A couple of weeks ago, there was a glut of articles about Jake Arrieta supplanting Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in Major League Baseball. And, sure, Arrieta was (and is) deserving of praise. He’s been an amazing pitcher over the past two seasons. He was a deserving Cy Young Award winner. He is the leader of the best team–at the moment–in the sport. All of that praise is warranted.
But, in our quest to always find the latest and greatest, we tend to disregard the guys who are already there. We take for granted the dominant, consistent performances because the new guy is more exciting. A player like Mike Trout is still praised, but we are drawn to Manny Machado and want to put the label of “best player” on him now. Why? Well, we like to be ahead of the curve for one. We like to discover the new guy. And, quite frankly, it’s more fun when someone new comes along. We like seeing someone break through. We like seeing the rise; we get bored with the destination.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Sports are here to entertain us. We can view it through any prism we choose.
But, that prism is limited. It makes many forget that Clayton Kershaw is (still) the most dominant pitcher in the sport. Last night, he abused the New York Mets in a complete game shutout. He allowed just 3 hits, 1 walk, and struck out 13. He almost became the first pitcher–ever–to have four consecutive starts with zero walks and 10 or more strikeouts. Instead, he is the first pitcher–ever–to have five consecutive starts with no more than one walk and 10 strikeouts.
Through eight starts, Kershaw is 5-1 with a 1.74 ERA (1.48 FIP) in 62 innings. He’s allowed 41 hits, walked just 4 batters (not a typo), and has struck out 77. His 34 percent strikeout rate would represent the fourth consecutive season in which his strikeout percentage has increased. His 1.8 percent walk rate speaks for itself. With a 31.5 percent swing and miss rate, Kerhaw’s stuff is obviously still elite. At age 28, he is still in his prime and in position to win his fourth career Cy Young Award.
At this point in his career, we can begin to talk about Kershaw in historical terms. His ERA+ ranks him the third best of all-time. The argument can be made that if he retired right now, he has done enough to be in the Hall of Fame. In 9 years, he has a record of 119-57 with a 2.40 ERA (2.58 FIP). He’s struck out 1,823 batters in 1,673 innings. Among his colleagues, he is first according to WAR value (for all players) since he debuted in 2008.
The funny thing is that he is actually becoming a better pitcher. Last night’s start against the Mets saw him get 22 of his 27 outs on 4 pitches or less. He is not only elite in terms of stuff, but he is a cerebral pitcher. Often, veterans will talk about how they wish they could’ve applied their knowledge gained from experience while they were in their prime. Kershaw is actually the living, breathing application of that idea. He’s dominant, but he is also evolving.
We may be drawn to “the rise”, but we shouldn’t forget the guys who already made it. Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in the sport since 2011. He still is.