Clayton Kershaw’s season may be in jeopardy. His last start before heading to the disabled list with an injured back was June 26th, and he has barely been able to resume baseball activities since. However, the latest report out of Los Angeles is that Kershaw finally was able to play catch again this past weekend, which gives the Dodgers hope that he can come back by September. Even so, many pundits believe that to be overly optimistic: A recent ESPN article I came across suggests 2017 is a more realistic return date for the three-time Cy Young winner.
This is terrible news for two reasons. First, of course, it hurts the Dodgers playoff chances. Ironically, they’ve actually closed in on the Giants ever since Kershaw went down–as of today, there only one game behind their rivals in the NL West, but that’s mostly been due to the Giant’s recent slump. However, it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers doing much of anything in the playoffs without Kershaw, assuming they make it.
The second reason why Kershaw’s back injury is awful news is that you’d think it would prevent him from winning a fourth Cy Young award. But is that necessarily true?
At the pace he was going, Kershaw was a lock to take home pitching’s highest honor. After all, he led practically every statistical category. Even so, it’s tough to give a major award to someone who only plays half a season, particularly when the National League has plenty of other deserving candidates like Jose Fernandez, Noah Syndergaard, and Stephen Strasburg among others.
But here’s the situation: Despite missing an extended period of time, Kershaw still leads in many of these categories, including the four most important ones. First, Kershaw’s Wins Above Replacement of 5.5 leads all pitchers by nearly a full win (Fernandez and Syndergaard are tied for second with 4.6). Moreover, his ERA (1.79) and FIP (1.65) are the lowest marks in baseball by a wide margin. For instance, the same gap between Kershaw and Chicago’s Kyle Hendricks, who surprisingly owns baseball’s second lowest ERA, is the same as the margin between Stephen Strasburg (5th in ERA) and Jason Hammel (21st). Lastly, in terms of WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched), Kershaw leads that by a mile as well. His mark of 0.73 is 20 points higher than Max Scherzer’s 0.93 WHIP, which is second in baseball. By the way, that figure could go down as the lowest WHIP of all-time if Kershaw meets the necessary innings requirement to qualify.
I could go on all day about how Kershaw also has the lowest BB/9, HR/9, and ERA+, as well as the most shutouts, but just know this: Kershaw was not only in the midst of perhaps the best season of his fine career–he was having one of the greatest seasons for a pitcher ever. I already mentioned how if Kershaw’s WHIP holds up, that will be the lowest mark for a starting pitcher in history. He was also on pace to finish with only the fourth 10+ season, as measured by WAR, of any pitcher since 1990 and the second lowest FIP of any pitcher since 1960.
Here’s the only thing working against his case for a fourth Cy Young: He’s only played half the year. It’s easier to pitch extremely well for three months than for six, like all the other guys in the National League will likely do this year. For this reason, you could argue that Kershaw might not have been able to sustain many of his absurdly low stats. If you think about it, sustaining a low ERA is similar to maintaining a high batting average. Kershaw’s 1.79 ERA could be equated to hitting above .400. That’s unbelievably difficult, but certainly not as impressive when you do it for three months as opposed to six, where the likelihood that you regress to the mean is greater.
However, the one stat you can’t belittle due to a smaller sample size is WAR. For the sake of argument, say a player had 40 home runs halfway through the season and then got injured. They would still finish the season with 40 home runs–you can’t take those away or argue that his total would have declined. Moreover, in some years, 40 home runs may be good enough to lead the league by season’s end, in which case that player could be regarded as the best power hitter in the game.
Similarly, if Kershaw still leads in WAR by the end of 2016, he should win the NL Cy Young award because WAR is the most all-encompassing stat we use to identify the best players in baseball. You can’t argue that Kershaw wouldn’t have been able to sustain his WAR throughout the season like you can with other stats like ERA because WAR is an aggregate statistic. Plus, the idea that he couldn’t have continued to pitch brilliantly throughout the season had he stayed healthy is illogical. Sure, maybe he wouldn’t have ended the season with the lowest WHIP in the history of baseball; but Kershaw has proven before that he can sustain all-time great seasons through September. He’s done so each of the past three seasons.
At the very least, Kershaw is absolutely not out of the NL Cy Young race, even if he misses the rest of the season. Yes, that’s shocking to consider. But in addition to being the best pitcher in baseball through three months, he was having one of the best seasons of all-time. Plus, he still might even manage to finish with a better WAR than the other top pitchers in the NL, particularly if he manages to return in September.
Think about it: Kershaw might produce a better WAR in three months than everyone from Fernandez, Syndergaard, Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Jake Arrieta could have in full seasons. We know the Cy Young awards go to the most outstanding pitchers in each league. If what I just said doesn’t prove that Kershaw’s been the most outstanding pitcher in 2016, I don’t know what does.
And yet, I’m not necessarily saying that Kershaw will ultimately win the Cy Young by season’s end. Managing to do so despite missing half of the season would be unprecedented. But if there’s any player in the MLB today that could pull off such a feat, it’s the Dodgers ace, who continues to further his case as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.
Kershaw photo courtesy of Jake Roth/USA Today Sports