This is why you should pledge to never miss a Clayton Kershaw start in 2016
One of our largest flaws as humans is that when we are regularly presented with something wonderful, we still find a way to take it for granted. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been so dominant for so long -- an ERA below 2.92 each season since 2009 -- that his start-to-start excellence is easy to overlook.
Sure, it's one thing to look back at 200-plus innings every November and award Kershaw another Cy Young Award. What's harder is gathering your family around, unplugging your phone and spending every fifth day watching the master at work. But Kershaw's performance is well worth that effort, and here's why:
Greatness doesn't last forever and the day when the amazing turns to above-average turns ordinary can't always be predicted by science, PECOTA or crystal balls.
Tim Lincecum won two consecutive Cy Young Awards 2008 and '09, but the last time he posted an ERA+ better than league average was 2011. This year he's a free agent, hoping to latch onto a team with a Minor League deal.
Justin Verlander looked like an unstoppable force in 2011 and '12, winning a Cy Young and MVP award along the way. Over the next three seasons, the Tigers righty pitched to a 3.84 ERA, just slightly better than Major League average of 3.86. Last year he failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since his 2006 Rookie of the Year campaign.
Even Felix Hernandez, who has been one of the most dominant and consistent starters since his debut in 2005, may have entered his decline phase. Felix allowed just two earned runs in his first 18 innings this year, but his walks have spiked and his fastball is averaging under 90 mph -- two mph less than last year and six miles down from his peak. It could be small sample size noise or a veteran pitcher working up to strength, or it could be a sign that King Felix's days as a perennial Cy Young contender are drawing to a close.
Meanwhile, Kershaw is not only in the midst of his peak, but he's actually been more dominant for a longer period of time than any of those three. Over the last three seasons, Kershaw has posted a 188 ERA+, a statistic that normalizes performance and compares it to the league average (which is 100). Verlander's best season: 172. Lincecum's: 171. Hernandez: 174. That means Kershaw has been better, on average, over the past three years than any one of those guys was in his very best season.
In fact, if Kershaw can post one more season like this, he'll match Randy Johnson's four-year stretch from 1999-02, when the left-handed giant went 81-27 with a 187 ERA+ and won four consecutive Cy Young Awards. If you regret missing any part of Johnson's Hall of Fame run, you can rectify that by watching Kershaw now.
But that's too granular. Remove yourself from a line score and look at the poetry that flows from Kershaw's hand. While Kershaw has the approach and mindset that could let him succeed even when his velocity dips and his pitches don't dart so sharply, his dominance is due to a collection of pitches that seem to break the laws of physics.
His fastball is a mid-90s monster, capable of both setting up hitters and blowing them away.
His curveball has been described by Vin Scully as "Public Enemy No. 1." Kershaw used the hook more frequently last season (18.1%) than that in any campaign since his rookie year, and it's easy to see why:
When he throws his fastball and follows it with his curve, well, all you can do is yell out phrases you'd expect to see in a bad sitcom. "Oh mercy me, Mary Ann!" or "Slap that pig in the bucket, we're going to dinner!"
And his slider. Oh, how to describe a pitch that is less a breaking ball and more something da Vinci may have dreamed up while he was inventing the first helicopter? Batters have hit just .156 off the pitch, striking out 682 times. In 2016: 6-for-38, 11 strikeouts.
This is a pitcher in the middle of such an impressive streak, no active pitcher can touch him -- at least if the numbers can be believed.
Jake Arrieta stopped Kershaw's NL Cy Young streak by posting a 1.77 ERA last season. Exceeding 157 innings for the first time at age 30, Arrieta recorded 9.3 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 0.4 HR/9 over 229 frames. Kershaw's averages over 1,128 IP from 2011-2015? 10 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 0.5 HR/9
From 2009-2015, Kershaw had a 2.28 ERA in 1,503 IP. The next best ERA by a starter who pitched at least 500 innings in that span is Adam Wainwright at 2.80. Over the same timeframe, Kershaw has struck out 97 more hitters than any other pitcher in MLB.
He's also the last pitcher to strike out 300 batters in season since Johnson and Curt Schilling did it in 2002.
Kershaw led the Majors in ERA for four straight seasons between 2011-14, a feat that no other pitcher has accomplished. Johnson led the NL for three of four years, Pedro Martinez led the NL in 1997 before then leading the AL for four of five seasons from 1999-2003, and Sandy Koufax led the NL for five consecutive years between 1962-66, leading the Majors in just three of them.
Kershaw has 31 starts in which he has pitched seven-plus innings while striking out 10 or more and giving up less than two earned runs. That's first among active pitchers -- one more than Lincecum and two ahead of Hernandez ... in 92 fewer career starts.
Kershaw has six starts with a game score of 90 or higher (a stat developed by Bill James that determines how strong a pitcher's performance was). That's tied for most among active pitchers with Verlander. Only difference: Verlander's made 76 more starts.
While the number will likely drop when Kershaw enters his decline phase, his career ERA+ of 155 is the greatest all-time for any pitcher not named Mariano Rivera -- and Kershaw has already thrown 400 more innings than Rivera did in his entire career. The next closest starter is Martinez at 154.
If you have plans for Tuesday night when Kershaw takes on the Marlins, cancel them. If you have plans that conflict with his next start, cancel those too. In fact, just tell your friends you'll be busy during every Kershaw start from here on out. One day Kershaw won't be Kershaw, ace of all realms, any more. Until then, you don't want to miss another chance to witness his greatness.