Clayton Kershaw was the seventh player selected in the 2006 draft, the first high school pitcher taken following five college pitchers, and it's safe to say that those five teams regret passing on the hard-throwing lefty from Dallas. Those five pitchers -- Luke Hochevar (Royals), Greg Reynolds (Rockies), Brad Lincoln (Pirates), Brandon Morrow (Mariners) and Andrew Miller (Tigers) -- have combined for a 62-98 record and only Morrow has a career ERA under 5.00.
Kershaw, meanwhile, has developed into the best young lefty in the game. Since his arrival in the big leagues in 2008 at age 20, he ranks 10th among starting pitchers in ERA (3.15), third in strikeouts per nine innings (9.4) and first in opponents' batting average (.221). The Dodgers have handled him carefully in his career, he's remained healthy and he's increased his dominance in 2011, putting up career bests in strikeouts per nine innings (10.1) while lowering his walk rate from 3.6 per nine innings in 2010 to 2.7, and down from 4.8 in 2009. He's an electrifying presence on the mound, a guy who can bring no-hit stuff any start. As Tim Kurkjian writes, he's added a slider to his fastball/curveball repertoire and improved his changeup. He topped 200 innings in 2010 for the first time and his final step to greatness is to prove he can handle a 230-inning workload, although he may be another season away from the Dodgers pushing him to that level. (He's on pace for 208 innings over 32 starts.)
Did we mention he's only 23?
Here's a comparison of Kershaw's numbers to some of other recent left-handers and what they accomplished through their age-23 seasons:
The most interesting comparison is obviously Scott Kazmir, as Kershaw is at the exact point in his career where Kazmir was at the end of the 2007 season. Kershaw was a little tougher to hit, but some of that is pitching in the NL West versus the AL East. Their career strikeouts, walks and ERA (once adjusted for park and league) are eerily similar. In 2007, Kazmir had gone 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA for Tampa Bay, leading the AL with 239 strikeouts (10.4 per nine innings).
There was one big difference: Kazmir was still walking four batters per nine innings. He still had a solid 2008, but spent time on the DL and he hasn't been the same pitcher since. Could this happen to Kershaw? Kazmir was pushed a little harder, but not too much harder. Through his first 97 starts, Kazmir averaged 102.1 pitches per start; through 96 starts, Kershaw has averaged 99.4. In 2007, Kazmir averaged 106.1 pitchers per start; Kershaw has averaged 101.1 this season. Kazmir threw at least 90 pitches in all 34 starts that year, with a season high of 118. Kershaw's season high is 122, but he's been under 90 five times. Don Mattingly is still being careful with his prized ace.
The other difference: Kazmir is 6-foot, 195 pounds. Kershaw is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. If you believe the old adage that big pitchers are more durable, that may be another positive for Kershaw's long-term outlook.
That's always the big question with any young pitcher: Can he stay healthy? CC Sabathia had 54 wins through his age-23 season, the eighth-most ever for a left-handed pitcher and fourth-most since 1969. (Babe Ruth has the most, with 80.) He's been durable and became a better pitcher in his late 20s, but that's not always the case, as we learned with Kazmir. Oakland's talented young lefty Brett Anderson just landed on the DL with elbow soreness. Those two serve as a warning that the only thing keeping Kershaw from winning a Cy Young Award in the future (or heck, in 2011) is the health of all those gifted tendons and ligaments.
We're in a golden age of young pitching, and Kershaw is just one of many outstanding 25-and-younger left-handed starters in the game: Anderson, David Price, Jaime Garcia, Madison Bumgarner, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Gio Gonzalez and Derek Holland, to name the best. Check out some of their numbers so far:
Kershaw (23): 6-3, 3.05 ERA, 85.2 IP, 69 H, 26 BB, 96 SO, 7 HR
Price (25): 7-5, 3.35 ERA, 91.1 IP, 78 H, 14 BB, 83 SO, 7 HR
Garcia (24): 6-2, 3.20 ERA, 81.2 IP, 76 H, 20 BB, 72 SO, 4 HR
Bumgarner (21): 2-7, 3.42 ERA, 71 IP, 71 H, 23 BB, 52 SO, 2 HR
Gonzalez (25): 5-4, 2.62 ERA, 75.2 IP, 65 H, 33 BB, 70 SO, 5 HR
Britton (23): 6-4, 3.18 ERA, 82 IP, 72 H, 29 BB, 47 SO, 7 HR
Which would young lefty would you want for the next five years?
I'd give the slight edge to Price (I'd like to see the numbers he could post in the NL West) over Kershaw, with the others somewhere behind those two, but what do you think? Vote in the poll (we could only list five!).