Clayton Kershaw and the Others by Jeff Sullivan November 12, 2014 I understand why the BBWAA announces finalists for awards before it announces the winners — they’re trying to build some suspense, some anticipation, and, okay, that’s fine, even if the finalists don’t tell us much we couldn’t predict. For example, we’ve long known the AL Cy Young was going to come down to Felix Hernandez vs. Corey Kluber. All the non-contenders have been officially eliminated, which does nothing. It’s even funnier when you get a race that isn’t a race at all, like Jose Abreu and the AL Rookie of the Year. Or, say, Clayton Kershaw and the NL Cy Young. According to the BBWAA, Kershaw is a finalist, along with Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright. The ESPN forecast is somewhat torn between Felix and Kluber, in one league. In the other league, it’s less torn: Unanimous, in other words. And this is the way things are likely to play out. Clayton Kershaw ought to get every single first-place vote, because of the gap between himself and the others. You can eyeball the gap if you want, but we can also put some numbers to the idea. What would it have taken for Kershaw to come away resembling Cueto or Wainwright? It’s already been determined, unofficially, that Chris Sale isn’t winning the AL Cy Young because he spent time on the DL. He wasn’t sufficiently better than Felix or Kluber to make up for the missing playing time. That’s not an issue with Kershaw, who was also hurt, and who finished with fewer innings than Cueto and Wainwright. Giving the award to Kershaw will be slightly uncharacteristic, in that the BBWAA has historically preferred durability, but the difference between his performance and the other performances is so large that there’s not even really a question. Here’s a table! You understand it. Name IP ERA- FIP- wOBA Clayton Kershaw 198.3 50 51 0.233 Johnny Cueto 243.7 61 88 0.259 Adam Wainwright 227.0 66 79 0.259 By ERA-, you’re looking at a gap of 11 points between Kershaw and Cueto. By FIP-, it’s 28 points, between Kershaw and Wainwright. By wOBA allowed, it’s 26 points between Kershaw and the other two guys. So, consider that Kershaw threw fewer innings than his competition. What would it take to reduce Kershaw’s numbers to the other numbers, over equivalent innings? Let’s compare Kershaw and Cueto first. Cueto threw 45.1 more innings than Kershaw did. So let’s give Kershaw a hypothetical 45.1 more innings. What would his numbers need to look like over that stretch to equal Cueto’s? We start with a 109 ERA-, more than double Kershaw’s actual ERA-. If Kershaw posted a 109 ERA- over 45.1 more innings, he would’ve equaled Cueto. That works out to a 4.37 ERA. That’s not completely nuts, but we’re also not finished. How about FIP-? Now you’re looking at a 250 FIP- over 45.1 more innings, working out to a 9.82 FIP. As for wOBA allowed, you’d be asking for Kershaw to allow a .352 wOBA over 212 more batters. That’s asking Kershaw to allow the average hitter to hit like 2014 Adrian Gonzalez. Okay! Now Kershaw and Wainwright. Wainwright threw 28.2 more innings than Kershaw did, so, let’s give Kershaw a hypothetical 28.2 more innings. What would his numbers need to look like over that stretch to equal Wainwright’s? We start with a 177 ERA-, more than triple Kershaw’s actual ERA-. That works out to a 6.59 ERA. And as for FIP-? You’re looking at a 273 FIP-, working out to a 10.28 FIP. For wOBA allowed, you’d be asking for Kershaw to allow a .389 wOBA over 149 more batters. That’s asking Kershaw to allow the average hitter to hit like 2014 Edwin Encarnacion. That’s how big the gap was between Clayton Kershaw and the next-best starting pitchers in his league, according to the BBWAA. In order to make up the difference, given Kershaw’s lower innings total, you’d be looking for him to pitch somewhere between very poorly and impossibly poorly. By the fielding-independent metrics, the difference between Kershaw and Cueto or Wainwright was a few dozen innings of pitching like a position player. That’s why Kershaw should win the 2014 NL Cy Young with every first-place vote possible. What’s funny is that, a year ago, Kershaw won the NL Cy Young, with all but one first-place vote. Kershaw did that a year ago, and then he got better. He lopped a chunk off his walk rate. He increased his strikeouts by 25%. He generated more grounders. Kershaw last season posted a 2.88 xFIP, and then he dropped that this season to a 2.08 xFIP, and Kershaw, historically, has pitched better than his xFIP. There are people trying to manufacture a debate about Clayton Kershaw vs. Madison Bumgarner. No. It’s insane. That’s insane. A handful of October appearances doesn’t erase what Kershaw has been able to accomplish, in 2014 and beyond 2014. Consider the season that just happened. Going all the way back to 1900 for some reason, there are 8,489 qualified pitcher seasons. Kershaw’s 2014 just ranked 31st by ERA-, 10th by FIP-, and 10th by a blend of ERA- and FIP-. In other words, by ERA-, Kershaw ranked in the top 0.4%. By FIP-, he ranked in the top 0.12%, and the same could be said of his blended stats. Names of the pitchers who had seasons that beat Kershaw’s blended ERA/FIP: Pedro Martinez Greg Maddux Roger Clemens Randy Johnson Walter Johnson Make no mistake: what Kershaw did in 2014 was of historical significance. It was a season worthy of a Pedro comp, even given the short-term injury. And for purposes of evaluating Kershaw within his own time, let’s look at all the pitchers who’ve thrown at least 750 innings over the past decade. So now we’re looking at Kershaw’s career, instead of just his 2014 season. It’s a sample of 146 pitchers. By ERA-, Kershaw ranks first. By FIP-, Kershaw ranks first. By a blended ERA- and FIP-, Kershaw ranks first. He’s eight points ahead of Felix Hernandez. He’s moved 13 points ahead of Justin Verlander. Clayton Kershaw’s the best pitcher of his day, and he’s coming off a single season for the ages. He’s 26. What the world didn’t need, probably, was another Clayton-Kershaw-appreciation post. But consider that, a year ago, Kershaw looked like quite possibly the best pitcher of his day. Consider that, a year ago, Kershaw was coming off probably the best season of his career. Consider that Clayton Kershaw found a way to improve on Clayton Kershaw. God help the National League if that happens again.