In bleachers, on barstools, in barbershops or bistros or backyards, we have bandied and bickered about baseball for generations. With friends and loved ones and strangers alike, we have discussed, in intricate detail, our choices for best this or favorite that. And even when we vehemently disagree, the deliberations often seem to have the effect of bringing us closer together, the sport serving as a connective tissue.
Unfortunately, we are in an unusual time in which social distancing is necessary. But let’s not allow that to stop us from waging these great baseball debates. Here in this space in the coming weeks, we’ll pose a variety of them, involving topics past and present, providing each case as clearly and objectively as we can, and then leaving it up to you to make up your own mind.
We’ll begin today with starting pitching. While there are plenty of other prominent pitchers still active, there are just three who have accrued at least 2,000 career innings and multiple Cy Young Awards. We can state with reasonable certainty that all three — Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander — are Hall of Fame-bound.
But which of the three will stand as the best of his time? If you could assign just one spot on the pitching Mount Rushmore to a guy who debuted in the 2000s and came of age in the 2010s, who would get the starting nod?
Let the debate begin!
Debut: May 25, 2008
Cy Young Awards: 3 (2011 National League, '13 NL, '14 NL)
MVP Awards: 1 (2014 NL)
All-Star selections: 8
Career Wins Above Replacement: 67.9 (Baseball Reference), 64.5 (FanGraphs)
Innings: 2,274 2/3
The case for: As of this snapshot in time, Kershaw has a strong statistical argument as the most dominant regular-season starting arm of all time. His 2.44 career ERA is the lowest of any pitcher with at least 1,500 innings pitched in the live-ball era (dating back to 1920), and his career ERA+ of 157 (or 57 percent better than league average, adjusted for ballpark and era) is the best of any starter ever (Pedro Martinez is second, at 154). Kershaw is also the live-ball leader in WHIP and Fielding Independent Pitching (2.43).
Another way to illustrate Kershaw’s day-to-day dominance? Among those in history with at least 400 innings pitched, his average game score (63.0) is No. 1 all-time, just ahead of another Dodger lefty named Sandy Koufax (62.8, in 2,324 1/3 innings).
Kershaw has five NL ERA titles, four Major League ERA titles and a no-hitter. He is a six-time Cy Young finalist (top three finish). His 15 career shutouts are the most of any active pitcher (for the sake of comparison, Verlander has nine and Scherzer five). He even has a Gold Glove Award (2011).
Quite frankly, Kershaw could pull a Koufax right now and walk away from the game in his early 30s, and he’d waltz right into the Hall of Fame. His case is settled. Now, it’s just a matter of watching where he can push his career totals in the years to come.
The case against: Well, you know where this is going — the postseason. There, Kershaw has shined at times, flailed at others and, overall, just not been nearly as dominant (though it’s fair to account for, um, external factors that might have worked against him in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series). Here's how his October numbers compare to those of Scherzer and Verlander, both of whom have, unlike him, put a ring on it.
Kershaw: 9-11, 4.43 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, -0.05 Win Probability Added (per Baseball Reference) in 158 1/3 innings
Scherzer: 7-5, 3.38 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 1.61 WPA in 112 innings
Verlander: 14-11, 3.40 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 1.65 WPA in 187 2/3 innings
There’s also the unknown: Kershaw has entered the post-peak phase of his career. Injury issues have limited him to an average of 166 innings over the last four years, and he’s only entering his age-32 season. So while Kershaw’s status is clear at this snapshot, how will his stats compare to those of Verlander and Scherzer at the finish line?
Debut: April 29, 2008
Cy Young Awards: 3 (2013 American League, '16 NL, '17 NL)
MVP Awards: 0
All-Star selections: 7
Career Wins Above Replacement: 60.1 (Baseball Reference), 58.8 (FanGraphs)
The case for: One of only six pitchers to win the Cy Young in both leagues (joining Gaylord Perry, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Roy Halladay), Scherzer will go down as one of the great free-agent acquisitions of all time. He was already established as one of the best pitchers in the sport when he left the Tigers and signed with the Nationals prior to 2015. But in the time since, he has finished in the top five of the Cy Young voting all five years (including finalist spots in '18 and ’19), led the NL in K/BB ratio four times, in WHIP three times, in strikeouts three times and in innings twice. And of course, he was instrumental in the Nats winning their first-ever World Series crown last October.
