The faint whispers comparing Clayton Kershaw to the legend could be heard early in the phenom’s career–at the latest, they became audible when Kershaw was just 21. Of course, when a pitcher barely old enough to buy a beer is juxtaposed with a Hall of Famer, it’s customary to laugh off such bold proclamations. Let me know where this kid is in 10 years.
But the whispers are growing louder, and voices are carrying. Every start, every season is becoming more and more jaw-dropping, the arc of every curveball and slider more impossible, the face of every strikeout victim leaving the box more accepting of the dominance that just transpired. Something special is going on here, something eerily familiar to what occurred on the mounds of Los Angeles during the 1960s. The chatter has long been hushed, but the numbers are speaking for themselves at this point: Clayton Kershaw is pitching at a level so strikingly similar to Sandy Koufax that it’s justified not only to make the comparison, but to wonder whether Kershaw may somehow be channeling the spirit of the Dodgers legend.
The Hall of Fame candidacy of pitchers has traditionally been weighed by the standard counting numbers: wins, losses, strikeouts, innings, and the like. Gauging the quality of baseball players has certainly evolved well beyond this point, but since Koufax was pitching in an era where counting numbers were almost the only ones that mattered, it remains important to this discussion to take a side-by-side look at each player’s accomplishments in this area. The following table depicts the 162-game average value of a handful of standard statistics for the two pitchers, and in the style of some of my favorite baseball columns from ESPN, listed anonymously:
Go ahead and venture a guess as to which is Kershaw and which is Koufax, because a guess is all anyone can work with here. Look at how thin the margins of difference are: a single win, a single hit, two innings, five earned runs, eight walks, and of course zero losses and zero strikeouts of variation.
Before revealing the players’ identities, the pitchers should also be compared with the rates and advanced statistics made indispensable in Kershaw’s era. This table tells more of the same story:
How about that. A magnifying glass is needed to see any distinctions in these numbers. In these rate statistics, the differences are 0.024 in WHIP, 0.05 in batting average allowed, 0.1 strikeouts in per nine innings, 0.2 in home runs per, 0.3 in walks per, 0.6 percent in walks and in leaving runners on base, 0.8 percent in strikeouts, and no difference in hits per. We’re splitting hairs here, and it may not be possible to find two players with stats that mirror each other as perfectly as these two do.
The only gap here is in ERA. Of course, a pitcher’s ERA can fluctuate due to a number of factors, including his team’s defensive competency, the size of his ballpark and the time period in which he pitches. Fielding Independent Pitching and ERA+ attempt to fix this. The difference between the pitchers’ FIP is just 0.1, so that gap matches the others. The ERA+ jumps out more with a difference of 17. But that’s a career value, and when the ERA+ values from each pitchers’ top six seasons are averaged, Player A comes away with an average ERA+ of 160 and Player B posts an average of 159.5, not surprisingly. This is not a true ERA+ value for that time period, but the point is there: the numbers for these pitchers are indistinguishable from one another.
Even though it does not seem vital to proving the point of this article, it feels like it’s about time to reveal the identities of these pitching superheroes. Player A is Sandy Koufax, Player B Clayton Kershaw. That could be a lie and it would not matter (though it is the truth). It is in fact Kershaw with the better 2.57 ERA, the lowest in the modern-ball era for all starters with over 1,000 innings, as pointed out by SB Nation (It stood at 2.70 when SB Nation published the article last May. Kershaw has shaved off 0.13 more since then just for fun). Although I just mentioned that ERA can fluctuate and is no longer seen to be quite as reliable as it once was, that is still an incredible achievement. On a slightly smaller scale, Kershaw has lead the majors in that category for three straight years; though Koufax led the National League in ERA for five straight seasons, Greg Maddux is the only other pitcher to lead the entire major leagues three straight years. No matter how the advanced statistics movement develops, ERA will still be important, and these two are at the top of their class in that regard.
