It has been a mostly forgettable 2011 season for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In addition to team owner Frank McCourt declaring bankruptcy, the Dodgers have not been over .500 since they were 14-13 on April 29. They have been as many as 14 games below .500 and as far back as 14.5 games in the National League West. A recent stretch in which Los Angeles has gone 30-19 since July 23, which, at the very least, has moved the Dodgers back into respectability with the possibility of a winning record. They are currently 73-75, a full 13 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the West.
Only looking at the outside of the Dodgers’ season does not paint the full picture of how exactly this year has gone in Chavez Ravine. Sure, there are a lot of depressing scenes that come from this season. One of baseball’s most storied franchises is bankrupt. The Dodgers have mostly put a poor product out onto the field. But they also have a young pitcher who is on the verge of making history.
Clayton Kershaw had shown signs of filling his potential the past two seasons. Over 62 starts and one relief appearance, Kershaw was 21-18 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.202 WHIP in 375.1 innings of work. He struck out 9.5 batters, allowed only 6.7 hits but also walked 4.1 hitters per nine innings.
He has combined those signs of fulfilling his potential in 2009 and 2010, the electric stuff, high strikeout rate, low hit rate and ERA, with much more command and control of his pitches on the mound to become one of the game’s most dominant pitchers, an unfortunate reality for opposing hitters. Kershaw has lowered his walk rate this season to just 2.1 batters per nine innings to go along with his NL-leading 6.8 hits allowed per nine for a miniscule 0.983 WHIP, which is the third best in the majors. As a result, Kershaw is contending for the pitching Triple Crown. He has won 19 games, which is tied with Arizona’s Ian Kennedy for the most in the NL. Kershaw also leads the league in ERA (2.30) and strikeouts (236).
There have been seven different pitchers who have won the Triple Crown since 1966. The pitchers who have won this award since then- Steve Carlton, Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens (twice), Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Johan Santana and Jake Peavy – have combined for 1,641 wins and 22,561 strikeouts over 23,387.2 innings. They have won 23 Cy Young Awards and been named to 49 All-Star teams collectively. However, there is something to the Dodgers organization about the year 1966 that links Kershaw to part of a special piece of the team’s history.
Sandy Koufax won the pitching Triple Crown in 1966 by going 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and 317 strikeouts in 323 innings. It was his third Triple Crown award in four years. No pitcher has ever had a more dominant stretch. Unfortunately for the Dodgers and the game of baseball, Koufax was forced to retire after the 1966 season because of an arthritis condition in his left arm. It is a shame baseball was never able to see the staggering career numbers Koufax would have undoubtedly put up. With Koufax also went the historic Dodger teams that won four World Series titles and were anchored by Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton. Los Angeles did not win another World Series championship until 1981.
Clayton Kershaw has given Dodgers fans something to celebrate in what has been a mostly dreary 2011 season. He has a chance to become a part of the Dodgers’ rich pitching history by having a legitimate shot to win the Triple Crown. He has a comfortable lead in strikeouts (24 more than second-place Tim Lincecum) but must break a tie with Kennedy for wins while fending off Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay in both that category (Halladay has 18 wins) and ERA (Halladay has a 2.34 ERA). If he can do so, his achievement will instantly connect him with a Dodgers pitching legend- Sandy Koufax.
I had an argument recently with some friends on Twitter (Follow me: @Scott_Kornberg) about who the best left-handed starting pitcher was in baseball. There were a number of different responses. Some people went with arguably the most dominant pitcher of the last three and a half seasons, Cliff Lee. Others, looking towards the future, were very high on the 23-year old strikeout machine Clayton Kershaw. There were some who took the side of power lefties Jon Lester and Cole Hamels. Some even made an argument for David Price to be included amongst the top.
However, I was surprised at how quickly CC Sabathia, playing in the world’s largest market for the most successful team in the history of sports, was disregarded amongst the top. Only one person was adamant about putting him there. He was right. Sabathia has been dominant for a longer amount of time than Lee. He has just as many rings as Lester and Hamels, putting up better numbers than both of those pitchers. He eats far more innings than Kershaw. He has been much more consistent for a longer amount of time than Price. Lee, Hamels, Lester and Price might not even be the best pitchers on their respective teams. CC Sabathia is unquestionably the ace of the New York Yankees and the best left-handed pitcher in baseball.
