Recently, one of the main debates in the baseball landscape has been whether or not the Nationals’ Max Scherzer has overtaken the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in the game. The two hurlers are likely the two best pitchers in baseball, but as usual, we must debate which one is better because we can’t appreciate a good thing when we see one. Anyway…
The trigger point for this discussion was an article printed in the Washington Post on Monday in which Neil Greenberg argued that Scherzer has overtaken Kershaw as the game’s best pitcher:
Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer has a long list of accolades. He’s the sixth pitcher in Major League Baseball history to win the Cy Young Award in both the American and National leagues. The 32-year-old father-to-be required the third fewest innings of any pitcher in history to record his 2,000th career strikeout. And he has two no-hitters plus a 20-strikeout game to his credit.
Now he can add one more superlative to his resume as the most likely to unseat Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in the baseball.
Later in the article, Greenberg argues that Scherzer is already the best pitcher in the sport. Greenberg’s opinion is no longer an uncommon one, either, but is Scherzer really the best pitcher in the game right now? Let’s take a closer look, and instead of solely looking at this year’s performance, we’ll compare the two pitchers over the first ten years of their careers.
To answer this question, I went to FanGraphs, quite possibly the best sports information website on the internet today. Instead of getting into advanced stats right away, I decided to compare the two pitchers based on more common statistics. The most accepted statistic to gauge a pitcher’s success is earned run average, and while Scherzer’s ERA is lower than Kershaw’s this season, their bodies of work show that this is a rare occurrence:
Much of the hype around Scherzer’s dominance has come in the wake of his last five starts. In those outings, Scherzer has pitched to a 0.89 ERA with at least ten strikeouts and seven innings pitched in every game. In his last five starts, Clayton Kershaw has pitched to a 3.98 ERA and has not gone deeper than seven innings into any of those outings. Before this five-start stretch, Kershaw’s ERA was 2.01 while Scherzer’s was 3.02. It’s entirely possible that this three-week period has been an aberration for both pitchers.
Now, let’s take a look at the all-important WHIP (walks and hits per inning) statistic. This stat is an indicator of how many baserunners a pitcher allows in each of his innings of work, and it usually is the best indicator of long-term success. With Kershaw and Scherzer, it tells a very similar story to their ERA comparison:
Let’s take this one step further. FIP is a pitching stat that aims to take defense out of the equation of a pitcher’s success (it literally stands for fielding independent pitching). This figure shows that Scherzer is currently having the better season. But, just like the other previously-displayed statistics, it also shows that this year could be an anomaly:
Now, it is impossible to believe that Kershaw is having the better season this year. However, you may ask yourself whether or not I would still take him as the best pitcher in baseball. The answer is that I would, and here’s why.
Both pitchers reached the big leagues in the same year (2008), making it very easy to directly compare their careers. Since they both arrived in the majors, there is a large sample size (ten years, to be exact) suggesting that Kershaw has been the better pitcher. If you go back and look at the graphs, the only time Scherzer has outperformed Kershaw before this year is their rookie season, when Scherzer was called up by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Kershaw was also called up that season and he made 21 starts. Want to know how many starts Scherzer had that season? Seven.
And even if you want to consider 2008 a full “season” for both pitchers and end the 2017 season today (more power to you if you do), the fact of the matter is this: Max Scherzer, to this point in his career, is two for ten in terms of having a better overall season than Clayton Kershaw. And if you’re like me and you consider 2008 and this season to be incomplete bodies of work, you’ll see that Scherzer has never been more effective than Kershaw for a full year.
And that leads me to think that Kershaw is still a better pitcher. While many are infatuated with a five-start stretch, Kershaw has still been consistently better and the month of June may have been a blip on the radar. Take this into account, too: Kershaw is just 29 years old. Scherzer is 32. While it seems like both have been around for a very long time, Kershaw is still on the south side of 30.
And make no mistake: this is not meant to discredit the job Max Scherzer has done so far this season. He has quite possibly been the game’s best hurler this year, and he should be applauded for that.
And if you’re going to crown him the best pitcher in the game because of a five-start stretch, that’s your prerogative. When you do that, though, just know that I won’t be joining in on your fun.
NOTE: Today, Scherzer threw an eight-inning complete game in a 2-1 loss to the Miami Marlins today. He had 11 strikeouts and did not allow an earned run in defeat. The information in the above graphs does not take Scherzer’s most recent start into consideration.