You've read a lot about Clayton Kershaw recently, probably. That's not because he's been doing anything different, but because he's continued to do what he's done for the last several years, and given what his recent past looks like, keeping it up for any period of time is well worth remembering. He's ten starts and 79 innings into another incredible season, featuring a 1.38 FIP and a 1.78 DRA, good for 3.8 fWAR and 3.1 WARP, respectively. He's on top of both those WAR leaderboards by a full win.
Kershaw has frequently invited comparisons to the other transcendent pitchers of the last few decades, most notably Pedro Martinez. Ben Lindbergh, then of Grantland, wrote a highly enjoyable skewering of that comparison in late-2014, and it reflected what seemed like the general consensus among the high-information baseball consumer: While Kershaw was really good, he wasn't yet challenging Pedro or the other greats, and he wouldn't be without continuing his dominant ways for quite some time. Since Ben's article published, Kershaw has thrown 332 2/3 innings across 46 starts, and in that period he's had an ERA of 2.00 and a FIP of 1.79. He's struck out one in every three batters, and walked only one in twenty-five. This is why you've been reading about him so much—he's been doing this for long enough, and at a high enough level, that he's putting himself in the conversation with the best of all time.
There are lots of people much smarter than me who can tell you why and how Kershaw is doing what he's doing, and I"m not going to try. Instead, I want to point out another milestone or threshold Kershaw is approaching. WAR is supposed to be usable across time frames; part of the idea is that an eight-win season in 1950 is worth the same as an eight-win season in 1970. Still, I always find myself looking to see where seasons rank compared to their peers. An eight-win season in a year when no other pitcher cleared six WAR is a lot more impressive than an eight-win season in a year when three other pitchers were in double digits. I'm not saying that's a correct application of WAR, necessarily, but I think it's the truth.
FanGraphs has data running back to 1871, and the creation of the National Association of Professional Ballplayers. In the 145 seasons since, there have been 149 pitchers to either lead or be tied for the lead in fWAR in a given season. Kershaw's not been around long enough to challenge the players who have led for the most years; Cy Young is sitting on top, with nine seasons as the best, followed by Lefty Grove with eight and Walter Johnson and Roger Clemens with six. Kershaw is only in his ninth full season, but that makes the following all the more incredible.
Four players were the best pitcher in the league for four consecutive seasons: Cy Young, twice, from 1893–1896 and 1899–1902; Lefty Grove, from 1929–1932; Robin Roberts, from 1951–1954; and Steve Carlton, from 1980–1983. Kershaw, as you might've guessed by now, has led the league in WAR for three consecutive seasons, and he's currently sitting on a massive lead in his fourth. This is an incredibly elite club; all four of those players are inner-circle Hall of Famers, and the only other player with three consecutive seasons, Roger Clemens, probably should be as well. Kershaw is on the verge of joining them.
Really, that's what's been outstanding about Kershaw over the last 18 months. He probably hasn't pitched at the level of Pedro's 1999 or 2000, or any of the other incredible single seasons, like Sandy Koufax's 1965 or Randy Johnson's 2001. What he's done is come pretty close, matching many of their numbers but in a much more friendly pitching environment, and done so for three and a half straight years. When he started blowing away the competition across all of baseball, Jake Arrieta was still an Oriole, and Kershaw simply hasn't stopped since. Very, very few people have done anything like that.
Obviously, this is jumping the gun a bit, since 2016 is less than one-third complete, and it's plausible that Kershaw could falter. But recall the beginning of the article: he's leading the rest of the league by a full win! The next closest player by fWAR is Noah Syndergaard, and if Kershaw stopped pitching today, Syndergaard—who's thrown 60 innings with a 1.69 FIP, and also been outstanding—would need to throw another 30 such innings, just to erase the deficit Kershaw has created. That's half his season! This is the second-best pitcher in baseball right now, and Kershaw is just wrecking him.
There's an argument to be made that this isn't using WAR correctly, and that it's more important what figure someone gets than whether or not there's anyone higher than them. Possibly true! Irrelevant, however, to how a player makes you feel. If Kershaw had been cloned, and there were two of him mowing down anything resembling a batter, it would be less special. He's standing alone, at the very top of the league, where he's been standing for three years already and might be standing for another year or (fingers crossed) two or three. He's in incredibly rarified air, doing things nearly no one has done before.
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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.