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Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Comparing greatness: Kershaw vs. Koufax

By Joseph Werner

Kershaw-Koufax
Clayton Kershaw is starting to challenge Sandy Koufax for southpaw supremacy in L.A.
The quotes about Sandy Koufax's dominance are almost comical -- until you consider the sources. Longtime general manager Al Campanis, the architect of those great Dodgers teams of the 1970s and 1980s, quipped in Jane Leavy's bestselling book, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," "There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stood up: The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball."

But it wasn't just Koufax’s blur of a heater.

There was the curveball, an almost unhittable offering that can't be taught; you're born with it.

Cubs Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks once said, "Sandy's curve had a lot more spin than anybody else's -- it spun like a fastball coming out of his hand -- and he had the fastball of a pure strikeout pitcher."

In a 1999 Sports Illustrated article by Tom Verducci, Banks continued: "It jumped at the end. The batter would swing half a foot under it. Most of the time we knew what was coming, because he held his hands closer to his head when he threw a curveball, but it didn't matter."

It almost doesn't seem fair. Two pitches. Both nearly unhittable, the driving forces behind one of the game's best five-year stretches.

From 1962 through his final season in 1966, Sanford Koufax was the greatest pitcher on earth, backed either by oral history or the numbers. And, now, with head bowed, another lefty donned in Dodger Blue is quietly approaching the franchise's most revered moundsman.

It's almost easy to forget that Clayton Kershaw is just 25 years old. Likewise it's almost easy to overlook the type of production authored by the former first-round pick.

Machine-like consistency and God-given ability melded together have allowed Kershaw to be one of the best pitchers in baseball since the age of 21. No downturn in production. No sophomore slump. No one-year stumble. Just steady dominance. Just ... pitching perfection. Or at least something close to it.

In his latest season, Kershaw continued his early assault on what is typically a hardened, nearly impenetrable path to the Hall of Fame. Among all qualified MLB hurlers, he finished first in ERA (1.83), adjusted ERA+ (194), WAR (7.9) and WHIP (0.915). He placed second in innings pitched (236.0), and third in strikeouts (232).

But, again, it comes down to the game-to-game consistency.

Of his 33 starts, Kershaw topped seven innings 24 times and never lasted fewer than five. He allowed more than four runs -- not just earned runs, but total runs -- just four times. The southpaw ace fanned seven or more batters on 19 occasions and walked more than three just twice.

As for wielding an ungodly-like curveball similar to that of his predecessor, opponents have batted a meager .121 against Kershaw’s deuce since 2007, via BrooksBaseball.net, including slugging just one home run. (ESPN data since 2009 have Kershaw allowing three home run off his curveball, to Ryan Ludwick and Adam Dunn in 2010 and Allen Craig in 2011.)

The pièce de résistance, however, is that in the entire history of the game, spanning all the way back to 1871 and including the American Association, only three pitchers have led all of baseball (not just one league) in ERA for three consecutive years: Lefty Grove (1929-1931), Greg Maddux (1993-1995) and Kershaw (2011-2013). One Hall of Famer. One soon-to-be Hall of Famer. Kershaw well on his way.

The parallels and comparisons come quickly. And easily.

Los Angeles Dodgers. Left-handed. Dominant. Fall-off-the-table, knee-buckling curveball. Big strikeouts. Good control and command. When the adjectives, hyperboles and fantastical quotes end, there are the numbers, decades apart but quite similar.

 


Name Years Age IP ERA ERA+ K/9 BB/9 bWAR bWAR/100
Koufax 62-66 26-30 1377.0 1.95 167 9.4 2.1 40.9 2.97
Kershaw 09-13 21-25 1072.1 2.43 155 9.3 2.9 30.8 2.87
(Note: bWAR/100 = Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement per 100 innings.)


The two come from different eras. Koufax was a member of a four-man rotation and limitless pitch counts and completed 27 games in each of his last two seasons. Kershaw is the beneficiary of added rest, but under the disadvantage of playing in a more offensive environment on a lowered mound.

The adjusted numbers, though, remain remarkably similar.

Koufax's ERA+, a statistic adjusted for a pitcher's ballpark and league, is an impressive 167. Kershaw’s comes in at 155. And Koufax's bWAR per 100 innings also bests Kershaw's, if ever so slightly: 2.97 to 2.87.

But therein lies the argument: Koufax's remarkable five-year run is comprised of his five best years; Kershaw’s five-year stretch just happens to be his first five full seasons in the majors. Theoretically, as Kershaw embarks toward his peak season(s) -- quite a scary thought -- he could continue to improve, or at least top his early years, those at the start of his current streak. The endgame is known for Koufax, not so for Kershaw.

So while the Dodgers' ace of yesteryear gets the nod, the argument is far from settled, especially if Kershaw, the likely winner of the NL Cy Young Award when it is announced Wednesday, continues to pile up the numbers and the subsequent hardware.

Joseph Werner contributes to the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog on the Indians.