Next Big Thing is MLB FanHouse's look at emerging teams, trends and stars in 2009.
Top prospects make their entrances into the big leagues in a variety of ways. Some start out in the bullpen, and eventually transition to the rotation. Others spend more time in the minors and hit the ground running when they're called up. Or maybe they're called up before they're ready, and get knocked around a bit before settling in.
But there's an alternate path that a lot of the best pitchers take, which doesn't lend itself to much initial notoriety. They belong in the majors at an unusually young age, and are called up at this time. "Ready" doesn't mean dominant, but rather competitive.
Clayton Kershaw falls into that final category. He was just 20 years old in 2008, an age at which many top prospects are in A-ball. But, after dominating AA Jacksonville, Kershaw was called up to the Dodgers to make his first start on May 25.
He pitched about as well as you could hope from someone of his age, posting a league average ERA in 21 starts. As expected, the strikeouts were there; he notched 100 over 107.2 innings. Typical of young pitchers, he issued too many walks (52), but he has plenty of time to improve on that.
Kershaw, the #6 prospect in baseball heading into last year, works primarily off a fastball that averages 94 mph. He compliments that with a nasty curveball that has fooled hitters at every level. He also throws a changeup, although he threw that only 5% of the time in 2008.
An obvious recent comparison for this type of entrance is the Mariners' Felix Hernandez. Seattle's ace made his debut at 2005 at the age of 19. Unlike Kershaw, he excelled immediately, with an ERA of 2.67 and peripherals to support it in 12 starts his rookie year.
Unfortunately, Hernandez has yet to duplicate his 2005 performance, as he's been good but not great over the last three seasons, and actually saw a spike in his walk rate in 2008. Hernandez can hardly be called a bust -- he's been a very valuable pitcher each year of his career, and won't turn 23 until April -- but the Dodgers probably hope that Kershaw's progess will be more dramatic, and that he will accompany Chad Billingsley at the top of the rotation for years to come.