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The Convergent Histories of Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander

Verlander was the best pitcher in baseball—until Kershaw came along. Now, the two defining pitchers of this generation take the mound for opposite sides, with a World Series ring on the line.

Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Among the starting pitchers in the 2017 World Series, the Astros and Dodgers combine for six All-Stars, three Cy Young winners, and a Cy Young runner-up. There’s plenty of star power, but the two headliners are Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, the last two pitchers to win an MVP award.

2017 MLB Playoffs

Verlander and Kershaw throw with different hands, come from different backgrounds, have spent their careers in different leagues, and came to their current teams in different ways. But they’re both likely Hall of Famers with complicated relationships with the postseason, and each one is in search of his first title. Between Verlander and Kershaw, the better performer will likely decide which side walks away with a ring.

Whatever comes next is inseparable from what already happened.

“I literally love Justin Verlander.”

That’s what José Altuve told Fox Sports’ Tom Verducci after he’d gone 2-for-4 with a home run and three RBIs in Game 6 of the ALCS on October 20. Altuve and the Astros had taken the first two games of the series at home, then gone cold in New York, scoring five runs total in three straight losses. Their seven-run outburst in Game 6 kept the Astros—a team with a history of tough LCS losses—from going home before the World Series again, and set the stage for Saturday’s series-clinching 4-0 win over the Yankees.

But in the aftermath, the postseason’s breakout superstar heaped praise on his newest teammate, a 34-year-old right-handed pitcher who’d kept the Astros in the game long enough to find their bats; Verlander, who took the mound knowing that imperfection could lead to an early vacation, threw seven scoreless innings.

The shadow of Randy Johnson literally looms large over most things, but it looms metaphorically over the Astros. On July 31, 1998, the Astros sent three prospects to the Mariners for the future Hall of Famer, who was about to turn 35 and set to hit free agency at season’s end. Johnson made 11 starts in the season’s final two months and won 10 of them, with a 1.28 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 84.1 innings, which was an eye-popping ratio back when the leaguewide K/9 number was 6.61, not 8.34 like it was in 2017. He was a 4.3-WAR player in 11 starts for the Astros. Tom Glavine, who won the NL Cy Young that year, was worth 6.1 WAR in 33 starts.

It almost didn’t matter that the Big Unit lost both his starts in the NLDS, or that he left for Arizona after the season and won a title there, or that the three players traded for him—Carlos Guillén, John Halama, and Freddy García—became key cogs on a Mariners team that won 116 games in 2001. Nineteen years later, those two months of Johnson in those awful navy-and-gold Astros uniforms were like a great beer you had once at a bar you can’t remember the name of—you still remember the taste and you’ll spend the rest of your life poking around liquor store refrigerators and pub menus trying to find it again.

Miraculously, the Astros did. The last time the Astros dealt for a top pitcher at the deadline while trying to consolidate a playoff position, it was Scott Kazmir, who had a 2.38 ERA for Oakland at the time of the trade in 2015 but fit with the team’s manner of team-building under GM Jeff Luhnow. Between his arrival from St. Louis in 2011 and the Astros’ return to contention, Luhnow—who has degrees in economics and engineering from Penn and an MBA from Northwestern, and who spent his pre-baseball career as a business executive—cultivated a reputation as a smart GM. He went for a hard tank two years before Sam Hinkie turned the NBA upside down by doing the same, and he filled his front office with Baseball Prospectus staffers.

But insofar as Luhnow’s regime has been smart, it’s been business-school smart, not mad-scientist smart. The Astros developed Altuve and Dallas Keuchel beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, but they also managed to buy Lance McCullers out of a commitment to the University of Florida by shaving a couple million dollars off Carlos Correa’s signing bonus. They tried to do the same with high school pitchers Mac Marshall and Jacob Nix two years later by reneging on a bonus offer to no. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken, but got burned when Aiken decided to re-enter the next year’s draft. But even then, Houston used the compensation pick from that to draft Alex Bregman. Despite playing in the fourth-largest city in the United States and fielding a winning team, the Astros have yet to crack the top half of the league in payroll. It’s less art, more arbitrage.

