However, I've always felt this criticism was overstated and misplaced, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, and this can't be emphasized enough, Clayton Kershaw is just 22 years old. Let's repeat that: 22 YEARS OLD. Most 22-year-olds who play baseball for a living, or aspire to, are playing, at that young age, in the minor leagues or college.
220.1 innings over parts of 3 minor league seasons.
We've all heard the comparisons made between Kershaw and other pitchers, past and present, as is the case when any high-profile prospect, be he a position player or pitcher, hits the scene after years and years of hype and speculation. With Kershaw, the first pitcher he is always compared to is fellow lefty and Dodger great Sandy Koufax. Many have brushed the comparison off as premature, others as too far-fetched, and others simply due to the notion that young players must pay their dues before any accolades or comparisons can be heaped upon them.
Will Clayton Kershaw become Sandy Koufax? No one can say for sure one way or the other, but the practice of comparing young players to their predecessors, even all-time great talents and players, is, to me, more than fair, and an obvious part of the player-development process. As fans, we want to know the talent a player possesses, the skill set he works with. Saying that a player is similar to another is a great way to let us know what we can expect from a player if he were to reach his potential. Just knowing how much potential a player has, what the outer reaches of his future might hold, is a great thing from where I stand.
With that said, I decided to take a look at Clayton and some comparables, looking specifically at their strikeout and walk numbers. I chose the pitchers based on a few simple criteria: pitchers Kershaw's been compared to/linked with before; were they great, are they great, can they be great; pitchers with high strikeout and walk totals at some point in their career.
Here are the walk totals for 9 pitchers I looked at, with Kershaw included. The number listed is the highest amount of walks issued in one season. Intentional walks are included in the totals, and the age in which they occurred is in parentheses.
|Nolan Ryan (30)||204|
|Randy Johnson (27)||152|
|Roger Clemens (33)||106|
|Sandy Koufax (22)||105|
|Ubaldo Jimenez (24)||103|
|Bert Blyleven (36)||101|
|Don Drysdale (22)||93|
|Clayton Kershaw (21)||91|
|Tim Lincecum (24)||84|
|Pedro Martinez (24)||70|
Clayton Kershaw's highest walk total thus far is 91, which he hit in 2009. Some pitchers have control from the get-go, be it natural or a necessity (due to a lack of overpowering stuff), but the pitchers listed above have one thing in common, aside from high walk totals, be it for a season or a career: they're all considered great. Ryan, Koufax, and Drysdale are all in the Hall Of Fame. Martinez and Johnson will be in the HOF, and Clemens may not make it for PED reasons, though he would get my vote, and his numbers are clearly hall-worthy. Blyleven should be in the Hall Of Fame; he should have been inducted long, long ago. Lincecum has started his career off on a Hall Of Fame path, and Jimenez has a great and good season under his belt, on top of starting this season off strong.
Look at those walk totals again though. So many stand out like sore thumbs, especially considering the age at which they were registered. Blyleven was out of his prime, Clemens was just leaving his prime years, Ryan was in the middle of his prime, and Johnson was just entering his. Koufax, Martinez, Lincecum, Drysdale, and Jimenez were all 24 or younger when they issued their personal-high number of free passes.
Only Koufax, Drysdale, and Blyleven had significant stints in the bigs at 20 or younger, when Kershaw debuted (Ryan pitched 3 innings at 19, then spent a year in the minors before returning, and Pedro pitched 8 innings at 20).
Looking at their careers further, we find some startling things:
- Nolan Ryan had 2 seasons of 200 or more walks, and 11 seasons of 100 or more walks, including 9 straight seasons from 1971-1979 (ages 24-32). He also had another 4 seasons of 90 or more walks.
- Randy Johnson, during his age 26, 27, and 28 seasons, had walk totals of 120, 152, and 144. He had another 3 seasons with 90 or more walks.
- Sandy Koufax had 4 straight seasons of 90 or more walks, between the ages of 22 and 25, with totals of 105, 92, 100, and 96 walks.
- Bert Blyleven had 4 seasons of 80 or more walks.
- Roger Clemens had 6 seasons with 80 or more walks, including 3 straight from ages 35 to 37.
- Don Drysdale had 5 seasons of 70 or more walks, all consecutive and between the ages of 21 and 25.
- Ubaldo Jimenez's walk totals the last two years: 103, 85.
K/9 IP, Career Total
|Randy Johnson||10.6 K/9 IP|
|Tim Lincecum||10.2 K/9 IP|
|Pedro Martinez||10.0 K/9 IP|
|Nolan Ryan||9.5 K/9 IP|
|Clayton Kershaw||9.3 K/9 IP|
|Sandy Koufax||9.3 K/9 IP|
|Roger Clemens||8.6 K/9 IP|
|Ubaldo Jimenez||7.9 K/9 IP|
|Bert Blyleven||6.7 K/9 IP|
|Don Drysdale||6.5 K/9 IP|
Pitchers who strike out a lot of hitters will usually walk more than the average pitcher will, and with time, refinement of mechanics, consistency in delivery, and learning of the strike zone and major league hitters, improvement in walks allowed is the goal, and the great pitchers can achieve this, though as we've already seen, success can be had when walk totals remain high.
One final chart to complete the trifecta, walks per 9 innings pitched:
BB/9 IP, Career Total
|Don Drysdale||2.2 BB/9 IP|
|Pedro Martinez||2.4 BB/9 IP|
|Bert Blyleven||2.4 BB/9 IP|
|Roger Clemens||2.9 BB/9 IP|
|Sandy Koufax||3.2 BB/9 IP|
|Tim Lincecum||3.2 BB/9 IP|
|Randy Johnson||3.3 BB/9 IP|
|Ubaldo Jimenez||4.0 BB/9 IP|
|Nolan Ryan||4.7 BB/9 IP|
|Clayton Kershaw||4.7 BB/9 IP|
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: yes, Kershaw's walk totals are detrimental to pitching consistently well, and certainly can be a cause for concern. But I'm not concerned, because he's 22, has already had a lot of major league success (certainly for a young man of his age), and has an amazing repertoire of pitches and an ungodly amount of talent to rely on. If he continues to walk 80+ batters in a season, he'll make things extremely difficult on himself, but as the above tables of statistics prove, that doesn't inherently mean he can't have success, and a lot of it, at the same time.
The 9 pitchers above being compared to young Kershaw all have had or appear to be poised to have long and fruitful careers. Many have improved upon their wildness as they have progressed and aged, and even those who didn't were able to miss enough bats and get enough outs to succeed. Again, just because it worked out well for them doesn't automatically mean it will work out in Kershaw's situation, but it's certainly comforting to see historical proof that pitchers have had success and improved their control, and that the road ahead for a 22-year-old talent like Clayton Kershaw is not doomed already, like many Dodgers fans and others would have you believe.
Clayton Kershaw is not unique in his wild tendencies. Great talents, great pitchers, and even Hall Of Fame pitchers have experienced what Kershaw has in the past, and in the end, I've always been a firm believer that more often than not, talent wins out.
Call me if he's walking 200 or more in a season, or over 100 into his 30s. We'll talk then.
So, what are your thoughts on Kershaw's walk totals and future? Comment away, and take a gander at the poll below. Vote, it's your civic duty. Or so I've been told.