Koufax comparisons aside, Kershaw in class of his own
ST. LOUIS -- Joe Torre wasted no time setting the expectations for Clayton Kershaw at a high level.
It was 2008, Kershaw's rookie year, and Torre made comparisons between the promising left-hander and Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.
Five years later, Kershaw has only reinforced those comparisons, even if it is uncomfortable for both pitchers.
Kershaw flashes an embarrassed smile at the mention of himself and Koufax in the same sentence, flattered to be held in such high regard, but quick to point out that Koufax proved himself over a long enough time frame that he is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, more a dream than an expectation for Kershaw at this point.
And Koufax is quick to correct anyone who makes the comparison in his presence by declaring, "He's not the next me. He's the first Clayton Kershaw. He doesn't deserve to be compared."
Kershaw is certainly in a class of his own among his contemporaries, having become as consistently dominant as anybody in the game, which is why the Dodgers, despite being down 3-2 in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, feel good about Friday's Game 6 at Busch Stadium (5:30 p.m. PT, TBS).
Kershaw will start against rookie Michael Wacha in a rematch of Game 2, which Wacha and the Cardinals won, 1-0. The game's only run, however, was unearned.
"Their guy has been really good," manager Don Mattingly said of Wacha. "Our guy has been really good all year long, too. It ought to be a good game."
Kershaw went 16-9 during the regular season, with a 1.83 ERA. He allowed two earned runs or fewer in four of those losses, and he allowed two earned runs or fewer in seven of his no-decisions. He had the lowest ERA in the NL for the third consecutive year, something only Greg Maddux and Koufax have done in the last 40 years, and his 1.83 ERA is the first sub-2.00 mark by a Dodgers pitcher since …
That's right, Sandy Koufax.
"What people see is his mix with his curveball and fastball, the fact he's left-handed, and he's a Dodger," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said of the constant comparisons. "He is the closest people have seen to Sandy."
OK, but is it fair?
"He is special, like King Felix [Hernandez]," said Honeycutt.
And from a statistical standpoint, to be honest, Kershaw is light years ahead of Koufax.
At the age of 25, Kershaw has a career record of 77-46 and 2.60 ERA. He has struck out 1,206 in 1,189 innings, averaging 9.2 strikeouts and three walks per nine innings.
At 25, Koufax was 54-52, with a 3.94 ERA. He had struck out 952 in 947 1/3 innings, but had also walked 501. It was at the age of 25 that Koufax began his dominating six-year run before his career ended prematurely. He went 18-13 in 1961 with a 3.81 ERA, the lowest of his first seven big league seasons.
It was in his final five seasons, from 1962-66, that Sandy Koufax became Sandy Koufax.
In those five years, he went 111-34 with a 1.95 ERA and .192 batting average allowed. He not only struck out 1,444 in 1,377 innings, he walked only 316.
Oh, and he also went 4-for-4 in save situations.
Koufax was the NL MVP in 1963; won the NL Cy Young Award in 1963, 1965 and 1966; and was an All-Star in each of his final six big league seasons.
It is, however, worth noting that at 25, Kershaw has a very real chance to claim his second Cy Young Award, and already has three All-Star selections on his resume.
Now comes the challenge.
Now comes the question of whether, given his heavy workload at such a young age, Kershaw will build off what he has accomplished. Few young pitchers have been able to maintain early career greatness.
Kershaw, however, is unique. Remember, this is a 20-something superstar who has undertaken a major project in trying to help the less fortunate in Africa, who makes offseason visits to that continent, and who not only brings a ball and glove to play catch but takes his brother-in-law to catch him so as not to miss a workout.
No sense messing with success.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.