Ranking Clayton Kershaw Amongst Greatest Pitchers

How do you select the greatest pitcher of all-time? It might be the most difficult task of all the sports and all the rankings.

That’s why it’s not easy to slot Los Angeles starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw into the pantheon of great hurlers in baseball history.

The role of the pitcher has changed dramatically since the early days of professional baseball. Originally, teams had one good pitcher who threw almost every inning. But those were the days when the rules said a batter could request the location of a pitch.

Gradually, things have evolved, but there’s still a stark difference between the iron-arm days of Cy Young and Walter “Big Train” Johnson and the era of Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. Today’s starting pitchers, even the best of them, rarely go more than six innings. Even just thirty-five years ago, that would have been the mark of a lesser pitcher.

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Kershaw Curve Dominates

Even as a rookie, Kershaw was dazzling observers with a nasty pitch that’s become his signature. They call it by many names: Bender, Hook, Slowball, Eephus, Yakker, Number Two, and Uncle Charlie. For Kershaw, it’s simply “The Curve,” and his is legendary. In his first game in the big leagues at the age of 20, it was clear his slow one was special.

He sends The Curve homeward with an impossibly ugly delivery that belies the beauty of his craftsmanship. The tall lefty with a haggard beard jerks and bends his body in bizarre fashion, almost as if he was a clunky machine on its last battery. But when he slings his left arm toward home plate, the looping, high-arching curve is confounding and frustrating to enemy batters. When he is really on his game, spinning the horsehide like few others ever have, Kershaw is almost unhittable.

Married with his fastball, which dips out of the bottom of the zone as hard-to-reach “cheese” at upwards of 95 miles per hour, and a slider he famously learned in one bullpen session, Kersh’s curve makes hitters want to take a night off.

Buster Posey, the future Hall of Famer who recently retired from his role as the Giant of the Giants, batted a meager .221 against Kershaw in 120 matchups. Buster’s teammate Brandon Belt, who faced Kershaw for years in the Dodger/Giant rivalry, has hit .065 with 30 strikeouts in 62 appearances against the pitcher they call “The Klaw.”

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Awards Aplenty

All that masterful pitching has earned Kershaw an MVP Award, three Cy Youngs, and the rare triple crown. His brilliance has coincided with the re-emergence of LA as one of baseball’s best teams. The Dodgers have won ten division titles in the 14 seasons since Kershaw joined its rotation in 2008. Two seasons ago, Kershaw and the Dodgers won the franchise’s first championship in more than three decades.

Cooperstown may as well paint a corner of the Hall of Fame museum space Dodger blue for the exhibit that will surely honor this century’s most marvelous pitcher.

But how good is Kershaw? Where does he rank all-time?

The Greatest Pitchers Of All-Time

This table includes the pitchers since the expansion era (1961 onward) who have rightful claims to be in the discussion as best pitcher of the last 60 years.

PITCHERYEARSWARWAR7WAR5CERA+HARDWARE
Sandy Koufax1955-196649.048.740.8131MVP, 3x Cy Young, 3x Triple Crown
Bob Gibson1959-197589.455.942.5127MVP, 2x Cy Young
Tom Seaver1967-1986110.156.740.91273x Cy Young
Roger Clemens1984-2007139.665.741.4143MVP, 7x Cy Young, 2x Triple Crown
Greg Maddux1986-2008106.755.543.81324x Cy Young
Randy Johnson1988-2009101.163.343.81355x Cy Young, Triple Crown
Pedro Martinez1992-200984.059.142.81543x Cy Young, Triple Crown
Justin Verlander2005-73.748.431.0130MVP, 2x Cy Young, Triple Crown
Clayton Kershaw2008-73.347.736.3156MVP, 3x Cy Young, Triple Crown
Max Scherzer2008-68.147.434.91343x Cy Young

It breaks down neatly: Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were the best of the 1960s; Seaver stood out in the 1970s; Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux emerged and became brilliant in the 1990s, where they were joined by Johnson and Pedro; and this century the trio of Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer are inarguably the best we’ve seen.

WAR (Wins Above Replacement), is a measurement that factors performance above a standard replacement pitcher. WAR7 is the pitcher’s best seven seasons, and WAR5C is the best five consecutive seasons (which gives us a glimpse at the pitcher’s prime). ERA+ is a comparative stat – a mark of 10 is league average, and the higher the better.

Kershaw has been compared to Koufax, for the obvious reason that they both are LA legends, both are southpaws, and feature a brilliant Yakker. However, the problem with Koufax is that he only pitched six good seasons. The rest of the time he was trying to figure out how to be a pitcher.

What Do the Stats Say?

What we want to find is a pitcher who had the durability and brilliance to put up great numbers over the course of a career while also presenting a high peak. Hopefully, the pitcher also has a great prime, which helps his team compete for titles. That’s the point isn’t it?

By WAR7 and WAR5C, Johnson ranks first, and he’s one of only four pitchers in our group to top 100 WAR for his career.

ERA+ is helpful, but also misleading. More recent pitchers are only pitching 5 to 7 innings typically, which makes it easier to put up a high ERA+. When Seaver and Gibson were pitching, a starter was expected to go nine (sometimes more) innings, and it didn’t matter if he didn’t have good stuff that day. Currently, pitchers are handled with kid gloves, and since they know they won’t have to throw 120-plus pitches, they can maximize their effort in the short window they are on the mound. Quality is important, but quantity matters too.

Based on career performance and peak performance, Johnson is my pick as the best starting pitcher since the expansion era. Kershaw is brilliant, and with his glittering ERA+, he rates as the most effective pitcher since the turn of the century.

Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully once said of Koufax that he was “the left arm of God.” After witnessing the Kershaw, it seems clear that God made himself a second left arm.

AP Photo/Morry Gash

About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes has written three books about sports. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. He enjoys writing, running, and lemon bars. He lives near Lake Michigan with his daughters and usually has an orange cream soda nearby.