A look at Clayton Kershaw’s Cy Young candidacy

If Clayton Kershaw hadn’t missed 2 1/2 months with a back injury, he’d be well on his way to a fourth Cy Young award. Unfortunately, he did get hurt and his chances are seemingly all but shot. However, there have been some instances when a starting pitcher with as few innings as Kershaw have garnered some significant Cy Young votes, so his candidacy is still worth looking at.

Kershaw is at 142 innings, and he’s averaging 7.1 inning per start, so let’s just say he gets to 149 innings (for argument’s sake). No starting pitcher in the last 40 years — which is essentially the same as saying no starting pitcher ever since starters threw many more innings back in the day — has ever won the Cy Young award with fewer than 150 innings pitched. Here’s a breakdown of where starting pitchers have placed in Cy Young voting in the last 40 years among pitchers with fewer than 180 innings pitched.

Player Year IP Cy Finish
Chris Sale 2014 174 3rd
Doug Fister 2014 167 8th
Jake Arrieta 2014 156.2 T-9th
Matt Moore 2013 150.1 T-9th
Jose Fernandez 2013 172.2 3rd
Matt Harvey 2013 178.1 4th
Zack Greinke 2013 177.2 8th
Francisco Liriano 2013 161 T-9th
Ryan Vogelsong 2011 179.2 T-11th
Clay Buchholz 2010 173.2 6th
Daisuke Matsuzaka 2008 167.2 4th
CC Sabathia 2008* 130.2 5th
Bartolo Colon 2002* 117 6th
Roy Oswalt 2001 141.2 5th
John Smoltz 1998 167.2 T-4th
Randy Johnson 1998* 84.1 7th
Dwight Gooden 1987 179.2 T-5th
Rick Sutcliffe 1984* 150.1 1st

*Traded Midseason
Only one pitcher who has thrown fewer than 180 innings in either league has won the award, and that was Sutcliffe way back in 1984. And even that comes with a caveat since he threw 94 1/3 innings with Cleveland before being traded to the Cubs to make 20 starts and compile a 16-1 record (important because win-loss record mattered much more 30-plus years ago).

Other than Sutcliffe, the best finishes were two third-place finishes and three fourth-place finishes. And even in those instances, the fewest number of innings pitched were 167 2/3, which is significantly more than what Kershaw is projected to end with.

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The National League has no shortage of viable candidates for the award this season. Noah Syndergaard might be the leading contender, as his numbers among qualified pitchers are outstanding — 2.60 ERA (third in NL), 2.28 FIP (best in MLB) and 6.5 fWAR (best in MLB) — but there is also Kyle Hendricks, who has a sub-2 ERA (1.99) and a solid 3.21 FIP. If you’re into innings pitched, Max Scherzer is your guy, as he leads the NL (second in majors) in that department and his peripherals are great as well. Madison Bumgarner is second in the NL in innings pitched and is also posting some strong peripherals.

Then we come to the late Jose Fernandez. Even before his tragic passing, he was a leading contender — the leader in some folks’ eyes — for the award. His strikeout percentage is the best in the game, as is his K%-BB% (26.9%), and his FIP is 0.02 points behind Syndergaard’s. As such, I would not be at all upset if he won the award posthumously, both because of the circumstances and because you could argue he was on his way to winning it anyway. Actually, at this point I’d be a little put off if Fernandez doesn’t win it.

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The difference between Kershaw and his competition this year and the players before him who have placed in Cy Young voting is that Kershaw was flat-out dominant before he got hurt and has been just as dominant since returning.

He’s going to get close to 150 innings, and his 150 innings are much, much more valuable than, say, another really good pitcher’s 180 innings. Sure, that might mean the other player gets four more quality starts (not in the sense of the statistic), but Kershaw’s rate stats are better in a shorter time frame, and he’s so good there are even some counting stats in which he’s still better.

fWAR is one of those counting stats. He’s tied with Syndergaard at 6.5. If you extrapolate it to give Kershaw seven innings per start over 33 starts, Kershaw’s fWAR would be 10.6 and we’d be arguing for his NL MVP candidacy instead. Extrapolating in that manner assumes a lot, mostly that Kershaw would continue pitching at the level he had been pitching at, but the point is that when he was pitching he was lapping the field, and I’d safely say he would’ve at least have bested his career-best fWAR he posted last year of 8.5.

The other big one is win probability added. Kershaw, despite missing 2 1/2 months (which will equate to 12 starts in a normal 33-start season), is second in MLB at 4.23. He’s behind only Jon Lester at 4.82, but Lester has accumulated his WPA in 55 2/3 more innings.

So even though Kershaw has missed over a third of the season, he’s still near the top of two key stat leaderboards, which is ridiculous and goes to show just how far ahead he’s been this year when he takes the mound.

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Despite his excellence, I’ve already conceded Kershaw isn’t going to win. He shouldn’t. But he will absolutely get votes. I’d even predict he’ll get at least one first-place vote from some progressive baseball writer who has an NL Cy Young vote. Either way, win or lose, it’s still remarkable that this is even something we can legitimately talk about.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.