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Kershaw vs Sale: A Battle of Lefty Monsters

Tonight at 5:09 PM, the Los Angeles Dodgers are set to take on the Boston Red Sox in the 2018 World Series. Despite both teams having made the playoffs dozens of times in their respective franchise histories, this will be their first World Series matchup between the pair going back 102 years to 1916.

At the time, the Dodgers weren’t in Los Angeles, and they were not even named the Dodgers, being called the Robins back then. The Red Sox rotation featured a great young pitcher who would end up known for his thunderous bat rather than his electric arm, the great Babe Ruth. In that series, Ruth pitched just once, starting game 2 of the series, throwing an unbelievable 14 inning complete game effort allowing just 1 run on 6 hits. The Red Sox won the game 2-1.

In the opening game of the series, the matchup featured Rube Marquard for the Robins facing off against Ernie Shore of the Red Sox. While both of these pitchers were good in their day, neither one was a Hall of Fame talent. Marquard did win 26 games for the New York Giants in 1912, while Shore had a 1.64 ERA for the Red Sox in 1915, but it wasn’t exactly a historic matchup before or after game 1. Meanwhile, in the current day, fans of baseball everywhere are getting a treat with the announce game 1 matchup:

The Two Best Pitchers of This Generation

Kershaw vs Sale is a regular season matchup that baseball fans drool over. It’s a matchup that you go out of your way to make it to the game, or at least watch live. Taking the greatness of both pitchers and putting it on the biggest stage in baseball in game 1 of the World Series has the potential to be mind-blowing.

When looking at Fangraphs splits leaderboards going back to 2002, minimum 1000 innings pitched, here are Kershaw and Sales’ ranks:

ERA: Kershaw – 2.39 (1st), Sale – 2.89 (2nd)

FIP: Kershaw – 2.64 (1st), Sale – 2.84 (2nd)

WHIP: Kershaw – 1.00 (1st), Sale – 1.02 (2nd)

xFIP: Sale – 2.90 (1st), Kershaw – 2.94 (3rd)

K%: Sale – 30.2% (1st), Kershaw – 27.6% (4th)

BB%: Sale – 5.4% (T/13th), Kershaw – 6.5% (T/48th)

K-BB%: Sale – 24.9% (1st), Kershaw – 21.1% (5th)

K/BB: Sale – 5.6 (2nd), Kershaw – 4.3 (6th)

HR/9: Kershaw – 0.6 (T/1st), Sale – 0.9 (T/27th)

Batting Average Against: Kershaw – .204 (1st), Sale .217 (2nd)

wOBA: Kershaw – .254 (1st), Sale – .271 (2nd)

OBP Allowed: Kershaw – .262 (1st), Sale – .272 (2nd)

SLG Allowed: Kershaw – .311 (1st), Sale – .345 (2nd)

fWAR: Kershaw – 61.6 (3rd), Sale – 41.8 (16th)

Win Probablity Added: Kershaw – 39.89 (1st), Sale – 27.61 (6th)

Innings Pitched: Kershaw – 2096.1 (26th), Sale – 1482.1 (77th)

We have a lot of stats listed here, but things that keep coming up time after time in their ranks are “1st” and “2nd“. Kershaw and Sale rank first and second in seven categories: ERA, FIP, WHIP, BAA, wOBA, OBPA, and SLGA. These are essentially all of the most important things for a pitcher to need to do well to succeed.

Stacked Competition

One thing to remember with this time frame are the other pitchers who were around then. Yes, this was somewhat towards the end of the Maddux, Clemens, Johnson, and Pedro era, but it was the start of the Halladay, Johan, Lee, Sabathia, Verlander generation. The latter five mentioned here may not necessarily be inner-circle Hall of Fame types like Maddux, Clemens, Johson, and Pedro, but these are excellent Cy Young-winning pitchers who helped define this generation.

Add onto that pitchers such as Kershaw, Sale, Price, Greinke, and Scherzer who came a bit later. Then you’ve got guys like Oswalt, Felix, Hamels, Lester, Peavy, Haren, and some others who were Cy Young level talents in many seasons, but aren’t likely to end up in the Hall of Fame.

