Clayton Kershaw: The best pitcher in baseball? No one's been better over the last year than the Dodgers' lefty, who made history against the Mets on Thursday.
Not that he ever really went away, but Clayton Kershaw is back. On Thursday night, the 28-year-old lefty not only fired his second complete-game shutout of the season—a 5–0 whitewashing of the Mets—but also reached double-digit strikeouts for the fifth start in a row, setting a franchise record as well as a major league record with five straight starts with at least 10 strikeouts and no more than one walk. Perhaps most impressively, he put the cap on a 365-day stretch that would rate as the best season of his career, which is saying something with regards to a three-time Cy Young award winner.
Backed by the Dodgers' five early runs against Bartolo Colon, Kershaw held the Mets to just three hits: two singles by Asdrubal Cabrera and a double by Curtis Granderson. When he walked David Wright in the first inning, it ended a streak of 23 straight innings without a free pass and marked just his second walk during this five-start run; his strikeout-to-walk ratio in that span is 57/2. He dug deep to reach double digits, netting his 10th strikeout (Eric Campbell) via the final out of the eighth inning and then icing the cake with three ninth-inning punchouts, interrupted only by Cabrera's second hit and a balk that sent him to second, as far as any Mets hitter traveled on the night. You can see a Vin Scully-narrated montage of his strikeouts here and watch a Charley Steiner-narrated cut of his 10th (Campbell) and 13th (Wright) below:
With the 10-strikeout, one-walk night, Kershaw passed Stephen Strasburg, who was the only other pitcher since 1913 to sustain such a streak for at least four straight starts; the Nationals' righty did so from Sept. 9 to 26 last year. Pitchers have strung together three such starts in a row 19 times; Kershaw himself did it in 2011 and then twice last year, first from July 8 to 23 and then again from Aug. 23 to Sept. 2. Chris Archer and Rich Hill each had one three-start run like that last year. Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Johan Santana are the only pitchers besides Kershaw with more than one such three-start streak; each has two. Sandy Koufax (1965) and Dazzy Vance ('25) are the only Dodgers besides Kershaw with at least a three-game streak, and in fact they were the first two pitchers to do so within the period covered by the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index. The rising tide of strikeouts, of course, is why the list is so skewed towards recent history, with eight of the 21 streaks of three or more games since the start of 2014, just four prior to 1998 and only one before World War II.
Leaving walk totals out of the equation, Kershaw's five-start run with double-digit strikeouts is a Dodgers record. Koufax had four such runs, two apiece in 1962 and '65, and Hideo Nomo had one in his '95 rookie season. Even so, Kershaw is only halfway to the all-time record:
|Pedro Martinez||Red Sox||8/19/99||4/9/00||10||130/11|
|Chris Sale||White Sox||5/23/15||6/30/15||8||97/9|
|Pedro Martinez||Red Sox||4/15/99||5/18/99||7||84/13|
That record-setting run, from Aug. 19, 1999 to April 9, 2000, is peak Pedro, which is to say that it's one of the most dominant runs ever: In 76 1/3 innings, he posted a 1.06 ERA with 15.3 strikeouts per nine and 11.8 strikeouts for every walk. Included within is his 17-strikeout, one-hit outing against the Yankees on Sept. 10, 1999 in the Bronx, with the only hit a Chili Davis solo homer—one of just two home runs Martinez allowed during that 10-start run. Martinez won the AL Cy Young in both years touched by the streak, adding them to the mantle alongside the NL one he won in 1997 with another amazing stretch.
Sale, meanwhile, set the single-season record last year from May 23 to June 30, a span during which he delivered a 1.80 ERA with 14.6 strikeouts per nine and a 10.8 ratio. David Price had a five-start run along these lines in June 2014, making him the only other pitcher besides Kershaw or Sale with such a streak since the start of 2005.
Kershaw's numbers this year are jaw-dropping. Though his 1.74 ERA trails Jake Arrieta (1.13) and his 11.2 strikeout per nine ranks third, his 1.48 FIP, 0.6 walks per nine and 19.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio (77/4) are tops, and he's the first major leaguer with multiple complete games (and multiple shutouts) this season. Even more impressive is his run over the last 365 days, which conveniently began in the wake of a spate of "What's wrong with Clayton Kershaw?" articles (including my own) following a dud in the 41-degree misery of Coors Field. In that span, Kershaw has thrown 250 1/3 innings with 322 strikeouts, a 1.65 ERA, 1.71 FIP, 1.26 walks per nine and a 9.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, all of which beat his best single-season marks; his 11.58 strikeouts per nine is a mere 0.06 off his 2015 mark, and his 0.47 homers per nine trails his '13 and '14 marks (0.41 and 0.42, respectively) by similarly small margins. Via FanGraphs' version of WAR (which is driven by strikeout, walk and home run rates instead of runs allowed, which drives B-Ref's version), Kershaw has 10.6 WAR in that span, well above his career-best 8.6, set last season. The last pitcher to top 10.6 fWAR in a full season was Pedro in 1999 (11.6); the Big Unit is the only other 10-fWAR pitcher in that span (10.4 in 2001).
The only other pitcher to rival Kershaw over the past 365 days is the one who beat him out for the 2015 NL CY Young: Arrieta. The Cubs' ace has a 1.40 ERA in that span with two no-hitters and some impressive streaks within, but his 9.0 strikeouts, 2.45 FIP, 232 innings and 7.0 fWAR from that run don't hold a candle to Kershaw’s marks. Put another way, Kershaw has 90 more strikeouts and 18 fewer walks over that span, during which Arrieta has also benefited from a Chicago defense that has helped him to a .227 batting average on balls in play, compared to Kershaw's .264. Zack Greinke, whose 1.66 ERA last year was the majors' best since 1995, has been cuffed for a 5.26 ERA with the Diamondbacks this year, so his 365-day mark is just 2.48.
You can tailor the start and end points to produce a streak that favors Arrieta over Kershaw, at least as far as ERA is concerned; the former owns a 0.66 mark versus the latter's 1.63 since the start of last August, for example, though Kershaw has the edge in most peripheral stats during that run. Even before Thursday’s start, Cliff Corcoran suggested that Kershaw holds the inside track in this year’s Cy Young race. The take-home point here, however, is simply that the Dodgers' ace remains one of the best pitchers on the planet. Indeed, not a damn thing is wrong with Clayton Kershaw.