Have we seen Clayton Kershaw's best?
What we already know about Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, regardless of the results of the National League Cy Young Award balloting, is that he leaped into the upper echelon of major league pitchers in 2011. He won the triple crown and became the Dodgers' first 20-game winner in a generation, all at the age of 23.
But all of that makes you wonder where Kershaw goes from here. Clearly, he has set a high bar for himself at an early stage in his career. Can he continue to dominate? Can he be even better? Is there room for improvement from a guy who was such money in the bank that the Dodgers won 12 of the 14 times he took the mound in the second half?
Those questions will be answered definitively in time. For now, all we can really do is speculate about the future. So this week, I asked a few expert speculators: scouts, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, as scouts typically do.
"He is an outstanding athlete," one longtime NL scout said. "He is certainly a legitimate No. 1 starter. He belongs in any conversation about the best pitchers in the game, and he potentially could be the best."
But is he there yet? Debatable. The Cy Young Award, if Kershaw wins it, would stand as proof -- albeit subjective proof, given that it is based on baseball writers' votes -- that Kershaw was the best pitcher in the NL in 2011. But is the Kershaw of 2011 the best Kershaw? We might not know that for years.
Despite what this season's numbers might suggest, though, there is room for improvement.
One NL scout said Kershaw's changeup, while dramatically improved in 2011, still needs honing.
"He did throw as good a slider at times this season as I have ever seen him throw," the scout said. "That has become his other pitch, so guys can't sit on his fastball or his curveball.
"But even when he was an amateur, I wondered if he would have issues. There was just some stuff with his delivery that I was never crazy about. But as long as he can stay on line and keep his body under control and his direction is good, he shouldn't have any problems."
One thing Kershaw has shown over the years is that he is a quick study. His changeup, which he really only started throwing regularly this year, figures to continue to get better.
"That change is still a work in progress," one scout said. "The curveball has a chance to be really good. I had his fastball from 89 (mph) all the way up to 96. So I don't think he is where he is going to be yet, not anywhere near it. But I saw two full games that he pitched this year, and there was nothing not to like. Another thing is he has a good (pickoff) move."
Two different scouts spoke of the way Kershaw, in 2011 and to some extent in 2010, overcame his history of struggling to pitch deep into games. Kershaw topped the 200-innings plateau each of those two years, blowing it away in 2011 with a career-high 233 1/3.
This year, Kershaw averaged a career-best seven-plus innings per start, up from a little more than 6 1/3 in 2010 and 5 1/3 in his first two big league seasons ('08 and '09) combined. But even Detroit's Justin Verlander, who led the majors in innings pitched this season and won the American League Cy Young Award Tuesday, averaged about 7 1/3 innings per start. So to expect Kershaw to improve much on his per-start average, especially in the NL where pitchers often are lifted for reasons other than how they are pitching, is probably a little much to ask.
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"That is the biggest thing with him, is that he has been able to build up his innings," one scout said. "His biggest problem, him and (Dodgers pitcher Chad) Billingsley both, was always that they just couldn't pitch late in games because they threw too many pitches early. But I didn't see that from Kershaw this year. … "But he still needs to have a changeup, something to right-handed hitters to keep them off that breaking ball. Right now, he is doing it without a changeup. It helps that he can run it up there at 95-96, but he won't have that his whole career."
That same scout, though, witnessed three of Kershaw's stunning four victories (in four starts) against Tim Lincecum, the San Francisco Giants' two-time Cy Young Award-winning right-hander. Kershaw gave up one earned run in 30 1/3 innings in those four games.
"Those three starts, he was better than I have ever seen him," the scout said. "And I saw him late in the year, for a team that had nothing to play for, and he was outstanding."
As outstanding as he can be? As outstanding as he is going to be? We won't know that for a while. But we will know whether Kershaw is a Cy Young-caliber pitcher in very short order.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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