The very first season National League hurlers could measure themselves up against American League pitchers -- the 1901 campaign -- the claimant for the lowest ERA among both the leagues' qualifiers was none other than Cy Young, who posted a 1.62 mark for the Boston team in the AL.
The first pitcher (since 1901) to twice lead the Major Leagues in ERA was Addie Joss, whose second title in 1908 came one year before Christy Mathewson captured his second crown. Along with those two dead-ballers, 19 other pitchers since 1901 have captured multiple Major League ERA titles, with Pedro Martinez's five standing as the most, ahead of the four each held by Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove and Greg Maddux. Pedro's third came in his age-28 season in 2000, making him (at the time) the youngest pitcher to lead the NL and AL three times. Rather than discuss the relative ages for the all of the other three-time winners in one, long sentence, let's use a table to identify the facts.
1901-2013: Pitchers to Claim 3+ MLB ERA Titles
Age-season of 3rd title
That final row -- for the now three-time defending MLB ERA champ -- kind of stands out, giving just one perspective and avenue to celebrate the thousand-watt brilliance that has been attached to the throwing arm of the Dodgers southpaw named Clayton Kershaw.
While capturing his third consecutive MLB ERA title, Kershaw did more than just partner up alongside Grove and Maddux as the only pitchers since 1901 to win three in a row and put himself in a small and illustrious collection as one of eight to win as many as three overall -- his 2013 campaign also punctuated an extraordinary three-year run that on its own stands as one of the more eye-catching seasons seen in some time.
Before Kershaw in 2013, the Majors had not seen a sub-2.00 ERA, southpaw starter since John Tudor and his exceptional 1.93 mark in 1985, and Kershaw's 1.83 was the lowest for a left-hander since Ron Guidry turned in his jaw-dropping 1.74 in 1978. Adjusting that raw value for some context only heightens the appreciation, for Kershaw's 194 ERA+ stands as the 10th highest for a left-hander since 1893 (and higher than any mark ever produced by Sandy Koufax) and rests as the third highest for a southpaw in an age-25 season or younger. To find a higher mark from a left arm so young, one has to go back to Hal Newhouser's 195 in his age-24 season in 1945.
Kershaw's artistry in 2013 -- a season that saw him claim his second NL Cy Young Award -- extended beyond his ERA leadership, as he also paced the NL with a 0.915 WHIP and 232 strikeouts (giving him two career league strikeout crowns and three straight league WHIP titles; more on this latter achievement in just a bit). And if a sub-2.00 ERA is more easily recognizable and understandable for assertions of greatness, a WHIP hiding that far below 1.00 is also worthy of some name-dropping. A WHIP as low as 0.915 has been produced by a qualifying pitcher just 16 times in the live-ball era, and only three times by a pitcher in his age-25 or younger season: with Kershaw joining Denny McLain and Dave McNally, who each dropped so deep in the Year of the Pitcher, 1968. And rarely in the live-ball era has a WHIP that low been paired with an ERA so miniscule. In fact, before Kershaw, the authors of such a combo could be counted using the digits of only one hand.
In '68, the two respective league ERA leaders -- Bob Gibson in the NL and Luis Tiant in the AL -- each managed these twin feats, and more recently, Martinez did it in 2000. But it's the man in the middle of this chronology that seemingly holds special significance for Kershaw's appearance as the sixth since 1920 to do it, for the two of them share a connection that extends beyond the claim of three consecutive Major League ERA titles.
On Sept. 27, 1995, Maddux made his final start of the regular season and finished with a line that would have seemed almost pedestrian against the standards he had set over the past few years: six innings, three hits and no walks, no runs. Those single-game numbers lowered his ERA to 1.63 and his WHIP to 0.811: final-season stats that would give him his third straight MLB ERA title and his third consecutive MLB WHIP crown (in '93, he led with a 2.36 ERA and a 1.049 WHIP, while in '94, he paced all pitchers with a 1.56 ERA and a 0.896 WHIP).
Since 1901, no other pitcher has led the Majors in both of those categories in three straight years, and Maddux, along with Koufax, Grove and now Kershaw, are the only pitchers to have a consecutive three-year run that saw them lead their specific league in both ERA and WHIP. During his run from 1993-95, Maddux posted two of the four best ERA+ seasons in the modern era, became the first pitcher since Walter Johnson in 1918-19 to compile consecutive seasons with an ERA no higher than 1.63 and became the first pitcher since 1908-09 (when Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown and Mathewson each did it) to put together back-to-back seasons with a WHIP below 0.900. Quite simply, Maddux was doing things that had not been done since before Babe Ruth famously ushered in the live-ball era. Not even Kershaw, for all his brilliance in the past three seasons, has climbed so high by going so low (at least in terms of the ERA and WHIP).
Maddux (1993-95) vs. Kershaw (2011-13)
Just like before, accommodations for Kershaw's age must factor into the celebration. It's this all-important variable that makes him such a compelling figure in today's game: both for what we are witnessing and for how we recognize his place in history. Looking at just those three categories in the Maddux vs. Kershaw table (and using a minimum of 600 innings as the floor), Kershaw's 2.21 ERA is the lowest for a pitcher in his age-23 through age-25 seasons since Hal Newhouser's 1.99 (1944-46), Kershaw's 166 ERA+ is the third highest since 1901 for those age-seasons (behind marks from Johnson and Newhouser), and his 0.971 WHIP is the second lowest since 1901, behind Johnson's 0.932 from 1911-1913. With the ERA titles, the WHIP crowns and the numbers behind those leaderboard claims, Clayton Kershaw is recalling some of the most vibrant names and performances the game has seen.