To see Kershaw and Sale dominate the leaderboards against so many other extremely talented pitchers says a lot about the pair and the immense talent they posses.

2018 Season

The 2018 season was a bit off for both Kershaw and Sale. Neither pitcher qualified for the ERA title, both barely missing with 161.1 and 158 innings pitched respectively.

For Sale, though in just 158 innings pitched, he was still an absolute force on the mount when he did pitch: 2.11 ERA 1.98 FIP 2.31 xFIP 13.50 K/9 1.94 BB/9 0.63 HR/9 and 6.5 fWAR. If not for the missed innings, it’s likely Sale would have easily won his first Cy Young award. Instead, he is likely to finish around the top five in voting, much like Kershaw in his excellent but injury-shortened 2016 season (1.69 ERA 1.80 FIP 6.5 fWAR in 149 IP).

On the flip-side, Kershaw may have just had the worst season of his career aside from his age 20 rookie season: 2.73 ERA 3.19 FIP 3.19 xFIP 8.65 K/9 1.62 BB/9 0.95 HR/9 and 3.5 fWAR. All of these numbers were Kershaw’s worst marks since his 2012 season. Part of this has been his decline in fastball velocity to around just 91 MPH, down from 93 even just a season ago. Even still, a 2.73 ERA and 3.19 FIP is something most starting pitchers dream of doing over a full season.

Postseason Struggles and Triumphs

Kershaw

As anyone who has been living on this planet the past five years likely knows, Clayton Kershaw has had some postseason struggles. The narrative for the uninformed, or just flat out trolls, is that Kershaw cannot handle pitching in the postseason and he chokes. The reality of it is more complex. For one, Kershaw hasn’t been exactly as good in the playoffs as the regular season, unlike what most people expect out of him. He’s also been leaned on too much in previous years thanks to thin bullpens. This has led him pitching deeper into games than necessary, and at times said bullpens have let him down in big ways once he’s left.

There, of course, have been some real meltdowns, such as 2013 NLCS Game 6 against the Cardinals, 2016 NLCS Game 6 against the Cubs, World Series Game 5 against the Astros, and 2014 NLDS Game 1 against the Cardinals. While the last 2014 NLDS Game 1 against the Cardinals started as a very nice start through 6 innings pitched, the rest went to hell early for Kershaw.

Otherwise, Kershaw’s playoff record is filled with mostly very good games, most times having very few blowups outside of a handful of games. Jon Weisman does a great job of showing this with his handy color-coded playoff game chart:

In the current postseason, Kershaw has been much better than years past. He does have a real stinker in NLCS Game 1 versus the Brewers, but that is sandwiched between two excellent starts, one against the Braves and the other against the Brewers. Add to that a scoreless 9th inning to cap off NLCS Game 7.

Going back another three years, Kershaw has a 3.50 ERA in 90 innings pitched since his last series against the Cardinals in 2014. In the 17 games he’s appeared in, the Dodgers have a 12-5 record in those games. Clearly, Kershaw is trending in the right direction.

Sale

Chris Sale had never seen the playoffs in his career until 2017, his first season with the Red Sox. This makes sense considering he was drafted by the White Sox and remained with them until he was traded, but his playoff inexperience showed in the 2017 playoffs against the Astros. In his first start, Sale was rocked for 7 runs, including 3 home runs, in just 5 innings of an 8-2 loss in ALDS Game 1. Things improved a bit in a 4.2 IP relief appearance in ALDS Game 4, but he still allowed a home run and 2 runs overall in a 5-4 loss for the Red Sox.

Sale was looking to do more for his club going into the ALDS in 2018 against the Yankees, and had a nice start with 8 strikeouts 2 walks and 2 runs allowed in 5.1 IP in ALDS Game 1, the Red Sox taking the game 5-4. Sale pitched a scoreless inning in ALDS Game 4 in another win for the Red Sox, taking the series in 4 games.

