Some 14 months ago, I wrote a column called “Clayton Kershaw Is an Article of Faith,” which was ostensibly about rebutting the idea that Max Scherzer, as of late June 2017, had surpassed Kershaw as the premier starting pitcher in baseball. Scherzer, the NL Cy Young winner in 2016, was once again outpitching Kershaw in 2017, and people were starting to ask the question of whether the consensus best pitcher in baseball had been surpassed.
No, I said then, because while Scherzer had been better in 2017 and pitched more in 2016, Kershaw had been the superior pitcher dating back to 2008, when both he and Scherzer made their MLB debuts. And even Scherzer’s superiority in 2017 was based on a five-week stretch in which Scherzer ran up a series of dominant starts while Kershaw gave up a rash of ill-timed home runs. You don’t throw away nearly 10 years’ worth of track record based on five weeks.
Reading that article again, I realize that while it laid out a statistical case for Kershaw’s superiority, it was really more about coming to terms with Kershaw as a fixed point in the baseball universe. For years, he was the standard by which we judged all other pitchers, and for my money he’s the best I’ve seen in 25-odd years of watching baseball. (Turn-of-the-century Pedro Martínez has a case and no shortage of advocates, but that’s a debate for another time.)
So seriously considering a world in which Kershaw isn’t the best pitcher in baseball is a little like looking at the night sky and having the person next to you say, “Is it just me, or does it look like the moon is getting closer?” It seems like just yesterday that Kershaw was a 20-year-old rookie with a bad haircut and a uniform that didn’t fit.
But on a long enough timeline, even the moon will fall out of orbit. While Scherzer hadn’t yet caught Kershaw 14 months ago, things have changed since then.
The intervening time has not been kind to the Dodgers’ ace, whose balky back has kept him from pitching his customary 220-plus innings a season. (From 2010 through 2015, Kershaw averaged 222 innings a year, but he hasn’t pitched more than 175 in any season since. Kershaw is averaging a hair more than six innings a start, and with six or seven starts left, he’ll probably finish this year with somewhere between 150 and 160 innings pitched.) The argument for Scherzer used to be that Kershaw was better on a per-inning basis, but not so much better that it offset Scherzer’s greater innings totals; over the past three seasons, Scherzer has thrown 163 1/3 more innings than Kershaw, the equivalent of pitching four seasons to Kershaw’s three.
Since 2016, 65 pitchers have thrown at least 400 big league innings—here’s how Kershaw ranks in key categories against some of the other top pitchers in baseball.
Top Pitchers, 2016 to 2018
|Max Scherzer||26.9%||168||56||16.3||21.2||603 2/3||2.56||0.586|
|Clayton Kershaw||25.4%||191||53||10.5||14||440 1/3||2.13||0.560|
|Justin Verlander||22.3%||139||72||12.5||18.0||603 1/3||3.04||0.641|
|Jacob deGrom||21.8%||143||78||11.1||15.3||517 1/3||2.80||0.640|
Over the past three years, Kershaw is still the best in the business at preventing runs and walks, but he’s thrown only a fraction of an inning more than Nola, who has never made more than 27 starts in a season. Nobody knows the importance of quantity better than Kershaw. In 2016, Kershaw posted a K/BB ratio of 15.64, which would have demolished the MLB single-season record, and an ERA of 1.69, which would have been one of the six lowest since 1968, if he’d pitched enough innings to qualify. But Kershaw made just 21 starts and threw just 149 innings and finished fifth in Cy Young voting. Scherzer, whose ERA was 75 percent higher than Kershaw’s, took home the trophy thanks to his 228 1/3 innings pitched.
Now, Kershaw isn’t even better on a per-inning basis. In 2018, among the 100 starting pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched, Kershaw is 25th in strikeout rate, 15th in K-BB%, seventh in ERA-, and 16th in DRA. The good news for Kershaw is that those numbers probably make him look worse than he is because they include the disastrous first month of the season that inspired Ben Lindbergh’s Treatise on the End of Peak Kershaw in early May.
In his first seven starts of 2018, Kershaw allowed seven home runs and an opponent slugging percentage of .409, never pitched more than seven innings, and, perhaps most worryingly, he suffered a precipitous drop in fastball velocity and effectiveness. Kershaw’s fastball sat at 93 or 94 miles per hour for most of his career, and he could reach back for 96 or 97 when he really needed it. In April 2018, Kershaw’s fastball averaged fewer than 92 miles per hour and never once exceeded 93.7. That heater, once the most valuable pitch in baseball according to FanGraphs’ linear weights, was a below-average pitch in early 2018.
The week the Lindbergh article ran, Kershaw went on the DL with biceps tendinitis, came back for a five-inning start on May 31, then spent another three weeks on the shelf with his latest back issue. Since coming back, Kershaw’s been quite good: In 11 starts he’s struck out 62 in 67 1/3 innings, posted a 2.14 ERA, allowed just three home runs, and held opponents to a .213/.246/.305 batting line. Those are absolutely ace-level results if Kershaw can keep them up for a full season.
However much he’s declined, Kershaw is still an ace—the question is whether he is still unquestionably the best pitcher in baseball. That much is not clear. Even comparing post-DL Kershaw to his competitors’ full seasons, he lags behind his competitors in certain areas. Batters are hitting just .175/.239/.279 off Sale, while Nola, Jacob deGrom, and Scherzer have essentially the same opponent OPS. Kluber’s BB/9 ratio, 1.2, is fractionally lower than Kershaw’s, and Scherzer’s striking out more than three more batters per nine innings than Kershaw, and Sale’s striking out more than four more batters per nine innings.
Many of the areas in which another ace has Kershaw beat are hair-splittingly thin, but these comparisons are between a 72 1/3–inning stint for Kershaw that eliminates his worst month of the season versus samples of more than twice as many innings in every case, even with Sale, who’s made just one start in August thanks to shoulder inflammation. When fewer pitchers than ever are making 30 starts a year, the ability to throw a large volume of innings becomes a difference-maker, particularly among a group of half a dozen pitchers with similar rate stats. Once upon a time, eating innings was one of Kershaw’s greatest gifts—he threw at least 225 innings four times in five years from 2011 to 2015, a time period in which he won all three of his Cy Young awards and the 2014 NL MVP and cemented his august reputation.
It’d be one thing if Kershaw had a freak injury or two and just kept rolling. But Kershaw’s injuries have changed the kind of pitcher he is. He hasn’t even pitched more than 175 innings in a season since 2015, and he probably won’t make it there this year either. Kluber and Scherzer are within a couple of outs of 175 innings this year already. Kluber is on pace for his fifth straight 200-inning season, Scherzer for his sixth. Compared with those two, Kershaw looks like Rich Hill.
Most troubling, Kershaw’s fastball hasn’t come back. Even after his return from the DL, Kershaw’s heater is still averaging fewer than 92 miles per hour and hasn’t touched 94 once. With his pinpoint command and two all-world breaking pitches, Kershaw is as well equipped as anyone to lose a tick on his fastball and keep on going, but there’s a reason “losing his fastball,” in popular idiom, means being past one’s prime.
Given his performance over the past 11 starts, Kershaw is still among the best pitchers in baseball, and he could very well win a fourth Cy Young if he stays healthy for a full season in the future. But for the first time in the better part of a decade, there can be a real debate over who the single best pitcher in baseball actually is.