Can Kershaw repeat?

At lunch Wednesday with Dodger publications director Jorge Martin, we marveled with glee not only at Clayton Kershaw’s magnificent 2011 season, but our inability, despite knowing all about how hard the job of pitching is, not to expect him to dominate every time out in 2012. Our heads tell us he might not pitch as well this year as last. Our hearts tell us he can pitch even better.

It got me to wondering how pitchers with seasons like Kershaw’s followed them up the following campaign. And the news isn’t exactly good.

Here are two charts – the first an appetizer, the second the main course:

Top 20 individual Dodger seasons since 1958

Player Year Age ERA+ ERA+ next year   Change
Koufax 1966 30 190 Retired  
Koufax 1964 28 188 160   -28
Hershiser 1985 26 171 90   -81
Brown 2000 35 169 151 * -18
Brown 2003 38 169 110 * -59
Kershaw 2011 23 163 TBD  
Sutton 1972 27 162 144   -18
Sutton 1981 35 161 112   -49
Koufax 1965 29 160 190   30
Koufax 1963 27 159 160   1
Nomo 1995 26 150 122   -28
Welch 1985 28 150 106   -44
Drysdale 1964 27 149 118   -31
Messersmith 1975 29 149 125   -24
Hershiser 1988 29 149 149   0
Hersisher 1989 30 149 88   -61
Hooton 1981 31 148 87 * -61
Penny 2007 29 147 67 * -70
Hooton 1977 27 147 130   -17
Reuss 1981 32 146 113   -33
Average   29 159 123 4 -33

* did not pitch enough innings to qualify for ERA title in following year

Top 50 individual MLB seasons since 1958, ages 21-25

Player Year Age ERA+ ERA+ next year   Change
P. Martinez 1997 25 219 163   -56
Z. Greinke 2009 25 205 100   -105
D. Chance 1964 23 198 108   -90
C. Buchholz 2010 25 187 122 * -65
V. Blue 1971 21 185 102 * -83
J. Santana 2004 25 182 155   -27
B. Saberhagen 1989 25 180 118   -62
K. Appier 1993 25 179 131   -48
M. Prior 2003 22 179 110 * -69
D. Righetti 1981 22 174 105   -69
F. Hernandez 2010 24 174 111   -63
T. Lincecum 2009 25 173 114   -59
F. Hernandez 2009 23 172 174   2
J. Peavy 2004 23 171 134   -37
J. D’Amico 2000 24 171 72 * -99
T. Lincecum 2008 24 169 173   4
J. Candelaria 1977 23 169 115   -54
R. Clemens 1986 23 169 154   -15
D. Ellsworth 1963 23 167 99   -68
K. Millwood 1999 25 167 99   -68
A. Anderson 1988 25 166 110   -56
K. Appier 1992 25 166 179   13
S. McDowell 1968 25 165 127   -38
T. Seaver 1969 24 165 143   -22
B. Webb 2003 24 165 129   -36
S. Carlton 1969 24 164 111   -53
M. Mussina 1994 25 164 145   -19
C. Kershaw 2011 23 163 TBD  
B. Sheets 2004 25 162 128   -34
G. Nolan 1972 24 162 102 * -60
T. John 1968 25 161 119   -42
S. McDowell 1965 22 161 120   -41
J. Magrane 1988 23 161 124   -37
C. Zambrano 2004 23 160 135   -25
A. Hammaker 1983 25 159 164 * 5
J. Jurrjens 2009 23 159 84 * -75
R. Halladay 2002 25 159 145   -14
M. Fidrych 1976 21 159 149 * -10
B. Zito 2002 24 158 135   -23
B. Blyleven 1973 22 158 142   -16
D. Bosman 1969 25 158 118   -40
M. Mussina 1992 23 157 100   -57
J. Guzman 1992 25 156 109   -47
R. Jones 1975 25 156 120   -36
A. Pettitte 1997 25 156 104   -52
F. Tanana 1977 23 154 99   -55
D. McLain 1968 24 154 135   -19
J. Palmer 1969 23 154 134   -20
R. Clemens 1987 24 154 141   -13
T. Glavine 1991 25 153 134   -19
Average   24 168 125 8 -43

As you can see, there’s a host of great names on these lists, including Hall of Famers and Hall of Very Gooders. Just because there’s a decline after a great season doesn’t mean that there weren’t great seasons in their future.

But a decline following a great season for a young pitcher is common, and on average pretty significant.

So the challenge for our dear Kershaw is to buck history. This much I’ll say – if anyone can do it, if anyone can imitate Sandy Koufax (at a younger age), he can.

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