Sabathia is an intimidating presence on the mound. At six-foot seven, 290 pounds, he has the body moreso of an NFL offensive lineman than of a pitcher. He mixes a fastball that can touch 97 mph (average speed: 93.5) with a killer changeup and stomach-lurching slider. His huge frame, killer stuff and knowhow as a pitcher have given him just as many finishes inside the top five in Cy Young Award voting (four) and Cy Young Awards (one) as all of those pitchers put together.
It is certainly not all about the hardware though. Sabathia pulls on the pinstripes and takes the ball in the hottest pressure-cooker, where the lights shine brightest, with the most eyes are upon him. He has led the league in shutouts three times, complete games twice, wins in each of the past two seasons and innings pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio once, respectively. However, Sabathia is so valuable to the Yankees, and before that the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers, because he always puts his team in a position to win, no matter what.
CC Sabathia will do whatever it takes to come out on top on the scoreboard when he is on the hill. When he was traded from the Indians to Milwaukee in July of 2008, Sabathia carried the Brewers on his back. In 17 starts, he went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA, 1.003 WHIP and 5.12 K/BB ratio. He averaged 7.2 innings pitched per outing, going at least eight innings in eight different starts while throwing seven complete games and three shutouts during that stretch. Sabathia even threw on three days’ rest on three separate occasions that year, lifting the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time since they won the World Series in 1982.
Even when he does not have his good stuff, Sabathia still finds a way to do what he does best – give his team a shot to win. There have been countless starts where he has struggled through the first two or three innings, allowing three or four runs. Then you look up and Sabathia is back on the mound in the seventh inning, stopping the bleeding, keeping his team in the game and saving the bullpen. It is no coincidence that he has thrown at least 230 innings in four different seasons and is on pace to throw 267.2 this year. Of the pitchers listed above, only Lee has thrown at least 230 innings in a season even once, when he threw 231.2 between the Indians and Phillies in 2009.
It is also no coincidence that Sabathia consistently wins more than almost every other pitcher. In the era of bullpen specialization, Sabathia’s ability to pitch deep into games has helped him earn 170 career victories. He has won at least 15 games in six different seasons and is on pace to win 24 games this year. Lee, Kershaw, Hamels, Lester and Price have all combined for seven 15-win seasons. Only Lester (.710) has a better career winning percentage than Sabathia’s career .649 mark. If Sabathia finishes the year as projected, he would have 181 wins at the end of 2011, when he will be 31 years old. He has a chance to become baseball’s next 300-game winner, which, similar to a batter reaching 3,000 hits, is the ultimate sign of a long and successful career for a pitcher.
Some people will still point and say 2008, in which Cliff Lee won the American League Cy Young Award by going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA, 1.110 WHIP with a 5 K/BB ratio in 223.1 innings, was when Lee became the most dominant lefty in baseball. However, Sabathia’s numbers are eerily similar to those of Lee from 2008 through the first half of this season:
2008-2011 Lee: 112 starts, 57-31, 2.95 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.111 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 5.43 K/BB
2008-2011 Sabathia: 123 starts, 70-29, 3.01 ERA, 143 ERA+, 1.152 WHIP, eight K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 3.28 K/BB
During the past three and a half years, Sabathia has made more starts than Lee and won more games while having better strikeout numbers and a better ERA+ (adjusted ERA to the pitcher’s ballpark and the league ERA). Even though Sabathia walks about one more batter per nine innings than Lee, their WHIPs are nearly identical. Now let’s look at what they have averaged per season during the past three and a half years:
2008-2011 Lee (average season): 28 starts, 14-8, 201 innings pitched, 192 hits allowed, 31 walks issued, 168 strikeouts
2008-2011 Sabathia (average season): 31 starts, 18-7, 217 innings pitched, 191 hits allowed, 59 walks issued, 193 strikeouts
Keep in mind their averages are weighed down slightly by only just over half a season of baseball in 2011. However, Sabathia’s average year includes more starts pitched to a better record while throwing more innings and striking out more hitters than Lee. While Cliff Lee has been a very dominant pitcher over the past three and a half years, Sabathia has been slightly better during that same stretch.
