My son has, on various occasions, uttered the phrase, “Kershaw is the most dominant pitcher of all time.” Factored into this is his firm belief that todays baseball players are better than the superstars of yesteryear. There is validity in this contention for there is no doubt that todays athletes are bigger, faster and stronger. When you add those three ingredients together we have to come to terms with the fact that it should logically, equal better.
For purposes of full disclosure, I’m an old school guy. I’m not easily willing to jump on the “next best thing” mentality of our society of instant gratification. There are several reasons for this and one, I must confess, is that when it comes to my baseball heroes of bygone days, I get very protective. There’s a gazillion reasons for that and I would need a psychiatrist’s couch to sort through them all.
But that’s my issue. What I do love to do is search for ways to level the field in evaluating todays players with the greats of those bygone days.
What better place to start than these two? I dare say this will be the most extensive breakdown of these two greats you will find anywhere.
Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax.
At this moment the Dodger 27 year old lefty sits with an 11-2 record and an ERA of 1.79. He leads the league in strikeouts (145) and he has walked NINE! That’s a strikeout to walk ration of 16 to 1. To gain some perspective on this consider the following. The first pitcher to have a double digit SO/W ration was old “Grasshopper” Jim Whitney hurling for the Boston Beaneaters (Braves) in 1884. It was a 10-1 ratio and he held that record for 110 years until Bret Saberhagen threw up an 11-1 ratio in 1994. Cliff Lee hit the double digit mark in 2010 with a 10.2/1 deal and in 2014 Phil Hughes set a new mark with an 11.6/1 ratio. But I digress.
Back to dominance. In my lifetime the three most dominant pitchers I have seen are, in order of appearance on the scene: Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. The Dodger connection of Kershaw and Koufax is the most intriguing at this point and here is why. First, duh, their both Dodger southpaws but more importantly is the fact that each present six comparable successive seasons to be examined. So here goes.
Sandy Koufax made his major league debut in 1955. A mega talent, he “arrived” in the 1961 season which he entered with a record of 36-43 and an ERA of 4.04.
During his six seasons (1961-1966) he was 119-47 (.717) with a 2.19 ERA. He threw 1632.2 innings in 221 starts. Of those 221 starts, 115 were complete games of which 35 were shutouts; that is 30% of his complete games. He led the league in ERA for five straight seasons, wins three times and strikeouts four times, three times with over 300 K’s with a high of 382. Three times he topped the league in both wins and shutouts, twice in innings pitched and twice in complete games with 27 in both 1965 and 66. He pitched over 300 innings in three separate campaigns.
Koufax was the unanimous Cy Young Award winner three times (1963, 65 and 66), when there was only one pitcher selected for the honor. He won the MVP Award in 1963 garnering 14 of 20 first place votes. He threw four no-hitters in four years including a perfect game.
Clayton Kershaw’s rookie season was 2008 and his “arrival” in terms of dominance came in 2011. From that season until June 23, 2016 his record is 89-34 (.724) with a 2.06 ERA. he has pitched 1.243 innings in 174 starts. Of those starts, 23 of them were complete games with 14 of those shutouts, 61% of his complete games. He led the league in ERA four years in a row, wins twice, and strikeouts three times, hitting the 300 mark once (301 in 2015). Twice he topped the league in wins and shutouts, once in innings pitched and twice in complete games.
Kershaw has won three National League Cy Young Awards (2011, 13 and 14). He was a unanimous choice in 2014, the year in which he was also named the NL MVP receiving 18 of 30 first place votes. He tossed a no-hitter in 2014.
POST SEASON COMPARISON…
Sandy Koufax pitched in four World Series, 1959, 1963, 1965 and 1966. He had seven starts and one relief appearance and was 4-3 with a 0.95 ERA in 57 innings of work. He hurled four complete games and two shutouts, striking out 61 and walking 11. He was the World Series MVP in 1963 and 1965 and in 1963 struck out 15 Yankees in game one (a record he held until 1968).
His 4-3 record is a winning percentage of .571, considerably lower than the .717 mark he held during his six years of dominance. It’s worthwhile to take a look at his three World Series losses. The first game in game six in 1959; he was a loser in a 1-0 game with the White Sox run coming on a double play in the fourth inning. His second loss came in game two in 1965. He surrendered two runs in six innings (one unearned) in a game eventually won by the Twins 5-1. He struck out nine in those six innings. His third loss came in game two in ’66’ when the Orioles tabbed him for four runs (in six innings), one earned as the Dodgers committed a record six errors and hall of famer Jim Palmer became the youngest pitcher to hurl a World Series shutout. This would turn out to be Koufax’s last game.
Koufax pitches to Harry Bright with two outs in the ninth inning of the first game of the 1963 World Series. Bright became Koufax’s 15th strikeout victim. He was the first player to win two World Series MVP’s. Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson are the only other players to do so.
Clayton Kershaw has pitched in seven post-season series in five seasons. He has 10 starts and three relief appearances. He is 2-6 with an ERA of 4.59. He has thrown 64.2 innings with 77 strikeouts and 23 walks. In four NLDS he is 2-3 with a 3.52 ERA. Three times he has pitched in a NLCS in which he is 0-3 with a 7.32 ERA, he has 17 strikeouts and 11 walks in NLCS action. He has never pitched in a World Series.
Kershaw’s best post season series was the 2013 NLDS against the Braves. In two starts he was 1-0 with a 0.69 ERA. He struck out 18 Braves and walked four in 13 innings.