The thinking behind acquiring Kazmir followed that pattern. Kazmir, a top-end starter with the Rays in his early 20s, had battled injuries and relearned how to pitch before reemerging with Cleveland and Oakland and then ending up with the Astros. As an undersize, injury-prone 31-year-old free agent to be, Kazmir was more an upside play than a building block.

Not Verlander, who will cost the Astros $20 million a year through his age-36 season in 2019. He is a former Cy Young winner and AL MVP, the last pitcher to take home that honor. He is a near-certain Hall of Famer, a superstar, and because of his fastball, his easy smile, and his engagement to the model and actress Kate Upton, a celebrity, which is unusual for a baseball player, particularly a non-Yankee.

There is no bigger fish to yank out of the pond than Verlander, and the results have been greater than anyone could have expected. The Astros first unveiled him during a bullpen session between games of a September 2 doubleheader against the Mets—the first baseball action in Houston since Hurricane Harvey, during which owner Jim Crane fielded questions not only about his team’s role in the city’s recovery, but also his shiny new toy.

Verlander won all five of his regular-season starts and had an ERA of 1.06 over that span. In three starts and a relief appearance in the postseason, Verlander has a 4-0 record and a 1.46 ERA. That’s nine appearances in an Astros uniform and nine wins.

Maybe Altuve was just trying to be funny. But maybe you have to literally love Justin Verlander.

I love it when professional pitchers played football as kids but didn’t play quarterback. Twins prospect Tyler Jay, for instance, grew up outside of Chicago and idolized Bears return man Devin Hester, so he volunteered to play receiver in order to have a chance to return kicks.

Nobody has a better excuse for not playing QB than Clayton Kershaw, who grew up in the Dallas suburbs and played offensive line, because the team’s quarterback was Matthew Stafford, now of the Detroit Lions. The childhood photos with Stafford are one of two must-tell components to the Kershaw origin story.

The other is Public Enemy No. 1.

Clayton Kershaw in the XM Satellite Radio All-Star Futures Game in 2007
Clayton Kershaw pitching in the Futures Game in 2007
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Kershaw was the seventh-overall pick in the 2006 draft out of Highland Park High School. He followed the great Texas amateur pitching tradition of being big and having a hard fastball and a beautiful, looping curveball. Texas high school pitchers come large and hard-throwing, like Roger Clemens and Noah Syndergaard, but the loudest hype is reserved for the ones who can spin a pretty curve, like Kershaw, Josh Beckett, and Nolan Ryan, whose legend in the state is such that you’d think that in addition to throwing seven no-hitters he’d also invented brisket and fought against Santa Anna at San Jacinto.

Kershaw was a good-enough prospect to get drafted ahead of college pitchers such as Max Scherzer and Tim Lincecum, but the fact that he fell to no. 7 overall shows that nobody saw the current version of Kershaw coming.

Least of all Sean Casey, the veteran first baseman who stepped in against a 19-year-old Kershaw in spring training in 2008. Video of the confrontation has inexplicably disappeared from the internet, but the event has taken on a life of its own, like Babe Ruth’s called shot. Kershaw froze Casey with a positively parabolic two-strike hook. Casey, who would go on to hit .322 that year, wobbled at the knees like a lovestruck newborn wildebeest doing the Funky Chicken. Vin Scully was stricken with laughter and produced the line that will go on Kershaw’s Hall of Fame plaque: “Holy mackerel! He just broke off Public Enemy No. 1!

Kershaw made his big league debut two and a half months later, on May 25, and broke off Public Enemy No. 1 408 times in his age-20 season. That includes two relief appearances in the Dodgers’ NLCS loss to the Phillies, as Kershaw, who had a 4.26 ERA in 107.2 innings as a rookie, failed to make the playoff rotation.

He got there the next year, and pitched well in a 6.2-inning no-decision against Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS. He threw four scoreless innings in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Phillies before a five-run fifth sunk him, then pitched in relief after Vicente Padilla was knocked out early in the decisive Game 5.

In October 2009 Kershaw was still just 21, an age when most people are trying to scrounge up clean shirts for job fairs, not trying to outpitch Cole Hamels with a trip to the World Series on the line. By this point, Kershaw’s stuff and success at a relatively young age (2.79 ERA in 2009) augured great potential, if only he could stay healthy, reduce his 4.8 BB/9 ratio, and pitch deeper into games.