On top of ERA, Kershaw and Koufax trade league titles in more categories than most pitchers can even dream about competing for, including wins, strikeouts, shutouts, ERA+, WHIP and hits per nine innings. Their supremacy is represented by the bold ink that drenches their stat sheets and by the Cy Young awards and no-hitters that litter their mantles and lists of accomplishments. Koufax has three Cy Youngs and Kershaw has two, while working on another very compelling case for his third this season. Koufax has a ridiculous four no-hitters, including a perfect game, and in case you haven’t heard, Kershaw threw one of the most brilliant no-hitters in league history June 18th against the Rockies, striking out 15 on just 107 supremely efficient and devastating pitches, walking none and missing out on a perfect game only because Hanley Ramirez forgot how to throw a baseball.
Just watch all of this video of his no-hitter to get an idea of just how well Kershaw is pitching right now. And with the numbers Kershaw is posting recently–28 straight scoreless innings, 36 strikeouts, 3 walks and 11 hits over 24 innings in his last three starts, a 1.28 ERA season ERA if you factor out his only even remotely bad game this season–how long is it before teams are approaching his starts like opponents in “Kicking and Screaming” approached facing the Italians? “You know, actually one of my kids forgot his socks so we forfeit!”
It’s more than apparent that Kershaw is the best pitcher in today’s MLB, and as shown earlier, his numbers so far are on par with even the great Sandy Koufax. But what are the odds Kershaw can equal or even surpass the career of Koufax? Allow some charts from Fangraphs to explain.
This is the first of many graphs illustrating a common theme: the lines of data for Kershaw and Koufax being nearly identical in shape, but with Kershaw’s line occurring earlier on the age axis. Here it’s clear that the pair is much better than league average in ERA, and that Kershaw reached that point of superiority earlier in his career.
Here is a graph of their strikeouts per nine innings compared to league average. Kershaw started his career better, performed basically as well as Koufax in his prime for a few years and saw his strikeouts-per spike to a mind-boggling 12.1 this season.
This graph of strikeout to walk ratio is similar to the strikeouts-per chart. It depicts a big spike in Kershaw’s ratio for the age 26 season, as this year he’s gone way up to a 9.73 clip because he’s forgotten how to walk people. And again, Kershaw’s ascent begins earlier than Koufax’s.
Here’s the comparison of WHIP values for two of the game’s very best in this category. The numbers are similar but again Kershaw is better earlier.
Lastly, since ERA was looked at earlier, it’s also important to analyze Fielding Independent Pitching to see how capable pitchers are without their fielders. By the looks of it, these two are more than capable, and Kershaw was even more so early on in his career.
These are just a few stats, but K/9, K/BB, WHIP, ERA and FIP are very helpful in determining long-term success for a pitcher because they are fairly reliable and consistent numbers, more so than at least wins anyway.
Though it is commonly overlooked, if these charts prove anything, it’s that Sandy Koufax was a rather forgettable pitcher until his age 25 season, posting four years within seven points of the league-average ERA+ value of 100 before then. Kershaw only had one season like that: his age 20 rookie year. Koufax of course exploded after that, posting one of the best peaks of any pitching career in history, which included three sub-2.00 ERA years and a 2.04 season. But that came to an abrupt end because of an arm injury that could not be corrected at the time, and Koufax was finished at age 30 with 165 wins. The main idea here is that because Kershaw has excelled at the same level as Koufax and at a significantly earlier point in his career, he has potential to surpass the career accomplishments of the Hall of Fame pitcher. At just 26, time is on Kershaw’s side.
Doubts will always linger when chasing the shadow of a legend. Pitchers are forever behind the eight ball, one pitch away from a career-derailing injury, like the one that Koufax suffered. Kershaw has a long mountain to climb, but his ascent has people talking. His numbers are echoing one of the game’s best, with a four-year head start to boot. With his prime years still to come, Kershaw, though seemingly impossible, may have yet to peak, and all the numbers support that distinct possibility. It may be hard to believe for baseball historians, but Clayton Kershaw could live up to the lofty Sandy Koufax comparisons bestowed upon him and even exceed them.
Clayton Kershaw is making a lot of noise, and it’s time for everyone to listen.