Clayton Kershaw may not be the next Sandy Koufax, but for the LA Dodgers and their fans the young lefty is the next best thing.
Along with budding superstar Matt Kemp, the 23 year-old southpaw was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise disappointing Dodger squad (after the way they stunk up the joint in the first half, it's hard to believe they finished three games over .500). And while the comparisons with the "Left Arm of God" are undoubtedly premature, they aren't entire unreasonable. After all, Koufax's career didn't take off until his age 25 season, and he didn't win his first Cy Young until he was 27. Kershaw has been a great starter for three years now, so he has quite the head start on the '60s pitching legend even if he still has a long way to go.
So in a decade we can check back and see how his career played out, but for now he's the 2011 NL Cy Young winner. I predicted this months ago, before he captured the senior circuit's pitching version of the triple crown (Justin Verlander turned the trick in the AL) with 21 wins, 248 strikeouts and a major league leading 2.28 ERA, numbers that wouldn't look out of place on the back of Koufax's baseball card. To boot, "the Claw" also led all NL hurlers in WHIP and fewest H/9 while earning his first All-Star nomination. He even took home a Gold Glove, something Koufax can't claim. For all this he received 27 of a possible 32 first place votes and won the Cy Young by a comfortable margin.
Roy Halladay, last year's winner and the favorite to repeat in 2011, finished a distant second (only four first place votes) despite replicating his 2010 statistics, leading the league in ERA+, complete games, fewest BB/9 and posting the league's best K/BB ratio for the fourth consecutive season. Doc will be 35 next May, but the two-time winner has shown no signs of slowing down. Teammate Cliff Lee was right behind him despite not receiving any first place votes. The 2008 AL Cy Young paced the league in shutouts, was untouchable in June and August (a combined three earned runs in ten starts) and set career bests in numerous categories, but his awesome season just wasn't enough in Year of the Pitcher, Part II.
No one saw Ian Kennedy coming, the former Yankee prospect turned Arizona Diamondback who stole the remaining first place vote and finished fourth on the strength of a league leading 21 victories (tied with Kershaw) and an .840 winning percentage, the best in the bigs. Cole Hamels, the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, rounded out the top five with a career year of his own.
Tim Lincecum, the 2008 and 2009 NL recipient of the award, rebounded from a streaky 2010 to finish sixth despite having a losing record (13-14) for the first time in his career. His strikeout and walk rates have been going in the wrong direction the past few years, and San Francisco would like to see "The Freak" reverse these trends to avoid continued regression. Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo, making his first appearance on a Cy Young ballot, was right on his heels despite also suffering a slight dip in his K rate. YoGa compensated by setting career bests across the board and leading a fearsome threesome with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum at the front of the Brew Crew's rotation. Matt Cain, criminally underrated for pitching in Lincecum's shadow, completed another magnificent all-around season for the Giants and finished eighth but, like Lincecum, suffered in the win department (just a dozen wins despite a 2.88 ERA and good peripherals. He somehow has a sub.500 career record).
Closers John Axford and unanimous NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel tied for ninth, and a pair of Giants rounded out the ballot with 13 game winners Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner both receiving one point (their remaining rotation mate, Jonathan Sanchez, took a major step backwards after a career 2010 and was nowhere to be found on this year's ballot).
On Monday the AL MVP will be announced, and there is sure to be plenty of controversy regardless of who wins. I still maintain that Jose Bautista deserves to win, but would settle for Miguel Cabrera or Curtis Granderson.