It is unclear when exactly a Major League starting pitcher enters his prime years. There are several variables in the equation --such as when the player made his debut, how many innings he's thrown and the type of pitcher he is -- but a pitcher's prime likely begins some time in their mid-to-late 20s.
Today, March 19, is Clayton Kershaw's 28th birthday. Judging by his resume, one could easily mistake Kershaw as being an aging veteran. After all, he has four ERA titles, three Cy Youngs and one MVP to his name.
But he is just entering his age-28 season, which makes it even more ridiculous that Kershaw has been able to accomplish all that he has. He is already hands-down the best pitcher in baseball right now, but he has had a historically great career and he could be on his way to becoming one of the best pitchers in MLB history.
To see how Kershaw stacks up against other all-time greats, I will compare his five-year run with others in history. Since 2011, the Dodgers ace leads all MLB starting pitchers in wins, ERA and strikeouts and has more than 10 wins-above-replacement (WAR) than the closest competitor, according to FanGraphs.
Furthermore, Kershaw not only blows away current players with his recent dominance, he also matches up well with other Hall of Famers. Check out this chart, stats courtesy of FanGraphs:
Looking at the stats, Kershaw certainly isn't the best of the bunch, but he's not the worst either. If I had to rank them on just the stats and years above, I'd go Martinez, Koufax, Kershaw, Maddux, Gibson.
Pedro Martinez had one of the best pitching seasons ever in 2000, leading the league with a sparkling 1.74 ERA and 284 strikeouts en route to his third Cy Young award. (Photo: Chuck Solomon/Sports Illustrated)
Obviously there are other factors, so I'm not saying that Kershaw is a better pitcher than Maddux and Gibson -- although he might be by the time his career is over -- but his body of work to this point in his career definitely puts him on course to go down as one of the best starting pitchers to ever toe the rubber.
Look no further than a recent column by Yahoo's Jeff Passan about the southpaw from Texas.
"There really is nothing left for Clayton Kershaw, individual, to accomplish," Passan writes, "not with his ninth season bearing down and three Cy Young Awards locked up and a Hall of Fame plaque ready to be etched no matter how the rest of his career goes. He is one of the best pitchers ever. This is a fact. Anyone who cares to disagree should join his or her fellow kind under a bridge."
Look at Kershaw's entire career, and Buster Olney of ESPN. com notes that he is in elite company at his current age.
Again, Kershaw finds his name in the elitest of elite company. His list of accomplishments could probably get him into Cooperstown already, but the crazy thing is that unless he gets injured -- which isn't likely to happen considering Kershaw's incredible durability throughout the years -- he probably has many more Cy Young-caliber seasons ahead of him.
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Kershaw isn't taking anything for granted, though.
"In 2016, no one's done anything," Kershaw said via Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. "It's another season. You have to prove yourself all over again."
It's that philosophy that has allowed Kershaw to repeatedly put up incredible statlines season after season. He goes into each year with a clean slate and does everything he can to perform at his best.
Even in the years where he doesn't win the ERA title -- 2015 was the first such year since 2010 -- his left arm still does plenty of damage. Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke took most of the headlines for their respective stellar seasons, but Kershaw quietly went 16-7 with a 2.13 ERA and became the first pitcher since 2002 to strike out 300 batters in a season.
A quiet 300 strikeouts? That sounds like an oxymoron, but it just goes to show that Kershaw has been so good for so long that people are no longer surprised at his excellence.
Kershaw will always be questioned for his less-than-stellar postseason pitching line, but he really shouldn't. He is undoubtedly the best pitcher in baseball right now and the stats suggest that he could already be one of the best ever.
And considering he's just turning 28 years old, Kershaw could be primed for even more success down the road.