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Clayton Kershaw after the Cy Young years

Clayton Kershaw, the best of our time

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Clayton Kershaw is back with the Dodgers for a 15th season, and we decided to celebrate his Hall of Fame career to date. First, we examined his Cy Young years, and now we look what he’s done since.

Kershaw won his last Cy Young Award in 2014, the same year he won National League MVP. We’re now in 2022. Does that mean his prime is long gone? Far from it, actually. The lack of individual accolades in the years since has much more to do with untimely circumstances and also an incredible National League field.

2014 was in a lot of ways a turning point for the Dodgers organization, and subsequently for Kershaw as well. Following two devastating series losses to the Cardinals, the Dodgers ace faced the most criticism he had ever had over the growing pile of postseason failings.

The Dodgers made a change at the front office following that season. Andrew Friedman came over from the Tampa Bay Rays to run the baseball operations. Although this wasn’t an overnight process and Kershaw would continue to be relied on for short-rest starts in postseason play in 2015 and 2016, the process began of providing Kershaw with more support and getting a bigger emphasis on keeping him fresh.

A lot of Kershaw’s woes in postseason play came after the sixth inning when he often went further than he should’ve because the bullpen wasn’t really a point of strength through those years, more specifically the bridge to Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning.

This quote-unquote handling of Kershaw’s arm with care would be more apparent and bring results down the line. However, in 2015 the Dodgers ace let it loose and was absolutely superb:

Clayton Kershaw in 2015

IP K K rate K-BB% WHIP ERA xERA FIP fWAR bWAR
IP K K rate K-BB% WHIP ERA xERA FIP fWAR bWAR
232⅔ 301 33.8% 29.1% 0.881 2.13 2.05 1.99 8.6 7.3
1st 1st 1st 1st 3rd 3rd 1st 1st 1st 3rd
National League ranks Source: FanGraphs

Kershaw finished 10th in the MVP voting that year, yet he didn’t win the Cy Young. Why?

Because that was by all accounts one of, if not the best three-horse race for the ultimate pitching award of our generation. Jake Arrieta and fellow teammate Zack Greinke were each at their best and mulled through the league. Greinke finished the year with a 1.66 ERA while also challenging Orel Hershiser’s consecutive scoreless innings streak at one point. Arrieta was also phenomenal with a 215 ERA+ and 0.865 WHIP.

It is a crime that all three couldn’t win this award because any of them put up better numbers than you usually see from any given Cy Young season.

Kershaw in 2016 had all the makings of his best season which says a lot, coming from a pitcher with an MVP award, three Cy Youngs, and a different year with 300 strikeouts. The Dodgers left-hander was cruising to a likely unanimous Cy Young victory that year until a back injury sidelined him midseason. Kershaw was so ahead of the field that if healthy, he could’ve had the worst second half of his career and still won the award.

Over 149 innings and 21 starts, Kershaw had a minuscule 1.69 ERA, and opponents against him hit just .184/.204/.268. Now here are the career batting lines for a pair of pitchers:

  • Arrieta: .165/.201/.249
  • Greinke: .225/.262/.336

All hitters against Kershaw in 2016 fell somewhere in between Greinke and Arrieta with the bat in their hands. Those two handle the bat pretty well for pitchers, but they’re still pitchers first and that slash line shows it.

Kershaw was also set to absolutely shatter the record for strikeouts to walks in a single season, but he ultimately didn’t have enough innings to qualify.

In the live ball era (1920-present), Kershaw’s otherworldly 15.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio is by far the best all time of any pitcher with at least 100 innings in a season. The next closest is Phil Hughes at 11.63, in 2014.

Kershaw in 2016 had one of the more brilliant pitching seasons we’ve ever seen, if it was cut short. It wasn’t a Cy Young-winning year, but perhaps even more memorable.

2017 was the beginning of the end for Kershaw’s prime. His home run rate ticked up and the fastball would soon start to lose velocity, which made him rely more and more on the slider. But still, over 175 innings he won his fifth ERA crown (2.31) with a 2.31 mark and had a sub- 1.000 WHIP for the fifth year in a row.

If not for that 25-inning gap between he and Max Scherzer, Kershaw probably had a real shot at winning the Cy Young that, and even if not he finished second, which is remarkable for a somewhat limited season.

Since 2018 Kershaw remains a really good pitcher and an ace in the truest sense of the word. However, his prime is so entrenched in our memories that a season with an ERA in the low 3s seems more underwhelming than it should.

Let’s not forget though, that between 2015 and 2017 Kershaw may have not won a single Cy Young, but he was still the best pitcher in baseball over those three seasons, and the numbers prove that.

Kershaw’s 186 ERA+ from 2015-17 was by far the best in MLB, with Scherzer (153) second and Arrieta (151) third.

Kershaw in those years also led MLB pitchers in WHIP (0.860), ERA (2.07; Arrieta next-closest at 2.71), FIP (2.28), strikeout-to-walk ratio (8.13; next-best was Chris Sale at 6.27), strikeout-minus-walk rate (28 percent) and fWAR (19.2).

Leading MLB pitchers in fWAR with approximately 100 fewer innings than the second place pitcher (Max Scherzer with 18.6) tells you all you need to know.

The final point and the reason why I wrote these articles is this:

Clayton Kershaw may have won “only” three Cy Young awards, but his career is that of an all-time leader. Don’t interpret this like he absolutely should’ve won seven awards; we all know the caveats with Roger Clemens.

But the three Cy Young Awards that Kershaw did win were not enough. The first ballot hall of Famer sticks around for another year at least, and hopefully, he’ll add a second ring to that collection.