Before his disastrous start in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, Clayton Kershaw had been his usual dominant self this October. After surrendering just one earned run in his first three postseason starts, a familiar thought crossed my mind: This guy is only 25 years old? Really?
By this time, you probably know much of the Clayton Kershaw story. A dominant high school pitcher, Kershaw was drafted seventh overall by Los Angeles and emerged on the big league scene at age 20. He’s a big lefty with a brilliant fastball and the curve that made Vin Scully drool. In 2013, Kershaw put together the best season of his career to this point: 16-9, 1.83 ERA, 194 adjusted ERA+, a league-leading 232 strikeouts. Whether you prefer Baseball-Reference (7.9) or Fangraphs (6.5), he posted the highest wins above replacement total of any pitcher in the big leagues.
Not only is Kershaw a good bet to win his second NL Cy Young Award, there’s an argument to be made that he was the Most Valuable Player in the National League, as well. In case you hadn’t noticed, Clayton Kershaw is good at throwing baseballs. And, once again: he’s only 25 years old. Remarkable, right?
As it turns out (and you won’t be surprised by this, unless you haven’t been paying attention), Kershaw has, in fact, been historically good. Here are the top ten pitchers in baseball history, judging by bWAR, through age 25:
1. Walter Johnson: 59.6
2. Bert Blyleven: 44.0
3. Christy Mathewson: 40.2
4. Bob Feller: 37.3
5. Hal Newhouser: 37.1
6. Don Drysdale: 34.2
7. Dwight Gooden: 33.2
8. Frank Tanana: 32.5
9. Bret Saberhagen: 32.3
10. Clayton Kershaw: 32.2
Pretty heady company, eh? The first six names on that list, of course, are Hall of Famers. Another thing stands out about that group: Kershaw is the only pitcher listed who wasn’t a teenager when he made his major league debut. As WAR is a cumulative statistic, it makes Kershaw’s performance look even more impressive. In fact, Kershaw has thrown far fewer innings (1,180) through his age-25 season than any other pitcher here (though he actually started more games than Saberhagen or Feller).
(On second thought, many other things stand out about those guys listed above. How about this: Walter Johnson had thrown 198 complete games by age 25. Or this: Blyleven had lost 101 of his 209 decisions to that point, despite the second-best bWAR and more strikeouts (1,546) than any 25-year-old in history. By all means, however, let’s keep judging pitchers by their win totals.)
If we look at fWAR, Kershaw drops to 13th on the list:
1. Blyleven, 49.0
2. Johnson, 47.0
3. Gooden, 39.6
4. Newhouser, 35.9
5. Mathewson, 35.2
6. Drysdale, 34.1
7. Feller, 33.2
8. Roger Clemens, 32.6
9. Saberhagen, 31.9
10. Fernando Valenzuela, 31.8
11. Larry Dierker, 30.0
12. Felix Hernandez, 29.3
13. Kershaw, 28.4
Clemens actually threw fewer innings than Kershaw through age 25 (1031.1), and started 43 fewer games. Of course, Clemens didn’t make his major league debut until he was 21 years old. Plus, he’s a Hall of Famer (although whether he’ll ever be inducted remains a mystery; he’s in my Hall of Fame, which is what matters. To me.). Kershaw doesn’t exactly suffer in that comparison. Almost no one was as good as Clemens.
If we limit our examination to live-ball era pitchers (post-1919) and take a look at some rate stats, Kershaw looks even better. His ERA+ (146) is better than any other pitcher through age 25. Kershaw’s ERA of 2.60 is second only to Tom Seaver’s 2.49. His rate of strikeouts per nine innings (9.2) is second-best, behind Sudden Sam McDowell (9.54) and ahead of Clemens, Gooden, and King Felix Hernandez.
After the Dodgers finished off the Braves in the Division Series, I was struck by the moment Kershaw shared with Sandy Koufax (and not just because Koufax looked awesome in his ski goggles). Here stood the greatest pitcher in Dodger history (sorry, Don Drysdale) alongside a youngster who has a real chance of earning that title by the time he’s finished.
We have been looking at Kershaw through this age-25 lens; Koufax was only 54-53 by that age, with a 3.94 ERA, 105 ERA+, and 12.3 WAR, despite debuting as a 19-year-old. His next five years, however, were the span that turned Koufax into a legend. From ages 26 to 30 (and the end of his career), Koufax was 111-34 with a 1.95 ERA, 167 ERA+, and 40.9 WAR. Top that, Kershaw.
(By the way, it never fails to astound me that Koufax posted 10.3 wins above replacement in his final season. What might have been, indeed.)
Yes, Kershaw has some work to do if he wants to be included in the “greatest Dodger pitcher ever” conversation. If he does win his second Cy Young this season, Kershaw will already be within striking distance of Koufax’s three awards. Barring injury, the next few seasons are going to be very fun to watch, as Kershaw enters his prime. Is it possible that he could get even better than he was in 2013? Dare we imagine such a scenario?
Kershaw fell short this season in his attempt to add a World Series championship to his resume. In this category, as well, he’s chasing that other great Dodger lefthander. Koufax owns three championship rings.