Saturday, August 17, 2013
Kershaw pitching his way toward history
By Christina Kahrl
The Dodgers did it, winning their 10th game in a row to make their record 42-8 in their past 50 games. Think about that for a second, because odds are, you aren’t old enough to have seen its like.
So let’s be blunt. Going 42-8 in 50 games, in today’s parity-enabled competitive environment, compared to the previous teams to put that up on the scoreboard? Skip the ’41 Yankees and kick the ’42 Cardinals to the curb. Those teams were playing in all-white leagues with competitive imbalance built into MLB’s system, all willfully preserved by the reserve clause. Which is just one reason this means something more. It means that this is a team with dynasty potential being birthed before our eyes. And it’s coming together here and now not just because of what part owner Magic Johnson spent last winter, and not just because of GM Ned Colletti’s ability to play with other people’s money to buy midmarket free agents. It's a team thing that they're here, but their greatest debts are owed to their best.
That's because this is a team winning due to its investment in the big-win players, and you can use any definition of that term you wish. Whether you keep score with Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or wins, runs scored or runs created, the Dodgers own the players that you wish your team had. And, by that, I don’t mean Nick Punto or Skip Schumaker or an Ellis to be named later -- complementary players are swell, and every winner wants and needs them, but they aren’t the platform you build from, now and into the future.
Would you want to bet against Clayton Kershaw beating you? Beating anybody? You might regret it.
No, the guys the Dodgers will win with are by now very familiar to you: Yasiel Puig, paid top dollar on a truly open market as a Cuban defector. Maybe you blame Magic and the money men for that bit of good news. But then there's Hanley Ramirez, available in a trade for a fraction of his value once the Marlins decided to opt out on fulfilling promises made to a disgruntled Miami market. Easy as it is to beat up on Colletti, getting HanRam is going to be firmly lodged on the "win" side of his ledger forever after. And, above all else, Clayton Kershaw, drafted and developed from the moment they picked him with the seventh overall selection in 2006, with credit due to Logan White's exceptional player development crew. So, yeah, it's a team thing, but it's a team thing that gave the Dodgers the superstars they're beating people with now and into the foreseeable future.
Kershaw is making a case for himself as baseball’s most valuable player via WAR despite the vagaries of how WAR measures value on defense. (Giving Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez perhaps too much credit, for example). On any night after Kershaw pitches, there’s a chance he’ll vault to the top of the WAR rankings going up against position players who have four other days in between to accumulate value. This isn’t merely an expression of performance via one metric, it reflects the significance of his actual value to a team that came into its campaign with must-win expectations. Kershaw leads baseball in ERA, in WHIP and in hits per nine innings. He has the lowest walk rate and delivers one of the best HR/9 clips. And he isn’t high maintenance, having long since been handled with care to deposit him in his mid-20s, his peak run, ready to take the ball every fifth day all the way.
Kershaw is almost two months removed from his last nonquality start. He’s allowed two runs or less in 20 of 26 starts. When you keep scores that low, anybody can be the offensive hero -- and perhaps on those non-Pug or HanRam nights, anybody has had to -- because you’ve created so many narrow-margin winnable ballgames.
Every stathead has to reconcile a certain tension between his or her ability to analyze the data and the sheer thrill of watching the best deliver the best. The entire concept of money pitchers might seem so much nonsense when it’s argued on behalf of Jack Morris or Jack McDowell -- thanks to statheads like Greg Spira and Joe Sheehan, we know that both conclusively weren’t. But, even so, can you escape that vibe when it comes to talking about certain pitchers in certain moments of time? As fans, we all have “that guy,” the guy you’d want on the mound for any stakes in a must-win game. My own unexamined choice from my youth would be Dave Stewart, and, no doubt, you have your own.
Not all of them become historic, but some do. Whether Bob Gibson in the ’60s -- making the Tigers’ World Series win over the Cardinals in 1968 that much more epic -- or Mike Scott in 1986 or Orel Hershiser in 1988, there are guys you just don’t want to face, and you can see teams go to any length to avoid a championship game going up against them.
The way that they’re going, the fun question now for these Dodgers is whether or not Kershaw will be that guy. But the way that he’s dealing these days, would you bet against him? To make an utterly unfair comparison, Kershaw has been better through his age-25 season -- in which he is right now -- than Sandy Koufax was through his 25th birthday, but that’s because Koufax didn’t become Sandy Koufax until he turned 26 after making the majors at a very young age, just as Kershaw did. Kershaw deserved to win last season’s NL Cy Young Award as an encore to his first one in 2011, but if he adds a second to his trophy case this season, he’ll be well on his way to matching, perhaps even topping, Koufax’s trio before all is said and done.
We can’t know what Kershaw will deliver, but given what he’s already given us, expect something epic. Even as the Dodgers rampage their way towards the stretch, it’s one ride that any baseball fan will want to buckle up for.