The case for Kershaw
In Game 1 of the 2017 World Series, Clayton Kershaw led the Dodgers to a 3-1 victory at Dodger Stadium over the Houston Astros. He was nearly un-hittable that night, striking out eleven, walking none, and allowing only three hits over seven innings of work. It appeared the postseason cloud that has hovered over him throughout his career had finally cleared. A few more Dodgers wins, perhaps another performance like Game 1, and he would have led the Dodgers to their first World Series title since 1988, probably winning the MVP award in the process.
Then the Dodgers returned to Houston for Game 5. You know, the place where the Astros were caught cheating. Kershaw was tagged for six runs in that game. Looking back, it seems obvious the Astros knew what was coming. They didn’t swing and miss at a single offspeed pitch (watch).
Of course, narratives can quickly change. Instead of Kershaw proving he could lead his team to a championship as a clutch pitcher, his reputation as failing in the big spot remains. Important context to consider, though, when making sweeping judgments about Kershaw’s postseason credentials.
While Koufax has Kershaw beat in the big spot, the playoffs only represent a small part of a pitcher’s resume. Kershaw has started 344 regular season games, and counting. Over a comparable workload, the left-hander from Texas has more wins, more strikeouts, and a lower ERA than Koufax. When you adjust his ERA relative to the league in which he pitches, Kershaw is even more impressive with an ERA- of 63 compared to Koufax at 75 (100 is league average).
While Kershaw has won the same number of Cy Young Awards as Koufax, he has come in second place in voting twice—Koufax next best finish was third (the first Cy Young Award winner was honored in 1956 during Koufax’s second season).
Kershaw has been consistent since his first full season in the majors as a 21-year-old in 2009. Last year was the first season after a ten-year run that he had an ERA above 3.00 (and only by a sliver at 3.03). Koufax took some time to find his legendary status, pitching to an ERA over 4.00 during his first two full seasons working primarily as a starter; his ERA below 3.00 only five times.
If you could choose only one pitcher to lead your rotation for an entire season, you wouldn’t be wrong to pick Kershaw. He would almost certainly dominate throughout the regular season, and given the right chance, he might shake off that big game reputation, too.