Clayton Kershaw starts Game 6 of the NLCS against the Cardinals tonight, his team down three games to two. The Dodgers play on the road, but they’ve got the best pitcher in the world on the mound, so it’s a wash, maybe even advantage Dodgers. I’m not the only one who thinks Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. Although recency bias helps people like me favor Kershaw over Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee, it doesn’t necessarily make us wrong. At the very least, sensible opponents of my position would have to grant that Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball this season.
By now you’ve noticed the thing between this paragraph and the last. It’s a way to chart Kershaw’s ascent to the Rosin Throne. Kershaw’s played just six years in the majors, and for all possible combinations of those years I’ve provided his WAR and where that WAR has ranked him among all other pitchers in the same time period. In the second chart, I showed only the ranks so I could do the gradient.
I set the midpoint of the gradient at 30, reasoning that the top 30 pitchers in the league could rightly be considered “aces.” Theoretically, an ace is the best starter on a pitching staff, so if you distributed the top 30 pitchers one to each team, they would all be aces. It’s just one definition, and I’m not sure if I even buy into it. (Of course some teams have none and some have two. Besides, the talent pool might not be deep enough for 30 bona fide aces.) But 30 isn’t arbitrary and serves well enough here. All we want is to chart is Kershaw’s rise to the top, and we’re less concerned with his stops in the middle.
Anyway, for the last four years, Kershaw’s been one of the three best pitchers in baseball. Who knows for how many years he’ll be considered the best. Maybe just this year. After all, Tim Lincecum was the best once.
You can find plenty of differences between Lincecum and Kershaw that suggest Kershaw is more likely to sustain his greatness. Lincecum is tiny; Kershaw isn’t. Lincecum’s velocity is closely tied to his springy, elasto-man delivery; Kershaw’s velocity seems more natural. Lincecum was never a free-pass machine, but he never had Kershaw’s current pedigree of avoiding walks. Still, Lincecum’s is a cautionary tale (as if pitchers needed another one): things can go bad, and quickly.
It’s time for me to stop being negative. Kershaw’s rise is truly remarkable. Here’s another guy who came up as a teenager.
In his first six years, King Felix established himself as a front-line starter, but not as one of the best three to five pitchers in the game. I think we can all agree that if Felix can pitch well into his thirties at a high level, he will make the Hall of Fame. What does that say about Kershaw? Could he be one of the best in recent history?
On his Baseball Reference page, Kershaw is graded similar to Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver. Let’s look at their first six seasons (caveat: I started counting at their first season with 40 innings pitched).
No matter how you slice it, Pedro took longer to reach the top than Kershaw did. Seaver posted some monstrous WARs thanks to plenty of 300-inning seasons, and you could call him the best in his fifth year, whereas Kershaw needed six. And Clemens, oh boy Clemens. I don’t think we will ever again see dominance to that degree from a young pitcher. (And I didn’t even get to see it.) Clemens in the late ’80s was unreal, and the closest thing we’ve had since is Clayton Kershaw.