Clayton Kershaw’s Career Is Not An All-Time Career… Yet
My oh my… Buster Olney has published another big swing and a miss for intellectually honest baseball writers everywhere. Over the weekend Olney came out #HotTake firing with a doozy of an article that included the line, “you can make a strong case that Kershaw is the best pitcher ever.” Holy drunken Batman bender is that a magma level #HotTake. Clayton Kershaw is a stud of epic proportions, but to claim he is the best of all-time, when he does not even hold that title within Dodger annals, is baffling and patently absurd. Kershaw’s career has two major failings, one that is currently out of his control and one that is almost entirely his fault.
Olney brings up two stats to substantiate his claim, and both hold an extreme amount of water: ERA+ and WHIP. Career-wise Kershaw’s ERA+ is second all-time at 159. In third is Pedro Martinez with a 154 career ERA+ (my pick for best pitcher of all-time). Kershaw is in his 10th year in the league while Pedro managed 18 seasons during the most hitter friendly era in baseball history. Kershaw has appeared in a little more than half the games Pedro did, but Olney wants to run a full-stop and say he is the best pitcher of all-time. Sample sizes matter, and Pedro’s is longer and much more dominant.
This is the crux of the issue; Olney’s argument is predicated on the small sample size predicament. When Olney wrote his article, Kershaw was 27th all-time in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and second all-time in Walks Hit per Innings Pitched (WHIP). Just ONE START later he is 31st and fourth respectively. When it comes to discussions about best all-time, you have to take the ENTIRE career under examination. Example: in year eight for Kershaw he struck out 301 batters while walking 42… Pedro’s posted a similarly insane 313/37 K/BB in his eighth season. However, you do not get better as you get older. You get worse. Pedro went on the pitch 10 more season in MLB where his numbers and dominance predictably declined. To look at Kershaw’s numbers as they stand now and assume they will remain static is intellectually dishonest.
The Postseason Matters When Discussing Best Ever
Intellectual dishonesty is the name of the game with Olney’s argument as it pertains to Kershaw. The knock on Kershaw is his inability to show up in the postseason. This is an amazingly valid argument because when you take in to account his strikingly bad post-season numbers, Kershaw not only loses his best pitcher of all-time title, but also the best in Dodger’s history argument; enter Sandy Koufax.
Every baseball fan knows of Koufax’s dominance and his shortish (12 year) major league career because of arm issues/overworking. It took six-and-a-half years for Koufax to hit his Secretariat like stride, but when he did he put together the best pitching span of all-time. Not just in the regular season as everybody likes to point out, but in the post-season as well. Koufax appeared in four post-seasons and totaled 57 innings pitched while winning three World Series titles (I do not count his first title because he did not do anything that year): the southpaw racked up a 0.95 ERA with four complete games (two shutouts) in seven starts (eight appearances) while even starting in three of the seven games in the 1965 World Series (which probably led to the shortening of his career). In total, Koufax tallied two World Series MVPs, striking out 61 batters and walking just 11 with an outrageous 0.825 WHIP.
Kershaw though, with plenty more opportunity to help his team in the playoffs, pales in comparison. Kershaw’s ERA is a pedestrian 4.55 in 89 innings. His career regular season home runs per nine innings is 0.6, but almost doubles to an even 1.0 in the postseason (10 total). The worst stat though (beyond the ERA) is his teams are 3-6 in postseason series. The Dodgers under Koufax? 3-1.
Olney wants to dismiss the post-season statistics though because they massacre his argument, “to use the postseason as a litmus test would be to rank Mickey Lolich as an all-time great, or to dismiss Greg Maddux because he lost more than he won in the postseason.” This is patently dumb. First off, Greg Maddux won a World Series in 1995 and had a career 3.27 ERA in 198 postseason innings. Secondly, if the postseason did not matter, baseball (and every other American sport) would hand the title over after the regular season and call it a day. But they do not. They want to see how you perform when the pressure is exponentially increased. That is why the NHL has the President’s Trophy (for best regular season team) and the Stanley Cup… and nobody dreams of lifting the President’s Cup.
This is the “What that little guy? I wouldn’t worry about that little guy,” argument. Any rational person would always worry about that little guy
Olney continues, “Kershaw will probably get a few more chances to ascend in October, but even without that, what he has done over the summers of his career is the best we’ve ever seen, or anybody has ever seen.” No, he is not the best we have ever seen, nor the best anybody has seen. The postseason absolutely matters when it comes to the discussion of best ever. Curt Schilling is a hall of fame caliber pitcher SPECIFICALLY because of what he did in the postseason (in 19 starts: a 2.23 ERA, 133.1 IP, 120K/25BB, and only 12 home runs allowed). Not only did he post those numbers, but he also won a World Series MVP and three total titles while, oh yeah, ending an 86 year drought for the Boston Red Sox.
The entire Olney argument is bolstered by two massively important issues: disregard Kershaw’s obvious failings in the postseason and wrongfully assume his projected numbers will stay static through the rest of his career. When you look at Kershaw’s numbers they stand out. He is an amazing pitcher and a once in a generation product. However, Kershaw fails in the most important part of the year; the postseason. Peers like Madison Bumgarner and Jon Lester are stellar regular season pitchers who increase productivity along with the pressure of the postseason. Not so coincidentally, both of those contemporaneous southpaws have a handful of World Series titles in their collection. The postseason matters most in sports and Kershaw’s failings there are holding him back from even being in the discussion of best ever.
Football Holds the Key for Clayton Kershaw
There is a cross-sports analogy to be made here. At the time of his retirement, Dan Marino held every significant regular season quarterbacking record. However, Joe Montana, a contemporary of his, was thought by all as the best quarterback of all-time. Montana had the Super Bowl trophies while Marino had the stats. Yet nobody held Dan Marino as the best quarterback of all-time because his inability to perform and succeed in the postseason had to be taken under advisement. Anybody that watches sports knows the postseason is the most crucial of times and those that fail on her stage are rightfully derided. If Kershaw’s career continues along this trajectory he could very well go down as the best regular season pitcher of all-time, but the question has to be asked; who would you rather be… Dan Marino… or Tom Brady.
It is understandable what Buster Olney is trying to do here. He sees a modern day pitcher at the top of this game and is playing the “what-if” card. In the modern sports debate climate everybody loves the “what-if” question. But in trying to answer his own “what-if,” Olney confusingly disregards a drastically important part of sports, the postseason. This is intellectually dishonest from Olney. The reason it is intellectually dishonest is because the realistic answers to his questions disprove his claim. Yes, Kershaw is one of the best regular season pitchers ever. But for anybody to be thought of as the best ever, there cannot be any qualifiers. If Kershaw did not throw another pitch in his career he would go down as Sandy Koufax Version 2.0. However, the main difference would be Koufax’s World Series titles versus the lack of postseason production from Kershaw. If Kershaw stepped away from baseball today, there is not a single intellectually honest person who would pick Kershaw over Koufax. Koufax would win the career battle between the two southpaws because that is what Koufax did best… win when it matters. Kershaw’s inability to do just that is exactly why he cannot be the best pitcher ever.