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Big League Stew

We’re Going Streaking! Clayton Kershaw makes his first run at Cy

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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The Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

The Naked Truth: 17-5, 2.45 ERA, 205 2/3 IP, 2.44 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, 4.44 K/BB

Having a nice little Saturday: So we might as well just get this out of the way: Is this guy the best Dodger lefty since Sanford Koufax? It isn't a lock just yet, but he's well on his way. He hasn't received anywhere near the national hype of Fernando Valenzuela — although ¡Claytonmania! has a nice ring to it, don't you think? — and he can't compare to the numbing longevity of Tommy John, but Kershaw's sheer out-and-out dominance outclasses nearly every other southpaw ever to lace up in Dodger Blue. {YSP:MORE}

You're my boy, Blue!: Although he has had an ERA under 3.00 in each of his three full seasons in the big leagues, this year was Kershaw's first All-Star nod, and over the last two months he's been busy building a Cy Young case. Since July 7, Kershaw has made 11 starts, pitching 83 innings with a 1.30 ERA and a sensational 84/17 strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) ratio. He has allowed two runs or fewer in 10 of his last 11 starts.

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Kershaw is pitching a lot better this year than he has in the past, and the reason is his control. When he came up he had a million-dollar arm but a tendency toward wildness, as indicated by his 4.2 walks per nine innings and 2.2 K/BB from 2008 to 2010. This year, he's walking just 2.2 men per nine, and his K/BB has doubled to 4.4. If you want to know how to take a pitcher from good to All-Star level, just get him to double his strikeout-to-walk ratio. It's not as easy as it sounds, but believe me, it works wonders.

In other respects, he's really the same pitcher he was before. His Batting Average on Balls in Play is actually a few points higher than his career average, .288 compared to .285; so is his home run per fly ball ratio, 5.5 percent compared to 5.3 percent. His fastball may have picked up a little more velocity over last year, though: according to Fangraphs, his average fastball velocity is 93.4 mph this year, compared to 92.5 last year and 93.9 in 2009. His refinement of his breaking stuff has allowed him to post the highest swinging strike and strikeout rates of his career. Now that he can throw all his pitches for strikes, hitters really don't stand a chance.

Think KFC will still be open?: Kershaw was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball when he debuted at age 20, and he has been one of the top pitchers in baseball in each of the last three seasons. Back in 2008, Alex Eisenberg at Hardball Times wrote: "If everything goes right, Kershaw could blossom into one of the five best starters in baseball." This year is Exhibit A.

Which other players are currently streaking?

Ian Kennedy, Arizona Diamondbacks 19-4, 2.90 ERA, 202 IP, 3.37 FIP, 1.11 WHIP, 3.49 K/BB
Back in 2007, the Yankees' top three pitching prospects were ranked approximately as follows: Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy. The Yankees held on to the first two and traded the third. Oops. It's a little unfair to bring up, because it's a lot easier to pitch in the NL West than in the AL East, but here's how they've all fared in 2011:

Ian Kennedy 19-4 2.90 202 1.11 3.49
Joba Chamberlain 2-0 2.83 28 2/3 1.05 3.43
Phil Hughes 4-5 6.41 66 1.50 2.00

The stone that the builder refused has now become the head cornerstone. Over his last 12 starts, Kennedy is 11-1, with a 2.15 ERA and a 75/19 K/BB ratio in 79 2/3 innings, despite a fastball that averages 90.2 mph. So how did Ian do it? In a word, command. His 3.49 K/BB is ninth best in the league, and that's a big reason why his 2.90 ERA is also ninth best in the league. He leads the league in wins and has been the single biggest reason other than Justin Upton that the Diamondbacks are headed to the playoffs after losing 97 games last year. As Dave Brown noted on Friday morning, he's not the Cy Young frontrunner, as his across-the-board numbers trail those of Kershaw, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, but he will almost certainly receive Cy Young votes for the first time in his career, and over the last two years he has shown that he can not only be a rotation anchor, he can actually be an ace.

But it all relies on his ability to keep his walks down. His tremendous results this year are a result of a substantial decrease in his walk rate, from a career rate of 3.1 walks per nine innings to just 2.3 BB/9 this year. If he can keep that up, he'll keep pitching well. However, if the free passes creep back up, his results will decline.

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Shaun Marcum, Milwaukee Brewers 12-5, 3.11 ERA, 176 1/3 IP, 3.48 FIP, 1.09 WHIP, 2.92 K/BB
Over the course of August, the Milwaukee Brewers ran away and hid with the NL Central division, anchored by the pitching of their two great offseason acquisitions, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Though Greinke is the former Cy Young winner, Marcum has actually been the best pitcher on the staff. He didn't come cheaply, as the man he was traded for, Brett Lawrie, is making a furious run at the AL Rookie of the Year award, but Marcum is having the best season of his fine but injury-plagued major league career: He's posting personal best or second-best marks in ERA, K/BB, innings pitched and wins. Having undergone Tommy John surgery in 2009, he has unimpressive velocity, with an average fastball of just 87 miles per hour (somehow, that's actually slower than Josh Collmenter's), but he has terrific off-speed stuff and very good command of the fastball, so he's able to play like a power pitcher. And in his past five starts, as the Brew Crew has padded its lead in the Central from a healthy five games to a virtually untouchable 8.5, he's been nearly untouchable: he has pitched 34 2/3 innings and allowed just four earned runs, good for a cool 1.04 ERA.

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David Price, Tampa Bay Rays 12-12, 3.40 ERA, 203 2/3 IP, 3.17 FIP, 1.11 WHIP, 3.85 K/BB
Maybe you missed it, but David Price is quietly having an awesome season. His 3.17 FIP is eighth in the AL (his 3.19 xFIP is fifth); he's also eighth in the AL in innings, fifth in strikeouts, and fifth in K/BB. Earlier this year he made his second straight All-Star appearance, and though this year has been less impressive than his second-place showing in the Cy Young last year, his serious improvement in his strikeout rate and decrease in his walk rate bodes very well for the future, as he becomes the ace that the Rays expected when they made him the first overall pick of the 2007 draft. And lately, his results have been catching up: In his last six starts, he has pitched 44 innings with a 1.64 ERA and a great 46/14 strikeout to walk ratio, punching out more than a man an inning while maintaining the third-fastest average fastball in the majors (tied with Michael Pineda, and behind only Justin Verlander and Alexi Ogando). He started out this year getting a bit unlucky on hits, as his .287 BABIP is 12 points higher than his career mark.

There's really nothing wrong with a 3.40 ERA, but his FIP suggests that he's actually been much better. Ironically, last year, his FIP was 3.42 and his ERA was 2.72, while this year the situation is reversed: His ERA is 3.40 but his FIP is 3.17. So while he substantially overperformed his components last year, he's underperforming them this year and still having a fine season. More streaking could be to come.

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