IT’S HAPPENED. Max Scherzer has passed Kershaw to become the #1 starting pitcher in baseball.
— Bill James Online (@billjamesonline) June 17, 2017
It is that time of the season once again. The time of the year when someone proclaims the next pitcher to have overtaken Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in baseball.
A History of Challengers to the Throne
This has happened many times before. One of the first was even before Kershaw was the pitcher we know today, with Jon Heyman pondering the question of #howcanbradpennybebetterthanboth of Kershaw and Billingsley in May of 2010.
After this, we jump to 2013 with Matt Harvey, and not Kershaw starting the 2013 All-Star game. Right up until Harvey’s injury in late August, there was a belief that Harvey was the hot new thing in the MLB and was the favorite for the NL Cy Young. Harvey ended up having to undergo Tommy John Surgery and never quite being the same young fireballer he was before the injury, and Kershaw won his second Cy Young.
Going forward, Kershaw won his third Cy Young and first MVP award in 2014, but his playoff troubles combined with Madison Bumgarner’s epic playoff run had people asking: Madison Bumgarner or Clayton Kershaw? John Smoltz believed that Bumgarner’s all-time playoff run was more impressive than Kershaw’s overall numbers. Debates sparked online for which pitcher you would rather have as your team’s ace going forward. But as time has gone on, we’ve seen Bumgarner be very good, but just not of the level of Kershaw.
In 2015 Kershaw somehow managed to get even better, striking out 300-plus batters, the first pitcher to do so since Randy Johnson in 2002. However, Jake Arrieta had a magical final 20 starts of the 2015 season, going 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA in 147 innings pitched. This run was a big part of why he captured the Cy Young that season over both Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the latter with a 1.66 ERA that season, lowest since Greg Maddux in 1995.
At this point, there were very few people who weren’t proclaiming Jake Arrieta as the best pitcher in baseball. ESPN, Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, and others were saying it with authority. Arrieta started off the first couple months of 2016 as hot as he ended 2015. The problem for Arrieta, however, is since 6/22/2016, is that he has had a 4.48 ERA and 4.31 FIP in 33 games started. In that time he has completely disappeared from any conversation about the best pitcher in baseball.
Early in 2016, Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs.com gave his case for Noah Syndergaard as the best starting pitcher in baseball. He said he wasn’t sure of it at the time, but Syndergaard had a good case. It seemed just as strong as Harvey, Bumgarner, or Arrieta before him. Syndergaard did end up tying with Kershaw (in 30-plus fewer innings) as the fWAR leaders for the 2016 season, as well started off amazingly in five starts in 2017, but has not pitched since because of an injury.
Max Scherzer and 2017
Finally, we are in the present day. Clayton Kershaw is second in baseball with 2.32 ERA, second in the NL in fWAR, and leads baseball with 12 wins. Despite these things, Kershaw has had a severe problem with home runs this season. In only 17 games started, Kershaw has already allowed a career-high 17 home runs, one more than his previous high of 16 in 2012. Because of this, his FIP is over 0.90 points higher than his sterling 2.32 ERA.
Meanwhile, the reigning NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer not only leads baseball in ERA (2.06), but he leads the NL in FIP (2.72), K/9 (11.96), and fWAR (3.8). This coupled with Kershaw’s home run problem has had many people either raise the question or even just flat out say that Max Scherzer is now the best pitcher in baseball.
It has taken the better part of a decade, but we may finally have a real contender to Kershaw’s throne as the best pitcher in baseball with Max Scherzer. Although Kershaw has three Cy Youngs, Max Scherzer now has two. Both pitchers started their careers in 2008, the two are separated by just a single start, with Scherzer at 281, Kershaw at 280. Some of their career stats are eerily similar, with Scherzer leading in K/9 by 0.25 points, Kershaw leading in BB/9 by 0.12 points. The biggest differences between them are their home run rates (0.59 HR/9 for Kershaw and 1.01 HR/9 for Scherzer), ERA (2.36 for Kershaw and 3.31 for Scherzer), and fWAR (56.4 for Kershaw, 41.5 for Scherzer).
These are most definitely two of the top star starting pitchers in the game since 2008.
Big Game Pitchers
With all of this talk of who is better between the two, there have been people on Scherzer’s side talking about all of his no-hitters and late-into-game no-hit bids that he has had the last few seasons. This is definitely an important factor when talking about how great a pitcher is, to see how great they are at their very best. I decided to look at each pitcher’s entire career game logs and look at their game scores to see how they stack up.
For those who do not know, Game Score is a metric actually invented by the man who now says that Scherzer is the top pitcher in baseball, Bill James. Fangraphs has their own Game Score 2.0, which changes the original formula a bit, but it still takes the things like outs, strikeouts, walks, hits, home runs, and runs allowed to calculate how good a start was for a starting pitcher.
In comparing the Kershaw and Scherzer, here is what I found:
|8||25 or under||16||25 or worse|
Both pitchers started out strong with 3 100+ Game Score 2.0 scores. Scherzer’s top three are actually more impressive at 109, 104, and 102, compared to Kershaw’s 105, 101, and 101 scores. From there on down, Kershaw takes a big lead with 15 games at 90+, while Scherzer only has 5. The gap widens further going to 80+, Kershaw sitting at 53 and Scherzer at 36. Then we see 116 70+ games from Kershaw and 89 for Scherzer. Games over 60+ are the biggest divide of all with Kershaw at 179 of his career 280 starts at 60+, and Scherzer at 146 of his 281 career starts at 60+.
Despite Scherzer having a perfect game as well as another no-hitter, compared to just the one no-hitter from Kershaw, it is more than evident that Kershaw has consistently thrown many more above average, good, great, and excellent starts overall than Max Scherzer.
As well if you take a look at some of the worst games started in their careers, Scherzer has 16 games with a Game Score 2.0 score of 25 or less, while Kershaw has half that many with only 8.
Who is Really Better?
At this very moment, Max Scherzer has been better in 2017, and there is no question to that. For every single other year of their careers, Scherzer has never really even come close to beating Kershaw in fWAR in any season of their careers.
Does that mean that Scherzer can’t or won’t take the leap? Absolutely not. He’s an incredible pitcher and could do that even by later this season.
At the same rate, his better 2017 doesn’t already mean that the leap has been taken.
In fact, Scherzer isn’t even the best starting pitcher in baseball this season. Chris Sale has had a phenomenal start to his 2017 season sitting at 4.7 fWAR for the Boston Red Sox, nearly a full win better than Scherzer to this point. It’s a wonder why we haven’t been seeing more stories about Chris Sale as the best pitcher in baseball the same way we’ve seen people talk about Scherzer taking the title. Or why not even Corey Kluber, who has a Cy Young under his belt and is right there with Sale and Scherzer a handful of fWAR behind Kershaw the last three and a half seasons?
Maybe It’s Best Not To Jump To Conclusions
This is going to be a question asked every year until Kershaw’s real decline starts. Then every year after for the person that takes the title of best pitcher in baseball from him. Then so on and so on for the rest of baseball history.
But for the time being, seeing that every time this question has popped up and that Kershaw has stayed so well above his competition, why don’t we wait until there is some actual sustained success above Kershaw’s level? Let’s not jump the gun after another rough patch for Kershaw. He seems to come back stronger every time like the MLB version of Doomsday, anyway.