His next and only other playoff start was once again against the Astros. Sale pitched just 4 innings this time around. While he allowed just 1 hit, he walked 4 and allowed 2 runs to score. The Red Sox lost the game 7-2.

For his career, Sale has a 5.85 ERA with 26 K 7 BB 4 HR and 19 H allowed in 20 IP in the postseason. The sample size is so small that two or three good outings in the World Series against the Dodgers could change everything for him.

Game 1 Predictions

Normally when matchups like this come along, baseball, well, baseballs, and the score ends up an 8-6 slugfest. I think with legacy on the mind of both pitchers, we do end up with the pitching duel we are all craving:

Kershaw: 7 IP 5 H 2 R 8 K 1 BB

Sale: 7 IP 7 H 3 R 10 K 1 BB

I won’t pretend to know if the Dodgers bullpen can continue their great play against MLB’s best offense, so I can’t say which team would win, but I think we see two absolute monster lefties do their thing.

The NL Cy Young Race Is More Crowded Than We Realized

The Constants

When it comes to the National League Cy Young race in 2017, the talk has consisted of mostly Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. Both pitchers, despite missing some starts this season, have been quite great:

Scherzer – 14-5 2.32 ERA 2.96 FIP 12.06 K/9 2.32 BB/9 1.06 HR/9 5.2 fWAR in 178.1 IP

Kershaw – 16-3 2.15 ERA 2.91 FIP 10.85 K/9 1.61 BB/9 1.13 HR/9 4.4 fWAR in 151 IP

All season these two have been my top two choices for the NL Cy Young. However taking a look today, what I believed to be a two-man race might actually be a five-man race.

The Late Season Entrants

Stephen Strasburg

Although Stephen Strasburg was having a good season before it, he is currently in the middle of a 34 inning scoreless streak, which is a Washington Nationals franchise record. Strasburg is yet another pitcher to miss time in the middle of the season, having pitched only 7 starts with 44 innings in the second half. However, when sorting NL pitchers with minimum 40 IP in the second half, Strasburg’s minuscule 0.61 ERA leads the league by nearly 1.30 points over Washington Nationals teammate Gio Gonzalez.

As mentioned before, Strasburg’s first half numbers were good but didn’t necessarily jump out at you. His second half numbers, on the other hand, are quite extraordinary:

First Half – 9-3 3.43 ERA 3.13 FIP 10.22 K/9 2.64 BB/9 0.88 HR/9 2.9 fWAR in 112.2 IP

Second Half – 4-1 0.61 ERA 1.90 FIP 11.05 K/9 1.64 BB/9 0.41 HR/9 1.9 fWAR in 44 IP

Overall – 13-4 2.64 ERA 2.79 FIP 10.46 K/9 2.36 BB/9 0.75 HR/9 4.8 fWAR in 156.2 IP

Since being the first overall pick of the 2009 MLB draft, Strasburg has always had huge expectations. Those expectations went sky high once he put up a 2.91 ERA and 2.08 FIP in 68 innings in 2010 before getting injured and requiring Tommy John surgery. Since then Strasburg has been great, but never top tier. If he keeps this up, there is a very good chance he will get top 3 NL Cy Young votes up there with multiple time Cy Young winning pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer.

Zack Greinke

Zack Greinke is no stranger to Cy Young discussions. In 2009 he won the AL Cy Young award, and then six years later finished second to Jake Arrieta for the 2015 NL Cy Young award. However, his follow up to the 2009 and 2015 seasons did not go well, with a 4.17 ERA and 3.34 FIP in 2010 and a 4.37 ERA and 4.12 FIP last season in 2016.

