Just after midnight this morning, Yahoo! Sports ran an article titled “Look out, MLB hitters, Clayton Kershaw is back.” The post, by Mike Oz of Big League Stew, came on the heels of Kershaw’s most recent dominant outing. Last night, Kershaw retired the first 18 New York Mets batters that came to the plate, before wrapping up a three-hitter for his second complete game shutout of 2015.
The basic premise of Oz’s article — Kershaw had somehow lost form for the opening three months of the season — is based mostly on the fact that Kershaw ended the month of June on a three-game losing streak. This of course overlooks the fact that Kershaw had a 2.16 ERA in the month, and struck out 12.3 per nine. On the year, the reigning National League Cy Young winner leads the league in K/9 at 11.9, which is also a career-high by over a strikeout per game.
It would have been fair to question, based on old metrics, at the beginning of the season whether Kershaw was beginning to unravel. His April and May were quite possibly the two worst months of his career in terms of ERA. Kershaw pitched to a 3.86 ERA with a 3-3 record. However, the past few years have taught baseball fans everywhere that ERA and win-loss records are painfully outdated means for evaluating a pitcher’s performance. Over the first ten starts of the season, in which he supposedly returned to mortal form, Kershaw struck out 11.4 per nine, still far above his career average of 9.7.
The so-called poor performance at the start of the year really boils down to plain old bad luck for Kershaw. In April, he allowed a .384 BABip. In May, Kershaw allowed a .217 batting average against and fewer home runs and extra base hits than April, but saw his monthly ERA climb from 3.73 to 3.97. This season, he has seen 13.8% of fly balls turn into home runs, nearly double his career rate. That’s just bad luck, folks. Kershaw is also generating the highest groundball rate of his career this season, indicating that he is even better at creating easier outs for his fielders. For his career, Kershaw’s ERA has typically beaten out his FIP by a few tenths of a run. This year, it’s a few tenths higher, thanks to a few extra unlucky hits and home runs. Kershaw’s 2.13 FIP is nearly identical to the 2.11 FIP of Max Scherzer.
Now, in ten June and July starts, Kershaw has posted a 1.33 ERA. He now has a consecutive scoreless streak of 29.0 innings, not quite on the level of teammate Zack Greinke, but gaining rapidly. With last night’s bid at perfection, Kershaw became the first pitcher in baseball history with three straight shutout starts with 10+ strikeouts and no walks. Since allowing his last walk in the first inning on July 3 to John Mayberry, Kershaw has reeled off 45 strikeouts without issuing another free pass.
The perceived early season struggles of Clayton Kershaw have many counting him out of the National League Cy Young race this season, but with this string of dominance in which he has reminded everyone that there is really no question who the best pitcher on the planet is, Kershaw has inserted himself right into the thick of the conversation. Greinke and Scherzer will provide worthy opposition as Kershaw attempts to win his third consecutive award, and both have been exceptional this year. Greinke appears poised to make a run at Orel Hershiser‘s record 59-inning scoreless streak, and Scherzer dabbled with perfection in three straight starts earlier this season.
Despite the strong run of pitching by Greinke — who has surely take this season’s performance into a huge pile of money with the ability to opt out of his current contract — and Scherzer, the National League Cy Young award is Clayton Kershaw’s to lose every year until he proves otherwise. If Kershaw keeps striking hitters out at the same clip for the remainder of the year, he will have a shot at becoming the first pitcher to strike out 300 batters in a single season since Randy Johnson in 2001. All signs point to Kershaw continuing to be the most dominant pitcher on the face of the earth, despite a blip in April and May. Kershaw is not “back.” He never went anywhere, and when the dust settles on the 2015 season, he will have a third consecutive National League Cy Young award to add to his collection.