This is the 10th year of Clayton Kershaw's major league career, which means that if he decided to go back home to Texas today and split the rest of his life between fatherhood and pingpong or philanthropy or other pursuits, he would be eligible for election into baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Without throwing another pitch, he would easily gain induction, and would be a candidate to become the first player to be picked unanimously, if Mariano Rivera doesn’t do it in 2019 or Derek Jeter in 2020. Because you can make a strong case that Kershaw is the best pitcher ever.
Adjusted ERA+ is a statistic designed to create context, to measure a player’s performance against the panorama of his time. It allows us to understand the weight of Pedro Martinez's dominance within the steroid era, or Cy Young's performance relative to peers in the deadball era, or how good Lefty Grove was after the explosion of power and home runs that followed the rise of Babe Ruth.
Adjusted ERA+ cannot specifically account for every factor that affected pitchers, of course -- the segregation of the sport, which lasted until 1947; or the evolution of the strike zone; or the rise and fall in the height of the mound. But adjusted ERA+ accounts for the generational zigs and zags between pitching and hitting, and the highest-ranked pitcher in this metric is Rivera, who appeared in 1,115 games in his career -- all but 10 as a reliever.
The No. 1 starting pitcher in ERA+: Kershaw. And it’s not really that close.
1. Clayton Kershaw 160
2. Pedro Martinez 154
3. Jim Devlin (a 19th-century pitcher) 150
4. Lefty Grove 148
5. Walter Johnson 147
Kershaw has a career ERA of 2.35, and just about all the pitchers ahead of him on the all-time list of leaders were deadball era pitchers. In fielding independent pitching, a metric designed to separate a pitcher’s performance from the defense behind him, he is tied for 27th all time, and he is the only active pitcher among the first 128. (Chris Sale is No. 129, and Madison Bumgarner is No. 170.)
Kershaw is second all time in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) at 0.9996. The No. 1 pitcher on this list, Addie Joss, pitched in the first decade of the 20th century.
So Kershaw is historically great in how many hits, walks and runs he allows per inning and per game, while pitching in a time in which the rate of home runs is climbing.
But he has also distinguished himself from his peers at a time when pitchers have never thrown harder. Twenty-five years ago, a pitcher who consistently threw in the low-to-mid 90 mph range with movement was unusual. This year, 79 of the 91 pitchers currently qualified for the ERA title have average fastball velocity of 90 mph or higher. There are 49 relievers who began Sunday with an average fastball velocity of at least 95 mph. Hall of Famer Bob Feller was thought to be among the very hardest throwers of his time, and in 1938 -- the first season in which he led the league in strikeouts per nine innings -- he averaged 7.8. In 2017, there are 46 pitchers with a higher rate of strikeouts per nine innings.
If you believe in baseball evolution -- in the impact of better nutrition and year-round physical training -- then you believe pitchers are bigger and stronger than ever, throwing harder than ever, and even within that context, Kershaw has completely separated himself. For four consecutive years he has led the National League in ERA -- and the last time his ERA was above 2.53 at the end of a season was 2011. He was limited to 149 innings by injury last year, but what he accomplished in those innings was extraordinary: 172 strikeouts and 11 walks, for a 15.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As Madison Bumgarner asked rhetorically early in the 2016 season: Are we watching the best ever at his best?
Bumgarner, of course, generated the greatest postseason performance ever in the 2014 playoffs, dominating while throwing more than twice as many innings as any pitcher. Kershaw has pitched in 18 games in the postseason, and in those, he has a 4.55 ERA. For some fans, that would be a disqualifier in the conversation about whether he is the best ever. He probably needs to drive the Dodgers to a championship to fully put that conversation behind him.
But 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. 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.
Around the league
Catcher Jason Castro got a three-year deal with the Minnesota Twins partly because of the perception that he is among the game’s best pitch framers; year after year with the Astros he would rank among the best in pitch-frame statistics. This year, the Twins have been one of baseball’s biggest surprises, with their staff ERA down by a run, but Castro has fallen to near the bottom of the pitch-framing statistics. Buster Posey was at the top last year, and now he has fallen into the bottom half of catchers in the same metric. Others have zoomed up the leaderboard dramatically, as others have fallen way back -- all of which might raise some questions about the reliability of the statistic and whether it should be predicated on the command and velocity of the pitchers with whom the catchers are working.
Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale has a history of fading in the second half, which is not an unusual trait. But the fact that Sale has come out throwing so hard early in the year, with such a vengeance, has some evaluators wondering how he’ll hold up in August and September.
The San Diego Padres have called around to other teams to remind them that they are open for business right now, and in particular, they are very much willing to listen to offers for left-hander Brad Hand, who will be one of the best relievers moved before the July 31 deadline. Moving quickly worked well for San Diego last year, when it aggressively marketed Drew Pomeranz and dealt him at the All-Star break for Boston's top pitching prospect, Anderson Espinoza.
Other teams continue to wait for clear signs from the Kansas City Royals about their intentions before the trade deadline. For now, clubs are being told that the Royals intend to try to contend -- but other teams should prepare for the possibility that K.C. will sell Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, etc. The Red Sox, who have had disastrous production from their third basemen, were among the teams scouting the Royals in New York last week, and on paper, Moustakas could be a natural fit. Boston’s third basemen rank 29th in the majors in OPS.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
David Ortiz on a Call to the Legends: Discussing how Pedro Martinez continues to work to nudge Ortiz out of retirement; his speech at Fenway Park after the Boston Marathon bombing; how he relates to the joy of Cubs fans; and that time when Theo Epstein gave a motivational speech to the players (with some insight from Chicago GM Jed Hoyer).
Friday: Francisco Lindor on how his sister's illness affected how he felt about the Indians' World Series appearance last year; Karl Ravech and Justin Havens on the two words that seem inevitable in MLB: pitch clock; and Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sonny Gray and the Oakland ballpark situation.
Thursday: David Ross on getting back to baseball after his "Dancing With the Stars" run; Boog Sciambi on how Gray’s resurgence may alter the trade market; and Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on the struggles of Andrew McCutchen.
Wednesday: Tim Kurkjian on whether Kershaw is the greatest pitcher of all time; Orioles catcher Welington Castillo on his unusual path to playing his position and teammate Manny Machado; Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the Brewers’ hot start; and the first of our John Sterling home run calls when applied to other teams.
Tuesday: Keith Law on the Giants’ rebuilding quandary and his mock draft for the first five picks in the upcoming amateur selection process; J.D. Martinez of the Tigers on his offensive surge, Miguel Cabrera, and his childhood friend Alex Avila; and Sarah Langs with the Numbers Game.
Monday: Tigers manager Brad Ausmus tells stories about the many all-time greats he has played with: Tony Gwynn, Randy Johnson, Trevor Hoffman, Kershaw, Justin Verlander and Cabrera; Robinson Chirinos on what it’s like to work with Yu Darvish; Todd Radom’s uniform and logo quiz; and Jerry Crasnick discusses Mike Trout's astounding numbers.
And today will be better than yesterday.