So let’s this get out of the way. Clayton Kershaw probably won’t win the Cy Young award. He was otherworldly before his back injury. "Otherworldly" is pretty much Kershaw’s default setting, yes, but let’s look at the facts.
Kershaw has walked nine men all year. That’s over the course of 124 innings pitched. Never mind the 150 strikeouts, since that’s par for the course. Nine walks. Justin Verlander has walked 49 in an even 200 innings this year. Kershaw’s feat has never been done before. He’s the first in the history of the game to strike out 150 without compiling double-digit walks.
That all being said, because he’s thrown only 124 innings, and not the 203 of Max Scherzer or the 167 of Jose Fernandez, a Kershaw Cy Young campaign is going to be a tough sell to the voters. There’s little question that Kershaw has been the most flat-out dominant starter this year, and likely in some time. Yet the injury has limited Kershaw’s body of work and also eliminated time in which he could have theoretically regressed to somewhat human levels of performance. Scherzer and Fernandez have been slightly less dominant, but their success has been over larger periods of time. Kershaw doesn’t even qualify for the ERA title at the moment.
So what, exactly, would Kershaw have to do to mount a notable last-minute Cy Young campaign at this point?
Assuming that Kershaw pitches every fifth game without a hitch, he has just four starts left, including today’s game against the Yankees in the Bronx. Following that, he will face the Giants and Rockies in LA (so he avoids Coors Field), and the Giants again, this time in San Francisco.
The Yankees start will be his second since coming off the DL. In his first, he threw only three somewhat erratic innings. Manager Dave Roberts says that in the Yankees game, they’ll monitor him inning by inning to see how deep Kershaw will go into the game. It’s fair to assume that Kershaw may pitch five or six innings at most, and that he'll be allowed to go progressively deeper into games in his next three starts if all signs are good from a health perspective.
Because this is Kershaw we’re talking about, though, we’re allowed to get a little dramatic. Let’s say that the chains magically come off for the first Giants game, because reasons. The Giants are far from the team they once were. They are stumbling along like drunken toddlers with their shoelaces tied together, doing everything in their power to not fall over and drop their ice cream cones. Kershaw, rejuvenated from five strong shutout innings in the Bronx, adds on seven more scoreless frames.
When the Rockies roll into town, he does even better. He mows down the team he once threw his near-perfect game against, tossing eight zeros up on the board while striking out eleven. He has still not issued his tenth walk of the year.
Then comes the trip to San Francisco to close out the year. The Giants have nearly dropped their ice cream cones at this point. Their bullpen has gone from seemingly allowing three runs every day to nearly actually doing so. Buster Posey still hasn’t gone deep since July because of a back injury of his own. Kershaw mows them down one by one, spinning a masterful complete game that was nearly a no-hitter until Rob Segedin misplays a ball into a triple in the outfield.
This incredibly unlikely sequence of events is just that, unlikely. "Unlikely" seems like a very light term for this.
But the thing is, this is Clayton Kershaw. Would anyone really bat an eye if Kershaw goes out there and shoves for the rest of the season? Of course not. He’s the best pitcher of his generation and already well on his way to the Hall of Fame. If there’s any man in the league capable of some last-minute theatrics, it’s Kershaw.
He may not even need them. Among pitchers with at least 120 innings thrown, Kershaw is still the leader in DRA at 2.05, with Fernandez behind him at 2.19. He has clearly been the best pitcher in baseball, and he's set a new all-time great mark for limiting walks while he’s been at it. A few more dominant starts would simply be the icing on the cake for a fantastic year, injury be damned. Of the 455 batters he’s faced, nine got a free pass. Nine.
He isn’t a shoo-in because of the lack of innings. How he’ll perform over the last few weeks of the season is anyone’s guess. Yet with Kershaw, greatness should almost be expected every time he takes the mound. It’s practically news when he gives up three runs. Post-DL rust will make his attempt at an award a struggle. It still might somehow happen, though, because sports are made for the most unlikely of magic.
More likely than not, this is a waste of virtual column inches. More likely than not, Kershaw will trudge his way to the playoffs, and then he’ll try to shut down the ridiculous narrative that he can’t perform in the postseason.
But if there’s one man who can put together an unimaginable, titanic final run to the Cy Young award, it’s Clayton Kershaw.
Nicolas Stellini is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for Baseball Prospectus and BP Bronx. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.