Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw threw a no-hitter last night against the Colorado Rockies. It was almost a perfect game: he fanned 15 and walked nobody, the only runner reaching base due to a tough fielding error by shortstop Hanley Ramirez.
Here's a look at how Kershaw rated as a prospect and how his career stands in context.
Clayton Kershaw was widely-regarded as the top high school pitching prospect available in the 2006 draft. The prep lefty from Highland Park High School in Dallas had a Texas A&M commitment but was considered signable if drafted where his talent warranted. He went seventh-overall to the Los Angeles Dodgers and signed without trouble for $2,300,000. His pro debut was extremely successful: a 1.95 ERA with a 54/5 K/BB in 37 innings in the Gulf Coast League with just 28 hits allowed. He showed a 93-96 MPH fastball and an impressive curve.
As with most young pitchers his changeup needed work, but his overall command was better than anticipated. I gave him a Grade A- entering 2007, writing that his stuff was first-class and that "there are no holes in his numbers. About the only thing you can say about Kershaw that isn't positive is the fact that he has yet to prove he can stay healthy under a pro workload. But he has a strong body, good mechanics, and is efficient, so at least he's loading the dice in his favor." I concluded that he would be a Grade A prospect once we got a read on his durability.
Kershaw opened '07 with Great Lakes in the Midwest League, posting a 2.77 ERA with a 134/50 K/BB in 97 innings with 72 hits allowed. Promoted to Double-A Jacksonville in August, he had command problems but was effective overall, with a 3.65 ERA and a 29/17 K/BB in 25 innings with 17 hits allowed. His strikeout rate was excellent and minor league hitters weren't able to take full advantage of his wobbly command and still-inconsistent changeup.
I moved him up to a Grade A prospect rating entering 2008, with the caveat that his walk rate was high and that "he has to improve command of all three of his pitches before he's ready to thrive in the majors. Even now, given the quality of his stuff, he'd do OK if pushed into major league action. Improved command will make the difference between making him a decent pitcher and one of the best in the game."
Kershaw blew away Double-A to open 2008 with a 1.91 ERA in 11 starts for Jacksonville. Promoted to the majors, he showed great stuff but, as expected, struggled enough with his command to prevent immediate dominance. Still, he "did OK" with a 4.26 ERA in 21 starts and a 100/52 K/BB in 108 innings, with a 1.3 fWAR, very credible for a young power pitcher skipping Triple-A.
He improved steadily in 2009 and '10, then took a huge step forward in 2011 by going 21-5, 2.28 in 233 innings with a 248/54 K/BB, fWAR 6.6, and his first Cy Young Award. You know the story from here. He'd led the National League in ERA three times, in strikeouts twice, and now has two Cy Youngs on his resume. And now he has one of the best no-hitters in big league history to his credit.
Improved command made all the difference.
Through 194 major league outings (192 starts), Kershaw is 84-48, 2.60, with an ERA+ of 146. He's rung up 30.8 WAR already. Historically speaking, his Sim Score comp list entering the season thru age 25 was Gary Nolan, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Vida Blue, Jim Maloney, Pedro Martinez, Dave McNally, Roger Clemens, Lefty Liefield, and Lefty Williams.
That's a very intriguing group of comps. Seaver and Palmer are Hall of Famers, Pedro will be. Clemens would be except for the PED issue. Lefty Williams was effective until he got banned for cheating in 1920. Liefield is little-remembered today, but he was a successful young pitcher from 1905 through 1911. He threw 318 innings in 1911 at age 27 and his arm fell off. Nolan was excellent when healthy but was one of the more famous arm burnout cases from the 1970s. Blue, Maloney, and McNally pitched like Hall of Famers at their best but burned out too soon.
Kershaw's 30.8 WAR in just 1244 innings is quite extraordinary. That's exactly the same WAR as Barry Zito's entire career, Barry Zito who has pitched 1,325 more innings than Kershaw.
Kershaw's career WAR is higher than any pitcher in history with fewer than 1,250 innings. Think about that for a second.