The discerning eye will note that all these comparisons involve the traditional evaluators: wins, ERA etc. It is only fair to compare them using the modern sabermetric evaluators which are at play today. It provides a vehicle which levels the field and allows us to transcend the generations of players.
First and foremost the greatest difference between the baseball eras is innings pitched. When Sandy Koufax took the ball every fourth game (not fifth), a large part of his job was to finish the job…Pitch nine innings. When Koufax broke in, bullpens were largely comprised of pitchers who could no longer complete games.
Kershaw’s entire career has been played in this era where the vast majority of big league pitchers have thrown their entire professional careers with the goal to not exceed 100-110 pitches per outing.
Lets take a look at the first Cy Young seasons of both men. First Kershaw; in 2011 he went 21-5 with an ERA of 2.28 He pitched 233.1 innings and in his 33 starts he averaged 105 pitches thrown. Twice during the year he topped 120 pitches hitting a high of 125.
When Koufax won his first Cy Young Award in 1963 he went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA. He pitched 311 innings and in his 40 starts he averaged 123 pitches. Within that season were two outings of over 160 pitches, both 12 inning complete game wins. And to go along with those: seven outings between 130-140 pitches and one outing each in the 140s and 150s.
Koufax’s pitch counts per outing have yet to be totally compiled so the career totals are incomplete; leaving us to work with innings pitched. However it is obviously clear that Koufax threw far, far more pitches than Kershaw and that is manifested in the innings pitched category. So lets go there.
In Koufax’s six seasons of dominance he averaged pitching 272 innings a season. He had 211 starts of which 115 were complete games. That means that 55% of the time Sandy took the ball he completed the start.
Kershaw has averaged 207 innings per season in his six seasons of dominance and in his 174 starts he has completed 23 games, 13% of them. The most innings Kershaw has pitched in a season is 236, 36 innings less than Koufax’s average.
From 1961 through 1966, the major league leaders in innings pitched averaged throwing 316 innings per year. Included in that was Koufax himself throwing 335.2 in 1965 and 323 in 1966.
Since 2011 the average leader in innings pitched is about 240 innings. Kershaw led the majors last year (232.2) and was second in 2014 with his career high 236. In all fairness it must be noted that to consistently hurl 200+ innings in this era; one will earn the designation as a horse, an innings eater.
Who would you take?
With that said, lets move into the modern evaluation stats and lets begin with WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for pitchers.
Kershaw has averaged a WAR of 7.0 going into this season, twice having led the majors. At this writing he leads all pitchers with a 4.8 which projects to a 2016 WAR of between 7 and 8. From 1961-1966 Koufax averaged a WAR of 7.7 and twice led the majors with a WAR better than 10.
Next up is ERA+. Now don’t let your head explode because all this does is give a measure of how much better a pitcher’s ERA is compared to the rest of the league. Here is an example of its simplicity. An ERA+ of 100 is average. The highest modern day ERA+ belongs to Pedro Martinez at 291, meaning his ERA was 191% better than the league average. Let that sink in.
While that sinks in, Kershaw has led the league in ERA+ three times and twice led the majors. His lowest since 2011 is a 150 in 2012. Currently he leads the majors with a mark of 247.
Koufax led the National League twice and the majors once in ERA+. His lowest mark was a 122 in 1961. His highest was a 190 in 1966, the year he retired.
The number one objective of a pitcher is to keep runners off the bases, get outs. The stat known as WHIP best measures that function. It is calculated by simply adding walks and hits and then dividing the total by the number of innings pitched. Obviously the lower the number the better.
Kershaw led the NL in WHIP in 2011, 12,13,14 and led the majors in 2013 and 14. He leads the majors to date this year, 0.727. Koufax led the major leagues four successive years, a feat that has never been duplicated. Clayton Kershaw is fourth on the all-time list of career WHIP, behind hall of famers Addie Joss, “Big Ed” Walsh and soon to be hall of famer Mariano Rivera.
The lowest single season WHIP was 0.7373 by Pedro Martinez in 2000. His ERA+ that same season (291) was the best in modern baseball history. (since 1901)
Spinning off of WHIP and an illustration of dominance are the stats of hits and strikeouts per nine innings. Obviously the more dominant is a pitcher, the least amount of hits will be allowed and there is no more indication of pitcher dominance than the strikeout.
In the hits per nine category, Kershaw led the NL in 2011 and 12, leading the majors in 2012. Koufax led the NL five straight years 1961-65 and the majors in 62 and 65. Kershaw’s best season was in 2013 when he allowed 6.25 hits per nine innings while Koufax’s best came in 1965 when opponents mustered 5.79 hits per nine.
In the strikeouts per nine department, Kershaw led the NL in 2014 and the majors in 2015. Koufax on the other hand led the NL every year from 1961 through 1966 and the majors in 1961 and 62.
So there you have it. A rather extensive, exhaustive look at these two pitchers measured and compared in their six seasons of dominance. Kershaw is, in fact in the midst of his sixth season of dominance.
Can we conclude anything from this? Does it clearly indicate which one of them was more or less dominant? Each of us will bring our own subjectivity to this argument; for what we are still left with is a vast difference in eras. But guess what? I’m not done.
Coming soon, my attempt to level their playing fields.
To be continued…
And so it is on this day in Fenway Park history, June 27, 2016.
18 years and with me every step