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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Kershaw not my choice, but a deserving one nonetheless

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Clayton Kershaw works in a pitcher-friendly division, but it's tough to argue against a Triple Crown winner. (AP)  
Clayton Kershaw works in a pitcher-friendly division, but it's tough to argue against a Triple Crown winner. (AP)  

I had an NL Cy Young vote this year, and Clayton Kershaw was not listed first on my ballot. I had him second, behind the Phillies' Roy Halladay.

But I'm just as glad Kershaw won the award Thursday, the kid is sensational.

And I'm glad the Houston Astros are moving to the AL.

And though I detest the idea of interleague play every day beginning in 2013, if it helps rectify baseball's obnoxiously lopsided schedule, then it will be for the greater good.

Now let me explain what might seem like a loco line of reasoning.

Unlike with Justin Verlander in the American League, there was no runaway in the NL. Just because I voted for Halladay certainly doesn't mean I don't think Kershaw is deserving. You can build very strong cases for both (I know, I did that multiple times over the season's final two weeks while agonizing over the shape of my final ballot). It would have been a much easier (and more pleasant) task if there were two blanks to fill in after the No. 1.

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But there weren't. To me, it was a coin flip. And here are the main reasons why Halladay came up heads for me: He led the NL with eight complete games. In no small part because of his 6.29 strikeouts-to-walks ratio, both Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs list him first among all pitchers in the majors in WAR. Halladay also led the NL in ERA+ at 164. ERA+ measures a pitcher's ERA against the league average while also taking ballpark factors into account.

Ballpark factors are a hugely important, well, factor because given the current unbalanced schedule in which teams play nearly half of their games against divisional opponents, not every pitcher runs the same obstacle course. Halladay pitches in a bandbox. Meanwhile, NL West pitchers get a big head start on the award each year because three of the five -- Petco Park, AT&T Park and Dodger Stadium -- are extremely pitcher friendly.

Since baseball went to an unbalanced schedule in 2001, eight of 11 NL Cy Young winners now have emerged from the NL West. Spot a trend there?

Thanks to this unbalanced schedule, nine of Kershaw's 33 starts in 2011 -- nearly 30 percent -- were against two of the worst offensive clubs in the game, the Giants (5-0, 1.07 ERA) and Padres (3-0, 1.78).

The Giants couldn't string three hits together with Elton John and unlimited time in a recording studio. The Padres traded away Adrian Gonzalez and weren't even playing to win. Abolishing the unbalanced schedule is overdue, and the hope here is that, eventually, two 15-team leagues help get that done.

Now, enough with what many no doubt will perceive as Kershaw bashing. Because it's not. Those are simply a set of facts that pushed me a half-inch over the line on Halladay's side.

Bottom line is, you play the schedule you're given, and Kershaw did that as well as anybody. The Dodgers were 23-10 when he started, 59-69 in games he did not.

The fact that Kershaw won the NL pitching Triple Crown -- 21-5 (the wins tied with Arizona's Ian Kennedy), 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts maybe should have made him an automatic winner. I know this is the part that had me second-guessing myself throughout October after turning in my ballot.

The fact that Kershaw led the NL in WHIP (0.997) and opponents' batting average (.207) also bolstered his case. The guy won the Gold Glove, too, for crying out loud.

He's only 23 and is learning quickly. Kershaw dramatically cut down on his walks in 2011, from 81 in 204 1/3 innings in 2010 to 54 in 233 1/3 innings in 2011, which launched him onto an even plane with such dizzying names as Halladay, Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum. And it has placed him squarely on the launching pad toward what could be an incredible career.

"I sure hope so," Kershaw said on a conference call Thursday. "Whenever you have Cy Young next to your name, there are going to be expectations that go along with it. Whenever I look at a pitcher and I see that he's won a Cy Young award, I think, you know, this guy, he better be good. ...

"I hope people have that expectation for me."

Expectations arrived long before his Cy Young did. Because he's left-handed and a Dodger, Kershaw has had the uncomfortable -- and unfair -- status of being compared to Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax pretty much since he broke in with the Dodgers after being their first-round pick (seventh overall) in the 2006 draft.

"I'm still uncomfortable with it," Kershaw said. "I don't want to have any disrespect toward Mr. Koufax. He did it for a long time. He threw no-hitters. ... I have tremendous respect for him and would never want to ever put myself in the same category as him."

Barely had those words come out of Kershaw's mouth than the Dodgers were issuing a press release rounding up organizational reaction that included this from Don Newcombe, a club executive and the inaugural Cy Young Award winner in 1956:

"I am reminded of Sandy Koufax whenever I see Clayton pitch and feel that there is a deep comparison between the two. Clayton has an outstanding work ethic, as did Sandy, which will show itself through Clayton's baseball career."

Who knows how many more Cy Youngs might be in store for Kershaw, the youngest winner of the award since the Mets' Dwight Gooden won at 20 in 1985.

I just know that Kershaw and Halladay each could have won this year, but the Cy Young Award is not big enough for two. Kershaw received 27 first-place votes in 32 ballots. Three others joined me in casting a first-place vote for Halladay.

Go ahead and argue all you want. Between these two, there is no wrong answer.

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