Clayton Kershaw and the Best Pitching Peaks of All Time

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In case you didn’t know by now, Clayton Kershaw is unbelievable. The Los Angeles Dodgers lefthander has thoroughly affirmed his status as the greatest pitcher in the world today, and perhaps one of the greatest of all time, with another terrific season - after last night’s complete game win over Atlanta, Kershaw’s record sits at 13-2, with a 1.71 ERA, and an even 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Kershaw seems destined for his third Cy Young in four years (the only year he didn’t win, he finished second), and seems to be reaching heights not seen since the likes of Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux terrorized Steroid Era hitters. Moreover, if you look back a little bit further - back into the middle of his magnificent 2011 season, where Kershaw won his first Cy Young - you’ll find something truly incredible. Over his last 100 starts, Clayton Kershaw’s ERA sits at an even 2.00. Since the beginning of the live ball era, only four other men have had a 100-start stretch with an ERA at 2.00 or below, all Hall of Famers. How does Kershaw stack up?

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A Hall of Famer as of this week, Greg Maddux was the dominant pitcher of the 90s. A pitcher’s pitcher’s pitcher, Maddux was a master of location and sequencing - but the man could still strike you out. The peak of Maddux’s career came in a four-season stretch from 1992-1995, encompassing his last year as a Cub and his first three as an Atlanta Brave. In those four seasons, Maddux became the first man to win four straight Cy Youngs, seizing the status of best pitcher in the world. From ‘92 to ‘95, Maddux started 124 games - 37 of them complete games, with 11 shutouts - and went 75-29 with a 1.98 ERA. This incredible feat is made even more impressive by the era in which he pitched (for comparison, while the total batting average of the National League is .249 this year, it was .267 in 1995) and the fact that he spent most of his days at two fabled bandboxes, Wrigley Field and the “Launching Pad”, Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. In one of the most hitter-friendly eras in baseball history, in two of the most hitter-friendly parks, Maddux was incredibly dominant. He devoured innings, slashed his walk rate into oblivion, and despite staying constantly in the strike zone, he barely allowed any home runs - just 33 in four years, including a 1994 season where he gave up just four round-trippers in over 200 innings pitched. Meanwhile, that ERA stayed under 2.00 for well over 100 starts. What a pitcher.

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While Maddux did his thing in a decidedly hitter-friendly period, the next two pitchers thrived in an era where the pitcher was king. While Bob Gibson only recorded one season with an ERA under 2.00, that season was the stuff of legend. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, Gibson set a record that will never be broken with an unthinkable 1.12 ERA, on his way to a Cy Young (he’d win another in 1970) and an MVP. Driven by that outlandish 1968 season, Gibson’s ERA from ‘66-‘68 sits at 2.04 - factor in the first nine starts of the 1969 season, and it dips down to 1.99. Gibson is unquestionably one of the greatest pitchers of the live ball era, but that 1968 season really skews the hell out of his stats. In 1968, the deck was so far stacked in favor of the pitcher that they lopped five inches off the mound and reduced the size of the strike zone afterward. While Gibson still managed a 2.18 ERA in 1969, he’d never enjoy that type of dominance again. Gibson also enjoyed the benefit of pitching in spacious Busch Stadium, historically a strong pitcher’s park. I’d place his run firmly behind Maddux.

