pitcher on the planet" reputation is completely justified.