We had no idea.

Remember when Justin Verlander was washed up?

In 2014, he was a below-average pitcher for the first time in his career. He allowed 104 earned runs, most in the American League, and posted an ERA+ of 85, the worst of any full season in his career. Verlander’s average fastball velocity was down to 93.3 miles per hour in 2014 and 93.4 in 2015, 3 mph under his peak. After nearly a decade of perfect health—which for a starting pitcher in this day and age is like having X-ray vision—Verlander missed the first two and a half months of the 2015 campaign with an injured right triceps.

Verlander had always been able to withstand heavy workloads; from his rookie year in 2006 through 2014, he made at least 30 starts every year, and from 2007 through 2014 he pitched at least 200 innings a year. He led the league in innings pitched three times and batters faced twice, and in 2011 he became the last big league pitcher to throw 250 innings in a regular season.

In 1998, Rany Jazayerli, then writing for Baseball Prospectus, came up with a stat called pitcher abuse points, tallying not only high pitch counts but also weighting the number the further over 100 pitches a starter went. Then, as now, we couldn’t really identify the specific breaking point at which single-start fatigue does permanent damage to a pitcher’s arm, but this was a start.

Here’s where Verlander ranked in pitcher abuse points each year from 2006 to 2014:

Verlander—Pitcher Abuse Points

Year PAP Rank
Year PAP Rank
2006 39
2007 8
2008 4
2009 1
2010 1
2011 1
2012 1
2013 4
2014 9

At the time, it looked like Verlander was paying the price for going through his 20s as if the rules of pitcher injury didn’t apply to him. He was 32 in 2015, with 10 years of heavy MLB workloads tied to his arm, plus three years of heavy college workloads at Old Dominion before that. Verlander’s K/9 ratio dropped to 6.9 in 2014 after it had hovered around 9.0 from 2010 to 2013. The six-year, $162 million contract extension he’d signed with Detroit in 2013 went from the price you pay to employ the best pitcher in the game to a liability, something the Tigers would have to escape.

Verlander bounced back upon his return in 2015, with a 3.38 ERA in 20 starts, and in 2016, his K/9 ratio rose to 10.0, boosting him to within just five points of beating his former teammate Rick Porcello for his second Cy Young. The velocity and arm-side run that had deserted his fastball came back, and Verlander started using his slider more and his changeup less.

It was like the good old days, but not quite. The young Verlander was faultless, but as he aged he’d shown himself to be vulnerable, if only temporarily.

In his youth, Kershaw’s go-to out pitch was Public Enemy No. 1, but then he started to develop a slider. There’s a school of thought that a starting pitcher ought to have just one breaking pitch, since developing a slider and curve at the same time can draw time and attention away from the stronger pitch, or in a worst-case scenario the two can mush together into a gooey, eminently hittable slurve.

Kershaw threw just five sliders as a rookie, and in 2009 he threw the pitch 9.4 percent of the time. In 2010, he doubled that rate and cut down on his curveballs by more than half, and posted career bests in innings and walk rate. The next year, Kershaw added 2 mph and an inch of vertical break to his slider and won his first strikeout title, his first ERA title, and his first Cy Young. From 2011 through 2015, Kershaw was at least a six-win pitcher every year and won four ERA titles and three Cy Youngs, never finishing worse than third.

In 2014, he became the first pitcher since Verlander to win the MVP, despite missing six starts due to a back injury. He posted a 1.77 ERA and struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings, both of which led all pitchers, and despite the missed starts he still threw 198.1 innings. The next year he became the 15th pitcher in MLB history, and the first in more than a decade, to strike out 300 batters in a season. In 2016, Kershaw’s back gremlins came back worse than ever, limiting him to 21 starts and 149 innings, which is a shame; if he’d pitched 13 more innings, he would have annihilated the single-season strikeout-to-walk record.