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It seems like wherever Clayton Kershaw’s name is mentioned, Sandy Koufax’s isn’t far behind. Koufax’s peak is one of the most storied and celebrated in baseball history - from 1963 to 1966, Koufax pitched the Dodgers to two World Series titles and garnered three Cy Youngs and an MVP. In those four seasons, Koufax made 150 starts, completed 89 of them, threw 31 shutouts, and posted a 1.86 ERA. His dominance was all-encompassing. Those three Cy Youngs become a little more impressive when you realize that back then there was only one award handed out for the best pitcher in all of baseball, instead of one per league. In fact, he was the only pitcher ever to win three Cy Youngs before the award was split. Yes, Dodger Stadium is a pitcher’s park - although I think its reputation is a little skewed by the consistently fantastic pitching, and uninspiring offenses, the Dodgers have tended to put out there since the team’s move to Los Angeles - but Koufax’s peak is so storied for a reason.  Despite the fact that strikeout rates were much lower than what you see today (in 1966, the total number of strikeouts in the NL was about half the total in 2013), Koufax piled up strikeout totals that would be impressive even in the present day. Koufax’s strikeout-to-walk ratio during his peak outpace those of Gibson and Maddux, and he did it while pitching through a serious arm injury that medicine at the time could not effectively treat. While today he might have been able to get Tommy John surgery, or some other procedure, and extend his career, Koufax instead was forced to pitch through tremendous pain every start, and still managed to put up unparalleled numbers. Koufax’s initial injury likely happened midway through the 1964 season, meaning that most of his streak occurred with a severe injury. That might be enough to tip the scales in his favor for Best Pitching Run of All Time. 

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Hal Newhouser is a Hall of Famer, the dominant pitcher of his era, and still probably the forgotten man on this list. During World War II, Newhouser owned the American League, twice earning AL MVP honors in the era before the Cy Young Award existed. Newhouser was a hotshot prospect struggling with control problems before the United States entered the war - a heart issue kept Newhouser from the service, and with the talent pool getting shallower and shallower as the war raged on, Newhouser came into his own. That’s not to say that Newhouser was merely a big fish in a small pond. Newhouser posted a 1.94 ERA in 1946 after most of baseball’s top-level talent returned, and continued to be a high-quality pitcher for a number of years to come. Newhouser’s sub-2.00 run comes between the 1944 and 1946 seasons, where he posted an 80-27 record with a 1.99 ERA in 124 total appearances, 104 of them starts, with 83 complete games and 20 shutouts. Newhouser was certainly a dominant pitcher, and I hate to dismiss his run out of hand, but we don’t know what his stats would have looked like if the war didn’t happen. Newhouser was certainly the best pitcher in the big leagues at his peak, but the special circumstances created by World War II means that he can’t be considered along the previous four pitchers. 

So what about Clayton Kershaw? Where does he fit? Like most of the pitchers above, Kershaw has benefited from circumstance - a strikeout pitcher, he’s been helped by pitching in the most strikeout-friendly era in baseball history, as well as the opportunity to toe the slab in Dodger Stadium. He hasn’t yet achieved the sustained magnificence that Maddux or Koufax achieved in their primes, but he has something going for him in 2014 that even they never were able to approach - through 121.1 innings, Kershaw has an unthinkable 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. 150 strikeouts, 15 walks. Kershaw is combining the strikeout rate of someone like Randy Johnson with the walk rate of Greg Maddux, and the results are absolutely devastating. Kershaw is still just 26, and he still appears to be improving. There’s every reason to believe that the next 100 starts are going to be better than the last 100.

So which of these men had the best pitching peak? It should be noted that Pedro Martinez’s incredible prime isn’t on the list, but he may have been better than them all - despite pitching at Fenway Park during the Steroid Era, Pedro’s numbers are absolutely ludicrous. Specifically, from 1997-2000, Pedro struck out 11.5 batters per nine innings, while walking only two, with a 2.16 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP. Moreover, his ERA+, which adjusts a pitcher’s ERA to his ballpark and league, is the greatest among any starting pitcher in the history of baseball. (Second on that list? Clayton Kershaw.) If it weren’t for a 2.89 ERA (Horrible! Wretched!) in ‘98, he’d be on this list… but alas, he falls short. For my money, the title goes to either Greg Maddux or Sandy Koufax. There’s Maddux, who had every reason why he shouldn’t have been able to do what he did, but did it anyway - and Koufax, who made history despite unbearable pain. I find it extremely difficult to pick between the two, but in the end, I lean towards Koufax. Will he still hold the crown in ten years? Twenty? Who knows, but Clayton Kershaw has as good a chance as any to overtake him.