Clayton Kershaw's quest: Lowest ERA since Bob Gibson in '68

Clayton Kershaw is on his way to a historically great season. (USATSI)
Clayton Kershaw is on his way to a historically great season. (USATSI)

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Dodgers uber-ace Clayton Kershaw may wind up hoisting the NL Cy Young and NL MVP trophies this year (to say nothing of a real shot at the World Series trophy). A glance at the numbers reveals why that's the case: At present, he ranks second in the NL in innings, leads the NL in strikeouts and shutouts and leads the majors in WHIP and ERA+. Oh, and he also quite comfortably paces the bigs with a sparkling ERA of 1.72. It's that latter figure -- that infinitesimal ERA of his -- that really distinguishes Kershaw in 2013. 

If that mark holds, then it'll stand as the lowest ERA by a qualifier since Greg Maddux hung a 1.63 in 1995 (which followed up his 1.56 in 1994). As well, it would be the lowest single-season ERA in Los Angeles Dodgers history, just nudging out Sandy Koufax's 1.73 in 1966. 

What's also notable is that Kershaw has been especially outstanding of late, as he's given up only one earned run in his last 25 1/3 innings pitched. The question, then, is raised: Can Kershaw post the lowest ERA since Bob Gibson's unreachable 1968 mark of 1.12? Presently, the honor belongs to Dwight Gooden of the Mets, who pitched to a 1.53 ERA in 1985. Obviously, Kershaw going forward would have to pitch even better than he has to date this season in order to slot in behind Gibson. Call that difficult, but don't call it impossible.

To get an idea of Kershaw's chances, let's take a look at the road ahead. If he stays on schedule for the rest of the season (not to be assumed, of course, but a possibility, since the Dodgers figure to be in a fight for the top NL seed for perhaps the rest of the season and thus may not "pump the brakes" in the event that they clinch the division with time to spare), then this should be his slate of remaining opponents:

8/27 - Cubs (10th)
9/1 - Padres (12th)
9/6 - @Reds (4th)
9/11 - Diamondbacks (5th)
9/16 - @Diamondbacks (5th)
9/21 - @Padres (12th)
9/26 - @Giants (13th)

In parentheses, you see each team's NL rank in runs scored for this season. No team on this docket can be described as any kind of offensive juggernaut, so that's in Kershaw's favor. On the other hand, Kershaw, both in 2013 and throughout his career, has posted lower ERAs at home than on the road, so finishing up with four of seven starts away from Dodger Stadium may not help matters. Something else to note is that the Padres and D-Backs rank, respectively, second and fourth in the NL this season in OPS vs. lefties. So there's that, too.

As for the numbers, Kershaw this season is averaging almost exactly seven innings per start. If that holds, then he has 49 innings left. Over that very specific span, he'd need to allow no more than four earned runs in order to post a lower ERA than Gooden. And if Kershaw does in fact pitch 49 more innings and give up precisely four earned runs, then consider it a photo finish: Gooden's very exact 1985 ERA of 1.5289 against Kershaw's very exact 2013 ERA of 1.5283. 

To be sure, Kershaw, great as he is, isn't likely to pitch at such a level over the balance of the regular season, but he's got a puncher's chance to post not only the lowest ERA since Gibson in '68, but also the second-lowest ERA of the live-ball era (i.e., from 1920 onward). That's rarified air, even if Kershaw comes up short. 

Since ERA is the driver in this discussion, it bears mentioning that it's far from a perfect stat. It's not adjusted to reflect park and league conditions (which is why ERA+ is a much better option), and the "earned" component lets pitchers off the hook too readily after an error is committed behind them. As well, ERA in effect rewards pitchers whose defenses botch the routine play but penalizes those whose range-deficient defenses never get to the ball in the first place. 

Flaws of ERA aside, though, Kershaw's shrinking mark is absolutely something to watch the rest of the way. 

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