A streak like that from a Dodgers left-hander invites one comparison above all others:

Kershaw vs. Koufax

Player bWAR WAA ERA+ K K/9 BB/9 IP
Player bWAR WAA ERA+ K K/9 BB/9 IP
Sandy Koufax, 1961-66 46.6 30.9 156 1713 9.4 2.3 1632.2
Kershaw, 2011-16 41.2 31 179 1421 10 1.8 1277

That’s one of the best six-year runs in MLB history—it vaulted Koufax into the Hall of Fame all on its own—and Kershaw’s about matched it. And in his six big league seasons before that run, Koufax was never much more than an average pitcher, while Kershaw has two four-win seasons before his six-year run and one after it, and he’s still going.

When Kershaw became the consensus best pitcher in baseball, Verlander is the guy he dethroned. In 2009, Verlander began a streak of five straight All-Star appearances, and in that span he won three strikeout titles, two ERA+ titles, an MVP, and a Cy Young, while missing out on a second in 2012 by just four points.

Verlander is one of six active pitchers to earn 40 bWAR in his first 10 seasons—a period that includes a two-start stint in 2005 and that brutal 2014 campaign. From 2009 through 2013, Verlander averaged 234 innings pitched, 239 strikeouts, 6.1 bWAR, and a 139 ERA+. Those totals would have landed him first, fourth, second, and tied for fifth, respectively, in the American League this year.

The Baseball-Reference page speaks for itself, but one thing that gets lost in the numbers is how easy peak Verlander made it look. Take this 2011 start in which he struck out 14 Diamondbacks.

Verlander has an ideal pitcher’s body—long, broad-shouldered, and lean, and he’s just effortlessly chucking 97 at the corners, painting the edges with his slider and curve, then just doing a lap of the mound while his infielders toss the baseball around.

This is easy for Kershaw, too, but you can tell it’s work: He sweats, he curses, he tugs at his jersey. He comes set with a deep breath, then drops dramatically into a motion that ought to be accompanied by the kind of clang you’d get from metal on metal in an empty warehouse.

Verlander, by contrast, is almost never working. When talking to the press after a start he’s positively effervescent, but not on the mound. This is the face and comportment of a man who’s mowing his lawn while deep in thought about last week’s episode of Madam Secretary. I’m not as calm when I’m sleeping as Verlander is while striking out 14 Diamondbacks.

What follows is my favorite strikeout. One reason Public Enemy No. 1 took on a life of its own is that there’s something disconcerting about expecting the heat and getting a big lollipop curve. I remember the Great East Coast Earthquake of 2011, a minor tremor that Californians laughed at but scared people like me—people who’d lived their entire lives east of the Appalachians—half to death. It was so outside my experience that I got dizzy and thought I was having a stroke and would certainly die.

I thought of that moment when Ryan Roberts was confronted with the following:

It doesn’t take long for a hitter to look at a big curveball and realize that, no, he isn’t suffering a fatal cardiac or neurological episode, it’s just a breaking ball. But by the time that realization comes, it’s too late to do anything about it except wait for the umpire to call you out. And that curveball isn’t even Verlander’s best pitch.

During Verlander’s peak, the Tigers went to the ALCS three straight years, from 2011 to 2013. In 11 playoff starts over those three seasons, Verlander was 6-3 with a 2.51 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 71.2 innings. Opponents hit just .174/.233/.298 against him. He was particularly important in the run-up to the 2012 World Series: In the division series he bested Oakland’s Jarrod Parker twice, including an 11-strikeout, four-hit shutout on the road in the decisive Game 5. The next year, he once again crushed Oakland in Oakland in a decisive Game 5, this time against Sonny Gray, with 10 strikeouts against two hits over eight scoreless innings.

Since 2012, Verlander has as many postseason appearances (12) and starts (11) as Madison Bumgarner, who made himself into a godlike figure in October with his performances in 2014 and in the 2016 wild-card game. Here are their playoff stats in that time frame:

Verlander vs. Bumgarner

Player IP ERA K’s AVG OBP SLG
Player IP ERA K’s AVG OBP SLG
Verlander 81 1.67 88 0.172 0.218 0.274
Bumgarner 81.2 2.09 69 0.19 0.235 0.293

Bumgarner’s entire reputation is built on being the most clutch starting pitcher of his generation, but Verlander has been even better.

After 2009, it wasn’t until 2013 that Kershaw got his next shot at October baseball, but since then he’s become well acquainted with the peculiarities of the postseason game: The Dodgers have made the playoffs each of the past five seasons, and have reached the NLCS three times.