In 2017, Greinke is back at it leading the surging Arizona Diamondbacks as the team’s ace. Despite the Dbacks playing their best baseball in the second half of the season, Greinke has been very consistent from the first half to the second, doing exactly what Arizona signed him to his massive contract to do:

First Half – 11-4 2.86 ERA 3.17 FIP 10.13 K/9 1.78 K/9 1.16 HR/9 3.2 fWAR in 116.1 IP

Second Half – 5-2 3.21 ERA 3.02 FIP 8.87 K/9 2.19 FIP 0.77 HR/9 2.0 fWAR in 70 IP

Overall – 16-6 2.99 ERA 3.11 FIP 9.66 K/9 1.93 BB/9 1.01 HR/9 5.1 fWAR in 186.1 IP

Greinke is doing everything a team’s ace is supposed to do. He is second in the NL in wins with 16, he’s got around a 3.00 ERA and 3.00 FIP, and he’s fourth in innings pitched. He isn’t leading the league in strikeouts or ERA, but he is an all-around excellent pitcher and will have people talking about him come award season.

Jimmy Nelson

UPDATE: It appears Jimmy Nelson is out for the year with a shoulder injury. It’s too bad, he was having such a great season. The below was written without the knowledge of the injury.

In two and a half season in the MLB prior to 2017, Nelson’s talent hadn’t really shown through. He’d never had better than a 4.00 ERA or 3.75 FIP in a full season. Things were the worst for him in 2016 with a 4.62 ERA and 5.12 FIP. However, things changed for him in 2017. Nelson has upped his K/9 from the low to mid 7s all the way up into the 10s, while lowering his K/9 from around 3.5 career down a full point to 2.46 at the moment. These have been huge steps to get him from a pitcher struggling to hold onto his rotation spot to ace of the up and coming Milwaukee Brewers.

Back in the middle of July, I wrote an article about my top 5 choices for each league’s First Half Cy Young winners. I ended the NL portion by choosing Jimmy Nelson (along with Stephen Strasburg) for the 5th spot, something that surprised me very much at the time. Since then, he’s done nothing less than impress me further:

First Half – 8-4 3.30 ERA 3.18 FIP 9.74 K/9 2.23 BB/9 0.91 HR/9 2.8 fWAR in 109 IP

Second Half – 4-2 3.80 ERA 2.82 FIP 10.99 K/9 2.85 BB/9 0.68 HR/9 2.1 fWAR in 66.1 IP

Overall – 12-6 3.49 ERA 3.04 FIP 10.21 K/9 2.46 BB/9 0.82 HR/9 4.9 fWAR in 175.1 IP

One may look at his 3.80 ERA and not be all that impressed, but with a huge increase in strikeouts and lowering his HR rate, he went down to a 2.82 FIP, along with the elite pitchers in the MLB. It will take some work over the next three weeks to really get into the Cy Young race, but Nelson is definitely on the cusp.

Top of Their Draft Boards

It is very interesting to look at this group of pitchers and see where they came from. Strasburg, Greinke, Kershaw, and Scherzer were all taken in the first round of their respective MLB drafts. In fact, they were all taken in the top 11 picks, with Strasburg going 1st, Greinke 6th, Kershaw 7th, and Scherzer 11th. Nelson is the only pitcher among them not to be drafted in the first round. He was taken all the way down in the…2nd round. That’s right, Jimmy Nelson is the lowest among them drafted, and it was just a round or so later.

This is a group of supremely talented pitchers who scouts knew would be great from an early age. To see so many high-end draft picks as the favorites for one league’s Cy Young award is exciting to see when so many first and second round players bust year after year. This is really a testament to the scouting that came from not only the teams that drafted these players, but that scouted them in trades or free agency, as in the cases with Scherzer and Greinke.

Five Worthy NL Cy Young Contenders

Getting back to 2017, when looking at these five pitchers on Fangraphs, you see five pitchers separated by less than full win in fWAR between 5.2 and 4.4. You see five pitchers between a 2.79 and 3.11 FIP. Jimmy Nelson may skew the ERA a bit, but outside of his 3.49 ERA, everyone else is below a 3.00 ERA. The next three weeks are going to be what separates these guys when it comes to getting NL Cy Young votes

The next three weeks are going to be what separates these guys when it comes to getting NL Cy Young votes. I still believe we will see Scherzer taking his 3rd career Cy Young award or Kershaw will sneak his 4th career Cy Young award, but some continued second half excellent from Strasburg, Greinke, or Nelson and we will have one hell of an NL Cy Young discussion on our hands after this season.