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March 8, 2010

One-Hoppers

Slider makes Kershaw a Cy contender

by Jay Jaffe

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This past weekend, Clayton Kershaw shared the company of Sandy Koufax -- the Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw to whom all other Dodger southpaws are inevitably compared. Kershaw has yet to lead the Dodgers to a championship or rack up the individual accolades his predecessor earned. But he's closer to putting it all together than you think.

Despite last year's unimposing 8-8 won-loss record, the 21-year-old finished the year with the NL's lowest hit rate (6.3 per nine), second-lowest homer rate (0.4 per nine) and fifth-highest strikeout rate (9.7 per nine). The turning point came in June, when he added a slider into his already-impressive arsenal: a mid-90s fastball, knee-buckling curve (the one Vin Scully named "Public Enemy Number One" when Kershaw was still a teenager) and change-up. His two breaking pitches, the slider and curve, start off similarly so it's difficult for the hitter to distinguish from one another until too late. The new slider generated almost twice as many swings and misses on a percentage basis.

Kershaw's numbers, since he introduced the pitch in early-June, are eye-popping; they stand with the elite hurlers in the majors, with the caveat that his age limited his workload (every pitcher below -- save for Kershaw, Lester and Jurrjens -- received at least one mention in the Cy Young voting):

Player GS IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Clayton Kershaw 20 115.0 2.03 10.2 4.6 0.2
Felix Hernandez 23 167.1 2.10 7.8 2.7 0.5
Tim Lincecum 22 160.0 2.25 10.0 2.8 0.5
Adam Wainwright 23 161.0 2.29 8.6 2.1 0.6
Jon Lester 21 138.0 2.35 9.9 2.6 0.6
Chris Carpenter 23 153.2 2.53 6.4 1.8 0.4
Javier Vazquez 21 149.0 2.54 9.2 1.7 0.9
Jair Jurrjens 23 149.0 2.60 6.8 3.1 0.7
Zack Greinke 22 147.1 2.75 9.4 2.4 0.7
Roy Halladay 21 157.0 2.87 8.0 1.4 0.9

Note that Kershaw's strikeout and home run rates compare favorably to Lincecum and Greinke, the two Cy Young winners. Sure, the kid could stand to walk fewer hitters, particularly since doing so will allow him to pitch deeper into games. And he may be due for a bit of regression in the hit and homer departments. But with his quality of stuff, it wouldn't be implausible to find him attending an awards banquet in the near future.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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