Why Clayton Kershaw is doing historically well

Clayton Kershaw’s 7.4 WAR as of this writing belies the fact he might be having the best season by a pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000. Kershaw’s WAR doesn’t immediately stand out like his 1.87 FIP, 0.86 WHIP or 1.80 ERA, all best for a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title since Martinez in 2000. At this juncture, though, the fact that Kershaw has compiled 7.4 WAR in 190.1 innings places him in rare company. Kershaw is scheduled to make one more start this season and could become the seventh pitcher in baseball history with at least 7 WAR in under 200 innings.

Here are the six pitchers who’ve done this, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index tool:

Lefty Grove, 7.0 WAR in 191 innings in 1939: In August, I wrote of Grove as the most underrated player of the 1930s. I based it off seasons like this when Grove was an aging junk ball pitcher, with traditional stats far less impressive than before he blew out his arm in 1934. Per inning, though, Grove might have had the best season ever by a 39-year-old pitcher in 1939. Only Phil Niekro and Dazzy Vance managed more WAR in their age 39 seasons, with Niekro needing 334.1 innings to compile 10.1 WAR in 1979 and Vance needing 258.2 innings for 7.1 WAR in 1930.

John Hiller, 8.1 WAR in 125.1 innings in 1973: Hiller’s celebrated in the sabermetric community, with my friend Adam Darowski rating him higher than Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman or Dan Quisenberry. It’s partly due to Hiller’s 1973 season, which might be the most underrated one in baseball history. That said, Hiller’s work that year didn’t go unnoticed. He finished fourth in American League Cy Young and MVP voting after going 10-5 with a 1.44 ERA and 38 saves for an aging Tigers club.

Goose Gossage, 8.2 WAR in 141.2 innings in 1975: As the saying goes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. Every few years in baseball, someone forgets about what happened with Gossage because of this season and unsuccessfully tries to turn another reliever into a starter. Gossage’s brilliance in 1975– 1.84 ERA and an AL-best 26 saves– was a distant memory as he stumbled to a 9-17 record and 3.94 ERA the following year as a starter. On the bright side for Goose, he returned to the bullpen for good thereafter, collecting another 280 saves over the rest of his Hall of Fame career.

Mark Eichhorn, 7.4 WAR in 157 innings in 1986: I run an annual project having people vote on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. The first year I did this project, someone gave Eichhorn a write-in vote because of his superb 1986 rookie season. I’d never given Eichhorn much thought before I saw the vote, though it strikes me that he posted a 200 ERA+ with three different teams. Looking at pitchers with at least 50 innings in a season, only Roger Clemens, Keith Foulke, Billy Wagner and Joaquin Benoit have matched that feat.

Pedro Martinez, 8.0 WAR in 186.2 innings in 2003: Martinez gets far more attention for his eye-popping stats from 1999 and 2000, though proportionally, this season wasn’t far off. Were Martinez to have pitched the same number of innings in 1999 and 2000 that he did in 2003, he’d scale to 8.5 WAR and 10.1 WAR, respectively.

Josh Johnson, 7.2 WAR in 183.2 innings in 2010: Johnson was 11-6 with a 2.30 ERA when the Marlins shut him down for the 2010 season after his September 4 start. While it was probably a wise move for the young right hander, who’s battled injuries much of his career, it helped keep him to a distant fifth in National League Cy Young voting. If he’d gotten the starts he missed thereafter, Johnson might have led the NL in WAR.

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