At just 23 years old, Clayton Kershaw has won the National League Cy Young award, making him the sixth-youngest pitcher ever to do so. That fact is as worrisome as it is impressive. The Dodgers lefty won the award on the strength of a triple crown season in which he led the NL in wins (21; tied with Arizona's Ian Kennedy), strikeouts (248) and ERA (an MLB-best 2.28) and also led the league in WHIP (0.98) and fewest hits per nine innings (6.7). For good measure, he also made his first All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove.
However, looking at the list of pitchers who won the Cy Young at Kershaw's age or younger is cause for concern. Take a look at the table on the right:
Not only did none of the five pitchers ahead of Kershaw on that list go on to have a Hall of Fame career, all five were effectively washed up by the age of 32, if not long before. They were victims, it seems, of burning too brightly too early in their careers and of the heavy workloads that accompanied such stardom.
That doesn't necessarily mean that Kershaw will meet the same fate -- after all, the next man on the list after Kershaw was Roger Clemens, who turned 24 in August of his first Cy Young season in 1986. Still, it is worth noting that the 233 1/3 innings Kershaw threw this year were the fourth-most by a pitcher in his age-23 season since 1994 (a bit of a cheat since 1994 and 1995 were abbreviated seasons), and the 10th most since 1990. Of the nine men who threw more innings than Kershaw in their age-23 seasons since 1990 are early flameouts like Steve Avery, Ramon Martinez, Dontrelle Willis, Jim Abbott and Alex Fernandez. Only Mike Mussina and Mark Buehrle went on to have long careers marked by a combination of excellence and durability, and Buehrle is still just 32 and a radically different kind of pitcher than the hard-throwing Kershaw.
As for Mussina and Clemens, their ability to endure such heavy workloads so early is part of what made them great, something that was once pointed out to me by Keith Woolner, the former Baseball Prospectus analyst who helped develop pitcher abuse points and now works in the front office of the Cleveland Indians. The same is true of Hall of Famers such as Tom Seaver and Bert Blyleven and future Hall of Famers like Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, the latter of whom just missed the top 10 of the aforementioned list of 23-year-olds with 231 1/3 innings in 1990. It may well be that Kershaw and Felix Hernandez, who is among those who threw more innings than Kershaw in his age-23 season (238 2/3 in 2009), are of that ilk, great pitchers who posses not only the ability to dominate at such a young age but the strength to endure such large workloads at an age when lesser arms would suffer lasting damage. For now, however, one has to have at least some small concern about both men.
While Hernandez had shoulder bursitis as a 19-year-old and went on the DL with a forearm strain at 21, Kershaw has yet to have any concerns in his pitching arm. One thing that works in Kershaw's favor is the fact that the Dodgers have brought him along gradually, having him split 169 innings between the majors (107 2/3) and minors (61 1/3) at age 20 in 2008, then having him throw 171 in the majors at 21 in 2009, 204 1/3 in 2010 and now 233 1/3 this year. There are no big jumps there.
Kershaw has also helped himself by becoming increasingly efficient with his pitches. Indeed, the biggest difference between Kershaw in 2011 as compared to 2010 is a significant decline in his unintentional walk rate, from 3.2 UIBB/9 last year to just 2.0 UIBB/9 this year. In fact, other than the continued reduction of his walk rate, Kershaw has been remarkably consistent over the last three seasons, with the only other major change being his increased workload. Just look at these rates from the last two years compared to this year:
That last column shows what percentage of Kershaw's fly balls were infield pop-ups, and while Kershaw did get a few more ground balls this year, and a few more double-plays, those changes were small enough that they likely didn't compound that pop-up rate very much. All of which is to say that, as long as he doesn't have any ill-effects from being asked to shoulder an ace's workload in advance of his 25th birthday, Kershaw should be a perennial Cy Young candidate for years to come.
Given that, the Dodgers would be well-advised to follow up the extension they just gave to Matt Kemp, their MVP-candidate outfielder, with one for their Cy Young-winning ace, who earned just $500,000 for the past season and is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter. Even before the Cy Young voting was announced, Kershaw had a slam-dunk case in arbitration. He not only won the pitching triple crown this year, but became the third-youngest pitcher in the modern era ever to do so behind Gooden in 1985 and Bob Feller, who did it at age 22 in 1940.
The market for such a deal has already been set with the five-year, $78 million extension the Mariners gave Hernandez coming out of his age-23 season after 2009, and the five-year, $80 million the Tigers gave a 25-year-old Justin Verlander that same winter, though both of those pitchers were arb-eligible for the second time that offseason. That price was reaffirmed this August, when the Angels signed Jered Weaver to a five-year, $85 million extension, buying out his third year of arbitration and four free-agent seasons. Kershaw is worth a similar investment despite the concerns about his workload. It is best the Dodgers not do what the Giants did with Tim Lincecum and wait until he wins another Cy Young before trying to sign him long-term, and even better for the Dodgers if they not wait until Lincecum, who is eligible for arbitration again this year, sets the market even higher.