Clayton Kershaw has Dodgers, all of us wondering: Is there a limit to his greatness? – USA TODAY

8 months ago Comments Off on Clayton Kershaw has Dodgers, all of us wondering: Is there a limit to his greatness? – USA TODAY

NEW YORK – Clayton Kershaw’s evolution can’t merely be measured by the physical characteristics that make him the greatest pitcher on the planet – be it his mastery of four pitches instead of two, or his enhanced command of the strike zone, or the conviction to throw any pitch in any count or situation.

There’s also the evolution of perception and the company he keeps among peers – a dwindling, possibly non-existent group – and the game’s all-time greats.

For Kershaw, dominance has become the norm, the absurd occurs with greater frequency, and his achievements frequently must be put in a greater context.

At 28, the ninth full season for the Los Angeles Dodgers ace is shaping up to be his greatest, as Kershaw’s statistical dossier one-third of the way through makes a fourth Cy Young Award seem inevitable, and a second MVP honor a distinct possibility.

Kershaw has struck out 105 batters and walked just five, an unprecedented ratio for a pitcher with more than 100 strikeouts. His walks and hits per inning (0.65) would break the all-time WHIP record of 0.74, set by Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez in 2000. His 334-strikeout pace would mark the most punchouts in a season since Hall of Famer Randy Johnson fanned that many in 2002.

And his 7-1 record and 1.56 earned-run average put those career marks to 121-57 and 2.40 – the latter the lowest career ERA since 1920 for a pitcher with at least 1,500 innings.

So while Kershaw’s present is tantalizing enough, his utter command of his craft has teammates and even rivals wondering: Just how high can he go?

“I hope he does it for 10 more years,” said St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright, who debuted in 2005 and has three top-three Cy Young finishes. “Even though he’s a competitor, and even though he’s clipped me in the Cy Young several times, I want him to be one of the all-time greats.

“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this before. He’s, in my mind, the best pitcher in this window of time I’ve been in the big leagues.”

That span includes aces like Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Roy Halladay, and Justin Verlander, who in 2011 became the first starting pitcher to win an MVP award since 1986.

Kershaw won the NL MVP in 2014, when a back injury limited him to 27 starts, yet he still went 21-3, struck out 239 batters and posted a 1.77 ERA. He also produced 7.5 Wins Above Replacement, or 16% of the Dodgers’ team total of 46 WAR.

This year, he’s already produced 3.5 WAR, or 28% of the Dodgers’ 12.2.

Just one pitcher – the New York Giants’ Carl Hubbell, in 1933 and ’36 – has won multiple NL MVPs. Kershaw figures to make about 22 more starts, so plenty can still happen. But the Dodgers – who figure to trot out at least a dozen starting pitchers by season’s end – don’t shy away from discussing Kershaw’s value.

“There’s an unmeasurable quality that he brings to a clubhouse on the day he pitches,” said catcher A.J. Ellis. “The aura is looser. The expectation of a win is in the air. Guys raise their game because they know he’s risen his game. A lot of our best performances seem to be when he is on the mound.

“What he does for our bullpen – his ability to go deep into games, to give those guys a much-needed day off – it’s hard to measure that value. But we feel it in here.”

Sunday, Kershaw capped one of the greatest months of his career by striking out 10 New York Mets – and walking none, of course – over 7 2/3 innings, giving him a 0.91 ERA and a 65-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio during a May in which he won five games, three of them by shutout. But he did not get the victory. Manager Dave Roberts removed Kershaw after 114 pitches, hoping his bullpen could register four outs. Instead, lefty reliever Adam Liberatore coughed up the lead immediately, giving up a game-tying double to Curtis Granderson.

The Dodgers would rally for a 4-2 win, maintaining a season-long trend: They are 10-1 in games Kershaw starts, 17-23 when anyone else does.

“A luxury is an understatement,” Roberts, the rookie manager, said of handing Kershaw the ball. “And I think every time he takes the mound, when you’re looking at penciling in 10 to 12 strikeouts, eight innings, the ‘pen’s going to get rested – it’s something we don’t take for granted around here.”

Kershaw doesn’t, either. He was elusive when pressed Sunday to put his May mauling of the opposition into context; as Ellis notes, the dominant periods become harder to tell apart: “It’s not like you can even call them stretches anymore. It’s just big … eras.”

But Kershaw’s performance showcased a dominant arm at the height of his powers. He still pitches off a fastball that touches 94 mph, but does not hesitate to wipe out batters with his now devastating slider and 70-mph curveball. Kershaw went to three-ball counts on three occasions, and escaped two of them by striking out Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker on full-count sliders out of the strike zone.

“It takes time,” Kershaw said. “It’s definitely nice to have two pitches you feel like you can throw any time. The curveball I also feel I can throw, but maybe not as much behind in the count. It comes with time, and you get more confident with it as you throw it more.”

Walker, the Mets’ second baseman, said Kershaw has gone from a “two-pitch to a four-pitch pitcher, and all are plus-plus” offerings. And Kershaw’s sublime ratio stats illustrate hitters’ unenviable plight.

“He’s not going to walk you, but he has the ability to punch you out – that puts doubt in a hitter’s mind,” Walker said. “If he gets way behind (in the count), he’s still not afraid to attack you, because he feels like he still has a chance to get you out.”

Said Scherzer, who struck out 20 batters two weeks ago: “He’s literally dominating the game right now. He’s able to locate his slider and curveball well, and those pitches are just absolutely swing-and-miss. He does a great job of creating deception and life on all his pitches. It just makes him unhittable.”

No longer is it blasphemy in Los Angeles to put Kershaw’s name in the same sentence as Sandy Koufax, who won three Cy Youngs and 165 games, and finished his career leading the NL in ERA five consecutive seasons.

Kershaw still hasn’t reached those heights, and may not yet. But the Dodgers aren’t about to suggest a ceiling exists.

“The way he’s going, who knows? He may be the best pitcher who ever pitched in this game,” closer Kenley Jansen said. “He’s been showing for six and seven years in a row how easy he makes the game look.”

Clayton Kershaw has Dodgers, all of us wondering: Is there a limit to his greatness? – USA TODAY

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