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Clayton Kershaw’s peak: Looking back at the Cy Young Award years

Kershaw developed a slider and the rest is history

83rd MLB All-Star Game Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

With Clayton Kershaw back for a 15th season, we are celebrating his career with a multi-part series.

Kershaw came up through the Dodgers system as a highly-touted prospect, he was a top-10 draft pick in the first round after all.

But in 2008, his rookie campaign, Kershaw wasn’t the same pitcher we know today. Most of you know the story, he was strictly a fastball-curveball type of guy. The slider that came to be a foundational piece in which he did everything around throughout his entire career, didn’t exist at that point.

As a rookie Kershaw had a 11-percent walk rate (52 walks in 107⅔ innings), with a strikeout rate way too pedestrian (21.3 percent) to survive that, and the fact that he managed a 98 ERA+ off of that is something else.

The start of his sophomore season seemed to carry over those trends. The Dodgers left-hander had a 4.34 EEA over his first 10 starts and was struggling with command.

At this time, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and bullpen catcher Mike Borzello started talking with Kershaw about solutions. The point of emphasis was the need for a secondary breaking ball.

Kershaw’s curveball has always been this big looping 12/6 pitch and even at his best, it was hard to throw that pitch consistently for a strike. Because of that, every time that Kershaw was in an unfavorable count, he had to throw a fastball. His pitch count was unsustainable and he walked way too many people.

The slider came out of a bullpen session with Borzello at Wrigley Field, and it was so good that it was deemed ready for his next start. Then everything changed.

Kershaw bounced back and finished that year strong with a 2.79 ERA in 171 innings pitched despite a 13.0 walk rate he led the league in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.3),

By 2010, the Texas native was already building off that success and becoming the ace of the future for the Dodgers, but at the time, names such as Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum dominated the sport, and subsequently the conversation for best pitcher on the planet, but not for long.

2011 rolled around and Kershaw took his game to another level. With a couple of years of experience throwing that slider, he began to figure out his control.

Check out this steep and steady decline that ensued over basically the next decade.

Between 2011-14 Kershaw won three out of four Cy Young awards, finishing second in the only season in which he didn’t win (2012), and also took home an MVP award for his outstanding efforts in 2014.

Kershaw led the majors in ERA all four seasons, he led the National League in WHIP all for years, and led in ERA+ each year from 2012-14.

Usually, when a pitcher has a run of this magnitude, regardless of how great he is, there is a significant level of deviation between it and his career numbers. Most starters don’t have a career ERA+ in the 150s like Kershaw and Pedro Martinez.

Max Scherzer is pitching great at a very late age, but he struggled for a few years before finding his groove. Justin Verlander had a tough time late in his career with Detroit before Houston. It happens.

From 2011 until 2014, Kershaw was the best in baseball during each year and could’ve joined Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux as the only pitchers with four straight Cy Youngs, if not for RA Dickey’s magical 2012 that still fell short of Kershaw in several categories.

One would figure that this four-year span would deviate significantly from any normal career, but Kershaw hasn’t had a normal career.

Clayton Kershaw’s Cy Young peak vs. career numbers

Years ERA ERA+ WHIP Opponents BB rate K rate
Years ERA ERA+ WHIP Opponents BB rate K rate
2011-2014 2.11 172 0.946 .202/.251/.297 5.8% 27.3%
Career thru 2021 2.49 155 1.004 .209/.261/.322 6.3% 27.6%
Source: Baseball Reference

Two things to take from this:

  1. Kershaw’s four-year run of individual awards is terrific, but it hardly deviates much from his career norm.
  2. Part of the reason behind the first statement is that Kershaw’s prime extended past 2014 and the fact he didn’t win another Cy Young after that season is mostly circumstantial, not necessarily related to a dip in his performance.

We’ll cover Kershaw from 2015 until today in the next segment of this miniseries.