Clayton Kershaw the clear choice
ESPN The Magazine
The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw should win the National League Cy Young Award. The cases for the Phillies' Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are compelling, but history is on Kershaw's side: He won the NL Triple Crown of pitching. Since the Cy Young became an official award in 1956, 11 times has a pitcher led his league -- or tied for the league lead -- in wins, ERA and strikeouts, and all 11 times that pitcher won the award. Kershaw will make it 13-for-13. Justin Verlander made it 12-for-12 earlier this week. There is simply no argument to trump that.
Look at Kershaw's numbers: an .808 winning percentage, a 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts. In the Cy Young era (1956-present), only six other pitchers have had as high a winning percentage as Kershaw, as low an ERA and as many strikeouts in a single season. Five of those six have won the award: Sandy Koufax (1963), Denny McLain (1968), Ron Guidry (1978), Dwight Gooden (1985) and Pedro Martinez (1999). The lone exception came in 1997 when Randy Johnson lost out to Roger Clemens, who won the Triple Crown that year.
Kershaw went 21-5 for a team that went 82-79. Take away his decisions, and the Dodgers were 61-74. Granted, the Dodgers play in a big ballpark -- a pitchers' ballpark -- unlike Halladay and Lee at Citizens Bank Park (the Phillies' home park), but L.A. scored four runs or fewer in 11 of Kershaw's 21 wins. And four times he won starts against two-time NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. The scores in those games were 2-1, 1-0, 2-1 and 2-1.
Kershaw is only 23, but he has a lot in common with Halladay and Lee. Kershaw's preparation is phenomenal, his bullpen work between starts "is art,'' said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "Some of our young pitchers go to the bullpen to see how he works.''
Like Halladay and Lee, Kershaw makes adjustments. He mostly scrapped his big, hard-breaking curveball this year because he had trouble commanding it, umpires had stopped calling it a strike and hitters had stopped swinging at it. He instead learned to throw a slider, and flourished. And he learned to throw his fastball at 95 mph even when he used a slide-step.
This Cy Young should not have come as a surprise, Kershaw is off to a historic start. Look at his career numbers: 47 wins, a 2.88 ERA and 745 strikeouts in 716 1/3 innings. No pitcher in major league history has had that many wins, an ERA that low and averaged a strikeout per inning by age 23. No pitcher. And now Kershaw will have a Cy Young to go with it. It won't be his last.
Roy Halladay actually pitched better
Pick Roy Halladay over the National League's leading pitcher in ERA, wins, WHIP and strikeouts? Absolutely, for a few fairly straightforward reasons, and no one should be blind to Halladay's performance. First, there's the matter of whom they played -- via ESPN.com's RPI and strength of schedule metrics the Phillies' slate was slightly tougher, and further research shows that the Phillies faced tougher hitters on average.
So, as neat as it might be that Clayton Kershaw was 4-0 against two-time Cy winner Tim Lincecum, this isn't Rock-em Sock-em Robots: Kershaw went 5-0 overall in six starts against the Giants because he was facing the worst lineup in the league six times. Halladay didn't go 5-0 against anybody; he also didn't face the league's worst lineup so much as once.
Second, we can dispense with WAR as a factor in Kershaw's favor. Why? Because Kershaw did not wind up with a higher WAR on the basis of how he pitched, Halladay did, generating 7.4 WAR on the mound to Kershaw's 7.0. Why? Because Halladay pitched better, just barely, and this is an award for pitching. Kershaw's superiority at the plate (0.6 WAR to -0.1) is immaterial to the value of his pitching.
But what about all those strikeouts? Yes, they're great, they're exciting and they're handy for drawing glowing inferences about a player's future. But that's about the future, and what Halladay and Kershaw did is in the past. Kershaw walked 20 more batters, and allowed more extra-base hits, while Halladay just kept cranking out worm-killers.
The margins between the two as pitchers are consistently narrow, but Halladay consistently wins. ERA is far from the best way to express pitching performance, but runs allowed per nine innings gets you to what matters: How many runs did the guy allow? Halladay wins that, 2.50 RA/9 to 2.55 for Kershaw. How about an interpretive performance stat like fielding independent pitching? Halladay wins, 2.17 to 2.44. What about support-neutral winning percentage, to get a sense of what each guy's team's record should be when he pitches given average run support? Halladay wins again, .599 to .566. That reflects Halladay gave up more than four runs in a start just twice all year; Kershaw did that four times.
And Halladay is doing all this while working in a tougher place to pitch, against a tougher schedule, facing tougher hitters. Not a lot tougher in any one instance or a lot better, but a little, and each time Halladay keeps coming out on top. If you ask me, the Doc should be in.