Left-hander Clayton Kershaw returns to the mound Tuesday night for the Los Angeles Dodgers after having missed six weeks because of a muscle strain in his back. Kershaw is a perennial Cy Young contender, having won the award in the National League in two of the past three seasons. Not only is his return great news for the Dodgers playoff hopes, but it returns Kershaw to prominence as one of the best, if not the best, pitcher in the majors. He's the one against whom all others, pretty much, are compared.
Dodger Insider asks: Can he do it again? Despite having missed six weeks and being on track for only 27 starts in 2014, can Clayton Kershaw still win the most prestigious award in pitching again?
The short answer is: Of course he can. This is Clayton Kershaw we're talking about here, a guy with great stuff, who works in a pitcher-friendly ballpark roughly half of the time. He can put up the numbers and has a willing electorate — if they see the right factors.
Dodger Insider notes that, among starting pitchers who have won the Cy in seasons when a work stoppage didn't cancel an inordinate amount of games, only three have done so while starting fewer than 30 games. NL winner Rick Sutcliffe in 1984 gets an asterisk, because he started 20 games for the Cubs (famously going 16-1) after coming over from the Indians in a trade. Overall, between both leagues, Sutcliffe started 35 games, but his 20 starts for Cleveland "didn't count." And it's a good thing for him (and bad for Dwight Gooden): Sutcliffe had a 5.17 ERA in the Junior Circuit.
The other two instances: Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000 won the AL Cy Young making 29 starts each season. He still finished with more than 200 innings pitched, though, which is key.
As Dodger Insider noted, Kershaw is on a pace for 27 starts. The threshold he probably needs to surpass isn't so much starts, but innings. Though pitchers need 162 innings total to qualify for the ERA title, Kershaw probably needs to surpass the 200-inning mark to get heavy Cy Young consideration, or else enough voters won't be moved. He just wouldn't have been on the field enough. Consider: Right-hander Adam Wainwright finished second in Cy Young voting in 2013 despite having a much higher ERA than Jose Fernandez or Matt Harvey, and it probably was because he led the league in innings.
Can Kershaw get to 200 innings in 2014? Not unless the Dodgers increase his workload. In 2013, Kershaw averaged 7.15 innings per start. If he equals that in 2014, he'll log about 193 innings. He'll have to get, roughly, one more out per game in most of his appearances to reach 200 IP. That could be five or 10 more pitches coming at the end of a game when he's tiring. Considering he's already been hurt, it's unlikely the Dodgers will work him harder this season. They've already been conservative with Kershaw regarding this injury. You would be too, considering the $215 million contract he just signed.
Unless a historic confluence of events happen, it's unlikely that Kershaw will reclaim his Cy Young throne this season.
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