L.A.'s Clayton Kershaw took home the NL Cy Young Award on Thursday, beating out half of Philly's Phab Phour (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) in the process. The honor could have gone to any of the three without much complaint, but Kershaw did just turn in one of the best seasons of any young starter in history. The 23-year-old lefty compiled a 248-to-54 K-to-BB ratio in 233.1 innings, with a 2.28 ERA and peripherals (a 2.47 Fielding Independent ERA) to back it up. He's the youngest pitcher to win the award since Dwight Gooden did it as a 20-year-old with the Mets back in 1985.
Kershaw's adjusted ERA was 63 percent better than the league average, putting him in rarified air among starters 23 or younger who qualified for the ERA title:
When Kershaw made his MLB debut at age 20, he used his low-to-mid-90s fastball and a slow, looping curveball called "Public Enemy Number One" by Vin Scully to strike out loads of batters. But he also struggled with his control, particularly against right-handed hitters. Kershaw has ascended to Cy Young status by scrapping the curve, breaking out his slider and mowing down righties.
Kershaw's percentage of sliders thrown to right-handers increased from less than one percent in 2008 to five percent in 2009, 19 percent in 2010 and 24 percent in 2011. Not coincidentally, his on-base percentage against righties nosedived from .349 in 2008 to .325 in 2009, .301 in 2010 and a paltry .259 in 2011 (Cole Hamels was the only lefty starter with a lower OBP against righties).
For most pitchers, the slider is a pitch that shows a marked platoon split. It's much more effective against same-handed hitters. For instance, lefty starters had a .223/.270/.354 line on sliders thrown to right-handers in 2011, compared to .196/.227/.290 against fellow left-handers. That's not the case for Kershaw, though. His low-to-mid-80s breaker held right-handers to a .105/.143/.182 line, which was actually better than his .148/.175/.213 slash against lefties.
Kershaw's slider had the second-highest miss rate (42 percent) and ninth-highest chase rate (also 42 percent) among lefty starters versus right-handers. Depending upon the count, he either placed the pitch middle-in or threw it low out of the zone, just close enough for hitters to think it might be a strike:
That's in contrast to most lefties, who sheepishly try to spot sliders on the outside corner against righties:
Kershaw's middle-in and low sliders got many more swings than the average lefty slider versus righties...
But hitters didn't have a prayer of making contact. Especially on pitches below the knees, where you'll see nothing but Dodger blue:
Kershaw now keeps company with Don Newcombe (1956), Don Drysdale (1962), Sandy Koufax (1963, 1965, and 1966), Mike Marshall (1974), Fernando Valenzuela (1981), Orel Hershiser (1988) and Eric Gagne (2033) among Dodgers to snag the Cy Young Award.
Arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, Kershaw can point to a win-loss record 21 games above .500, two consecutive seasons topping the 200-inning mark, the fifth best adjusted ERA ever through age 23 among starters with 700+ IP (behind Smoky Joe Wood, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Bob Feller) and his new hardware as reasons why his 2012 salary should obliterate Jered Weaver's $4.36 million in 2010 as the highest ever for a pitcher going through the process the first time. Whether he goes year-to-year or inks a long-term deal, Kershaw's slider has earned him a lot of cash.