There may be other lefties who come to mind in the discussion over who is the best southpaw starter in baseball. However, no one has been as dominant for such a long period of time as CC Sabathia has been. Sabathia has continued his claim to the throne with possibly his best season yet through the first half of 2011. In 20 starts, Sabathia leads the league in wins with 13, compared to just four losses. He has a 2.72 ERA and 1.160 WHIP in 145.2 innings. Sabathia is averaging 7.1 innings per start and is striking out 7.8 batters per nine innings while posting a 3.60 K/BB ratio. In a season in which pitching has dominated, no left-hander has been better than CC Sabathia. He is quite simply the greatest left-handed starting pitcher in baseball.
As expected, the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies have proved to be the three strongest teams in baseball this year. However, the Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays continue to shock (most of) the world by being in contention for a playoff spot. The Rays are currently the furthest out of a playoff spot, just five games behind the Yankees in the American League Wild Card race and six games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. The Diamondbacks are just three games behind the San Francisco Giants in the National League West while the Pirates are just one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. The Indians currently stand 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.
There were two managers who had to be replaced already this year, yet neither was fired. Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez resigned after a horrific 1-18 start to the month of June (the Marlins finished the month 5-23). The Marlins began the month just two games behind the Phillies in the NL East but ended it 14.5 games back. Florida replaced Rodriguez with 80-year old Jack McKeon. McKeon led the 2003 Marlins to a World Series Championship, also taking over the helm in Miami at midseason during that year. Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics from 1940 through 1950 until the age of 87, making McKeon the second-oldest manager in baseball history. Florida was 32-39 under Rodriguez and are 11-8 with McKeon as manager.
The Washington Nationals also had to make a midseason managerial move. Washington was in the midst of an 11-1 run, putting them over .500 for the first time since the team moved to D.C. in 2005 when Jim Riggleman quit on June 23 due to a contract dispute with Nationals’ management over his option for next year. The Nationals tabbed Davey Johnson as his replacement. Washington is 6-8 under Johnson, but was 38-37 with Riggleman guiding the team.
There have also been some notable achievements by players through the first part of the year. Derek Jeter reached 3,000 hits with a home run at exactly two o’clock at Yankee Stadium to become the first Yankee to achieve that milestone. Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander each threw no-hitters within four days of each other, on May 3 and 7, respectively. Liriano walked six hitters and struck out two. Verlander struck out four and walked just one hitter in the seventh inning, beginning a streak of pitching at least eight innings in eight of his next 10 starts. Andre Eithier strung together a 30-game hitting streak that began on the second day of the season. The streak is the second-longest in Los Angeles Dodgers’ history and is the longest in the majors since the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman’s 30-game streak in 2009.
The first half of the season featured many close divisional races. In fact, there is no division separated by more than a 3.5 game lead. There are currently 17 teams, more than half the league, within 6.5 games of a playoff spot. This season is shaping up to have some terrific playoff races that will go down to the wire in September. Here are my predictions from the beginning of the season and how they stack up with what has happened so far this year:
1. Boston Red Sox
2. Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card)
3. New York Yankees
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Toronto Blue Jays
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Chicago White Sox
2. Minnesota Twins
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Cleveland Indians
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Cleveland Indians
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Kansas City Royals
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
1. Texas Rangers
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
4. Seattle Mariners
1. Texas Rangers
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Oakland Athletics
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
1. Atlanta Braves
2. Philadelphia Phillies (Wild Card)
3. New York Mets
4. Florida Marlins
5. Washington Nationals
2. Atlanta Braves
3. New York Mets
4. Washington Nationals
5. Florida Marlins
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
6. Houston Astros
T-1. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
2. Colorado Rockies
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
4. San Diego Padres
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
1. San Francisco Giants
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
3. Colorado Rockies
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. San Diego Padres