Clayton Kershaw: Stupid-Awesome

Lost in the shuffle of what was probably the most exciting day of baseball in years Wednesday, was another good start Tuesday night by Dodgers’ left-hander Clayton Kershaw.  He wasn’t his typical dominant self, but still pitched into the seventh, striking out six, walking just two, and giving up just two runs securing the win for the Dodgers.

At just 23, Kershaw is already turning in his third outstanding season and as good as the previous two were 2011 has been a breakout, further establishing him as one of the best pitchers in baseball.  Despite this, Kershaw doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.  The Dodgers are not a good team and he fights for attention with other NL West aces like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ubaldo Jimenez.

But is there an argument to be made that Kershaw is very quickly turning himself into the best left-handed pitcher in the game?

At first glance, this seems ridiculous considering that C.C. Sabathia, Jon Lester, and Cliff Lee are all still great, but they are also much older; presumably, Kershaw is going to continue to get better over the next couple seasons.

The above graph depicts the ERA of Sabathia, Lester and Kershaw by age-season and as you can see (even though it is only ERA), Kershaw appears to be better than both and he ranks behind only them and Lee in WAR among southpaws since 2009.

This season, however, Kershaw has taken a leap forward.  He currently ranks fifth in WAR among all pitchers in baseball and behind only Sabathia among left-handers.  His BB/9 rate, once considered a problem, has dropped from 4.79 in 2009, to 3.57 last season, to just 2.36 this year.  He’s also posting a career-high strike out rate, groundball rate, and ERA.  Accordingly, his FIP is a career-best 2.39.

By every measure, Kershaw is blowing it up in 2011.  His Skill-Independent ERA (SIERA), which is an estimator of what a pitcher’s ERA would be with average luck, defense, and park factors, is just 2.57.  His tERA, an ERA estimator similar to xFIP that also includes batted-ball information such as line-drives, groundouts, and flyout-types, is just 2.45.

Kershaw also ranks seventh in baseball in infield-flyball rate, which allows him to keep a lower-than-normal batted-ball average and homerun rate.

So how exactly has Kershaw evolved?  Well, when he came up, his main secondary offering was his 12-6 curveball, a pitch that had scouts drooling and batters whiffing.  He threw the pitch 22.7% of the time in his 2008 rookie campaign, but had very little control over it, hitting the strike zone with it just over half of the time.

Since the start of last season, Kershaw has made his slider his main secondary pitch; a pitch he threw just five times in 2008, but has thrown over 23% of the time in 2011.  The results are obvious.  While Kershaw was getting a respectable 10.6% whiff-rate with his curveball in 2008, he is now making batters miss his slider almost a quarter of the time at 23.1%.  He also has far more command of his slider, throwing it for strikes over two-thirds of the time.  Mix in the odd curve and changeup and Kershaw is damn-near unhittable.  More than half of his opponents’ at-bats end in a strikeout, groundout or infield pop-up.

May I remind you again that Kershaw is just 23…23!

He may not quite be there yet, but if he stays healthy, Kershaw will very shortly become the best left-handed pitcher in the game.  And oh yeah, he’s just entering his arbitration years and is currently making just $500,000.

If Dodgers’ GM Ned Coletti has even half a brain (questionable, I know) he would be locking his young ace up to a long-term deal sooner than later.

Travis Reitsma is the fantasy baseball guru here at Getting Blanked, but you’ll find he sometimes writes on other subjects as well.  You can find more of his work over at Baseball Canadiana. You can also follow him on the Twitter.