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Transcending eras: Clayton Kershaw

When you think of the great pitchers of the game, there is generally a consensus on most of the names. Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez. The list could go on and on with dominant pitchers who have played the game. Even so, how about we add one more name to that list; Clayton Kershaw.

The burly lefty may only be 29 years old, but when you review his career so far, it’s hard not to see how truly dominant he has been. But does he truly match up to the likes of Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan? Let’s delve into the numbers and see how the Dallas native compares to the past greats.

Best pitcher of all-time
Clayton Kershaw is arguably one of the best pitchers of all-time (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images).

Mature beyond his years

That could be one of the more accurate statements made in regards to Kershaw. When the southpaw made his major league debut at the ripe old age of 20, no one could have predicted what he was to become. After being drafted seventh overall in the 2006 MLB Draft, he was pegged to be a future top of the rotation arm, a potential ace. Kershaw quickly proved that to be true after he posted a 2.79 ERA in his 21 year old season. He also punched 185 tickets in 171 innings pitched that season, proving to have electric stuff.

That season was just a glimmer of what Kershaw would become. Throughout his twenties he pitched like a grizzled veteran, compiling Hall of Fame type numbers. In his first 10 seasons in Los Angeles, he has a career 2.38 ERA with 2,033 strikeouts in 1,863.1 innings pitched. Kershaw became the second fastest to reach 2000 career strikeouts this season, bested by only Randy Johnson. The pitchers behind Kershaw on that list read like a who’s who of great MLB pitchers; Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, to name a few.

Even so, it’s much to early to mention Kershaw in the same breath as the likes of Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, isn’t it?

Lefty on lefty

When Kershaw became the second fastest player to reach 2,000 career strikeouts, many people both in and out of the game of baseball took notice. But if that was their first exposure to the Dodgers’ ace, then they have been missing one of the most masterful pitchers in baseball history. That may sound blasphemous to some die-hard baseball fans, but when put up against the game’s greats, Kershaw does more than hold his own. Let’s take Randy Johnson for example.

The Big Unit didn’t make his major league debut until he was 24 years old. Even so, we will compare his first 10 seasons to Kershaw’s, given that is the breadth of Kershaw’s career so far. In Johnson’s first 10 years in the league, he posted a 3.37 ERA, over one full run more than Kershaw’s 2.38 ERA.

Johnson also struck out an even 2000 batters over 1734 innings in those 10 years, 33 less than Kershaw. Even though Johnson was 33 strikeouts off of matching Kershaw, Johnson pitched 129 fewer innings than Kershaw, so that statistic can be misleading. That explains Johnson’s edge in SO/9, with 10.4 compared to Kershaw’s 9.8 SO/9. With the small difference in SO/9, Kershaw still easily bests Johnson in run prevention, the main responsibility of a pitcher. It can be reasoned that Kershaw has pitched better than Johnson in his first 10 seasons, but what about another great?

Righty on lefty

Best pitcher of all-time
Nolan Ryan’s greatness was on display for decades, but Kershaw might be catching up with him (baseballhall.org).

Nolan Ryan has largely been lauded as one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. The 12th round MLB Draft pick out of Refugio, Texas defied expectations, making his MLB debut at 19 years old. He put up a 3.09 ERA in 21 games in 1968, and struck out 133 batters in 134 innings pitched. In his first 10 seasons, Ryan was a force for both the Mets and Angels. With a 3.11 ERA and 2085 strikeouts in 1935 innings pitched over his first 10 seasons, Kershaw matches up well with his fellow Texan.

Kershaw again has the lead in ERA, with a 2.38 ERA compared to Ryan’s 3.11 ERA. Ryan has more strikeouts than Kershaw (2085 compared to 2033), but their SO/9 is eerily similar. Ryan possesses a 9.7 SO/9 compared to Kershaw’s 9.8 SO/9. The similarity in SO/9 is remarkable, and means Kershaw and Ryan have been about the same in regards to their strikeout ability. Even so, Kershaw again has an edge over his counterpart, with a lower ERA and similar SO/9 in their first 10 seasons.

Kershaw’s dominance can not be overlooked. And when you compare his career to some of the game’s greats, his dominance becomes even more evident. If Kershaw retired today, he would garner considerable Hall of Fame consideration. But with no signs of slowing down on the horizon, and at only 29 years old, Kershaw could continue dealing at a high level for years to come.

Feature image by USATSI.

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