Clayton Kershaw just turned 29. He’s entering his 10th season in the big leagues — ‘bigly’ — and in his first nine years, he has 126 wins, 1,918 strikeouts, and a total WAR of 53.5 (per fangraphs; baseball-reference has him at 52.8). He also has a 2.37 (!) career E.R.A., has led the league in strikeouts and ERA+ three times each, and has a career WHIP of 1.007. That means that over his nine-year career — including his first season, in which he had an ERA+ below league average — he has allowed barely more than ONE baserunner per inning. Pretty impressive, right? It gets better. Over the last four seasons, he has a 1.87 E.R.A. and 29.8 WAR, despite missing a good chunk of 2016 and pitching only 149 innings.
From 1992 to 1995, a stretch in which he won the NL Cy Young and pitched at least 202 innings every season, Greg Maddux had a 1.98 E.R.A. and a 29.9 WAR. Aside from the innings total, not so different, right? Get this: Maddux’ FIP, which more or less measures what a pitcher’s E.R.A would be taking defense out of the equation, was 2.54. Over the last four seasons, Kershaw’s is 2.03. Maddux was 30 at the end of his four-year stretch, one year older than Kershaw is, and Maddux is not only one of the best pitchers of all time, he has a case (made somewhere by Bill James) as the most underrated pitcher in history. Kershaw has essentially matched him a year earlier.
The pitcher Kershaw most often gets compared to is Sandy Koufax. That’s easy to understand: they’re both left-handed Dodgers and have enjoyed a five-year stretch as the best pitcher in baseball. Koufax, of course, famously retired after his age-30 season due to arthritis. He also famously had a rather mundane first half of his 12-year career, in which he compiled only 8.2 of his 54.5 WAR. As a result of his glorious latter six years, he is not only a Hall of Famer, but considered an inner-circle one, and in fact was selected by fans as one of the top four living players (and the #1 living pitcher) in 2015. In those six seasons, Koufax won three Cy Young Awards and had a 2.19 E.R.A. a 2.16 FIP, 46.3 WAR, and a 4.16/1 K/BB ratio. Since 2011, the year he won his first of three (so far) Cy Young Awards, Kershaw has a 2.06 E.R.A., a 2.26 FIP, 42.8 WAR, and a 5.62/1 K/BB ratio. At the very least, Kershaw has equaled Koufax’ production, with two years to spare.
According to the rules of the Hall of Fame, a player is supposed to play ten years before he is eligible for entry. To the best of my knowledge, they’ve only made the exception once, for Addie Joss, who died of tuberculosis before his tenth season. Barring an unforeseen massive injury or illness, we aren’t anywhere near the end of Clayton Kershaw. But if we were, he would already be a Hall of Famer. Perhaps even an inner-circle one.
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