Since 2013, Kershaw is 6-6 with one save in 16 appearances in the postseason. He’s struck out 111 batters in 91 innings, but he has a 4.15 ERA, and most importantly, the Dodgers hadn’t won the pennant until this year.

Kershaw has had some great moments: seven innings of scoreless two-hit ball against the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLCS last year, and the emergency save in Game 5 against Washington that got them there. Kershaw has made five of his 15 postseason starts over the past five years on short rest, but a 4.15 playoff ERA isn’t that good for anyone, much less one of the best pitchers of all time.

And there have been some real head-scratchers: four home runs allowed against the Diamondbacks in Game 1 of this year’s NLDS—even though Kershaw and the Dodgers won; the bizarre eight-run outing against St. Louis in Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS; and the seven-run, 10-hit, four-inning blowout in Game 6 of the NLCS the year before.

Three of the past four times the Dodgers have been knocked out of the playoffs, Kershaw has taken the loss.

Verlander was the no. 2 overall pick in the 2004 draft, the Tigers’ reward for losing 119 games the year before. He grew up in Goochland County, Virginia, a region named (disappointingly) for Sir William Gooch, who spent 22 years as lieutenant governor of the then-colony of Virginia in the early 18th century. Verlander played his college ball at Old Dominion University in Norfolk during a time when the Hampton Roads metro area was an amateur baseball gold mine. From 2002 to 2005, the region produced four top-five picks who went on to long and successful big league careers: Verlander, Ryan Zimmerman (Virginia Beach by way of UVA), and the Upton brothers (Chesapeake), and that doesn’t even count David Wright, who was drafted 38th overall out of a Chesapeake high school in 2001.

Justin Verlander pitches in the 2005 Major League Baseball Futures Game
Justin Verlander pitches in the Futures Game in 2005
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Baseball America rated Verlander as the top college prospect in the class, saying he “might have the best pure stuff in the draft.” He was pitching in the majors less than nine months after he signed his first pro contract.

Meanwhile, the Tigers had gone from historically bad to just normal bad: 72-90 in 2004, 71-91 in 2005. Across those two years Detroit started to pick up veterans here and there: Carlos Guillén, Iván Rodríguez, and Magglio Ordóñez. The 2006 Tigers brought in veteran pitchers Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers, and gave youngsters like Verlander, Curtis Granderson, Fernando Rodney, and 21-year-old Guitar Hero enthusiast Joel Zumaya important big league roles.

Verlander was the cream of the crop: Baseball America’s no. 8 prospect coming into the season, he made 30 starts and led the team’s starters in ERA+ en route to seventh place in Cy Young voting and the Rookie of the Year award. Under first-year manager Jim Leyland, the Tigers improved to 95-67 and made their first World Series appearance since 1984.

When the time came for the Tigers to face the Cardinals in the World Series, it was Verlander who took the ball first. He gave up seven runs in five innings and took the loss. The Tigers lost the series in five games and looked bad doing it. Verlander’s playoff struggles continued all the way through 2011: In his first eight postseason starts, he produced a 5.57 ERA and 20 walks in 42 innings.

By 2012 the Tigers had added Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, and they returned to the World Series in large part because Verlander had allowed just two runs in 24.1 innings in three starts during the first two rounds. Once again Verlander took the ball in Game 1, and once again he got smoked: five runs in just four innings, including two of Pablo Sandoval’s record-tying three home runs. It’s the only real stinker Verlander has had in the playoffs since 2011—in fact, his two worst playoff starts of his career, by game score, were Game 1 of the 2006 World Series and Game 1 of the 2012 World Series.

But from the moment he was drafted Verlander was supposed to be the ace of the staff. It’s what he is in 2017, even though the schedule shakes out in such a way that he’ll start Game 2. And it’s the pitcher Leyland hoped would show up in 2006, when at 23 years old and with fewer than 200 regular-season innings under his belt, Verlander took the ball in the World Series for the first time.

On Tuesday night, after 10 big league seasons, 1,935 innings, seven trips to the postseason, and 20 postseason starts, Kershaw, at 29 years old, will take the ball in the World Series for the first time.

And for the first time, one of them has to win.