In 2015, Scherzer became one of only five pitchers (joining Johnny Vander Meer, Allie Reynolds, Virgil Trucks and Nolan Ryan) to throw two no-hitters in a single regular season. (And as an aside, he was a Jose Tabata dropped elbow and a Yunel Escobar skipped throw away from both of those outings being perfect games.) Scherzer is also the only guy in this debate with a 20-strikeout game (May 11, 2016, vs. Detroit).
Though he has not yet been around long enough to join Verlander in the 3,000-K Club, Scherzer has the highest career strikeout rate (29 percent of batters faced) of the three pitchers discussed here. In terms of innings, he was the third-fastest pitcher in history to reach 2,500 K’s, trailing only Johnson and Martinez.
With seven straight seasons in which he has finished in the top five of the Cy Young vote, Scherzer is on a current run unmatched by the others.
The case against: Scherzer was a relatively late bloomer. From 2008-12, with the D-backs and Tigers, he appeared in 142 games and pitched 804 2/3 innings with a pedestrian 3.88 ERA and just-above-average 110 ERA+. He didn’t have his first Cy-caliber season until age 28, and so that impacts some of his career totals in significant ways when being compared to two other pitchers who established themselves as elite at younger ages.
To wit, Scherzer’s current career ERA+ is directly comparable to that of Verlander, but in 692 fewer career innings. So it is not certain Scherzer will hold up as well as Verlander has as he advances into his mid-to-late 30s. Meanwhile, Scherzer’s innings total is directly comparable to that of Kershaw, but with a significantly higher ERA and significantly lower ERA+. So he doesn’t have as many dominant seasons in his 20s on which to draw in this discussion.
Debut: July 4, 2005
Cy Young Awards: 2 (2011 AL, '19 AL)
MVP Awards: 1 (2011 AL)
All-Star selections: 8
Career Wins Above Replacement: 71.6 (Baseball Reference), 72.0 (FanGraphs)
The case for: Three no-hitters, 3,000 strikeouts, and continued dominance even in his mid-30s. Verlander grew up idolizing Nolan Ryan, and his rare longevity makes for a pretty decent modern-day approximation of the Ryan Express.
Verlander had a great legacy with the Tigers that included a Rookie of the Year Award (2006), a Cy Young, an MVP ('11, when he won the pitching Triple Crown by leading the AL in ERA, wins and strikeouts) and five strikeout titles ('09, '11, '12, '15, '18). But just when it appeared he had reached the decline phase of his career in '14-15, when he had a combined 4.08 ERA, he improved his flexibility to reduce his physical pain, altered his pitch selection and enjoyed a late-career renaissance that included the '17 trade to — and World Series victory with — the Astros.
The Houston tenure has likely cemented Verlander’s Cooperstown case, as he has reached important benchmarks in terms of his career WAR and strikeout totals. He will clear 3,000 innings in the near future, with a shot at 250 wins. And his third career no-hitter in 2019 put him in ultra-rare company, as only Ryan (seven), Sandy Koufax (four), Bob Feller (three), Cy Young (three) and Larry Corcoran (three) have achieved the feat that many times.
Verlander’s three second-place finishes in the Cy Young voting very easily could have gone the other way. He finished four voting points shy of David Price in 2012, five points shy of Rick Porcello in '16, and 15 points shy of Blake Snell in '18.
The case against: Kershaw and Scherzer cannot yet match Verlander’s endurance, given that he debuted earlier. But Verlander’s overall profile does include a couple dud years in Detroit (2008, '14) in which his ERA+ was actually below league average (he even led the AL in earned runs allowed in ’14). His '13 (120 ERA+ in 34 starts) and '15 (118 ERA+ in 20 starts) were both above average, but not up to his typical standard.
These blips on the radar don’t affect Verlander’s Hall case one iota. But they do have an impact on his overall ERA and ERA+, if we’re picking nits. Verlander also has the highest WHIP and the lowest K/BB ratio of the three pitchers in this discussion.
So … who ya got?
For today: Which of these three pitchers who debuted and came of age in roughly the same era will go down as the best of his time? 🤔
— Anthony Castrovince (@castrovince) March 22, 2020