Clayton Kershaw versus Stephen Strasburg

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
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Keith Law unveils his top 25 players under the age of 25 list on Thursday and the top two pitchers are Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg. Can't disagree there, although the most surprising aspect is that Kershaw has already won a Cy Young Award and two ERA titles and is still not 25. He doesn't turn 25 until March, so he just qualifies for the list.

Which guy would you rather have? Kershaw is obviously the more accomplished at this point, but Strasburg proved in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery that his upside remains as high as that of any pitcher in the game. Kershaw led the National League in ERA and opponents' on-base percentage while ranking second in batting average allowed and OPS allowed. He also led NL starters in strikeout percentage at 25.4 percent -- although Strasburg, who fell just short of the 162-inning qualifying minimum, had the even more dominant rate of 30.2 percent -- the first pitcher with at least 150 innings to strike out 30 percent of the batters he faced since Randy Johnson in 2004.

Aside from the numbers, both are exhilarating pitchers to watch, as most power pitchers are, especially those with command of their fastballs. Kershaw is that rare lefty who can consistently bring it into the mid-90s -- only David Price had a higher average fastball velocity among left-handed starters in 2012 -- but it's that wipeout slider that helps make him so dominant. Opponents hit just .192 against the slider, with right-handers hitting just .192. The pitch is so effective that, like Randy Johnson in his prime, you can stack the lineup with right-handed batters but it won't really help much.

Strasburg is listed at just an inch taller, but he seems like a much more physical presence on the mound to me. His fastball may be down a tick from where it was before the injury, but he still owned the highest average velocity among all starters at 95.7 mph. It will be interesting to see if that inches up a bit this season as he continues to build strength and stamina. Strasburg mixes in that lethal power curve and a changeup ... a changeup in the high 90s with movement. Yeah, that's no fun for hitters.

I've been writing about Jack Morris a lot lately, and in examining his career, you understand his Hall of Fame candidacy received a boost because many of the pitchers of his generation were unable to remain healthy. Kershaw has been handled much more carefully than those pitchers of the '80s. He was limited to 171 innings in his first full season at age 21, then 204.1 at age 22 and then 233.1 and 227.2 the past two seasons. He's thrown 944 innings before age 25.

Compare that to Dwight Gooden (1,291 innings), Fernando Valenzuela (1,285) and Bret Saberhagen (1,066). Gooden threw 276 innings at age 20 and hurt his shoulder at 24; Valenzuela racked up four straight seasons of at least 257 innings from 21 to 24 (including 285 at age 21) and burned out by 27; Saberhagen won a Cy Young at 21 and a second one at 25, but he averaged 260 innings from 23 to 25 and never threw 200 innings again in a season.

That doesn't mean Kershaw hasn't carried a big workload at a young age. Besides the three above, the only others since 1980 with more innings than Kershaw through age 24 were Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and Mike Witt. Kershaw hasn't been abused -- he had one game of 120 pitches last year, for example -- but that doesn't mean the innings won't catch up to him. Sometimes, no matter how slowly a young pitcher is brought along, all those innings at a young age catch up to you. But certainly the recent history of a guy like Sabathia is a good sign for Kershaw's long-term future.

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OK, who do you have for the next five years?

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Strasburg's injury could also be a blessing in disguise, as it meant he will throw a lot fewer pitches and innings before he turns 25. As dominant as he was in 2012, he still has some polishing to do, particularly in his work against left-handed batters. While he held righties to a .185/.251/.327 line, lefties hit .271/.326/.387 off him. While that includes a high .356 average on balls in play, his strikeout rate was much lower. Much of that damage came off his fastball -- a .323 average allowed -- which tells me Strasburg has to improve his command of the inner and outer edge of the plate against lefty swingers. (His heat map shows a lot of red in the middle and outside, but not much on the inner third of the plate.)

When that happens ... well, watch out.

Who do you like over next five to 10 years? Can Kershaw take his game to an even higher level? Can Strasburg be as dominant for 200-plus innings as he was for 150?

I would give the edge to Kershaw, if only because we know he has that 200-inning durability. Strasburg has to prove he can do that. But I get the feeling we're going to have some pretty fun Cy Young races with these guys the next several years.

David Schoenfield | email

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