In the opening minutes of his great documentary Baseball, Ken Burns characterizes the sport in terms that are both pleasing on their own and also relevant to yesterday’s post regarding Mike Trout‘s peak, and now today’s on Clayton Kershaw‘s:
“It is a haunted game, in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time, and timelessness.”
It’s a much more succinct and effective way of making the point I attempted to make yesterday, in that today’s players don’t yet have the luxury of having a legacy, in turn making it tough to contextualize their potential place in history while that legacy is still being built. Looking at what today’s players accomplished in their primes, relative to the primes of the ghosts (both figurative and literal) who have gone before can help us do that.
Trout’s place in history has been well documented and updated since the completion of his 10-win rookie season. For the better part of three years now, you’ve been hearing all types of Trout stats, included with some sort of “under __” age filter that places him alongside the game’s all-time greats like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for his production, relative to his age. It’s been hard to avoid the company which Trout has kept.
With Kershaw, seems we haven’t heard that as much. Part of it, likely, is just Trout stealing the thunder. Part of it, likely, is that Kershaw didn’t begin truly dominating until his age-23 season, so the fun “under-21” stats weren’t as fun. Part of it, perhaps, is the ridiculous Kershaw postseason narrative. Probably the biggest part of it is just that pitchers are tougher to compare across generations, and it might be easier to “dismiss” the historic nature of what Kershaw has done by recognizing that it’s happened during one of the most depressed run environments the live-ball era has ever seen.
Even with the run environment considered, what Kershaw has done these past five seasons is absolutely historic.
Trout’s “peak” — his first four seasons in the Majors — already ranks as one of the 10 greatest peaks by a position player in baseball history. He’s not alone. Kershaw is currently in the midst of a top-10 all-time peak himself. We’re lucky enough to experience them both.
Granted, I made an executive decision that dilutes the pitcher top-100 leaderboard somewhat. I chose to only look at 1961-Present, the expansion era, rather than beginning my pool at 1921, the start of the live-ball era, as I did with hitters. Maybe you don’t agree with this decision, but it’s based on some logic, at least.
The way in which the game’s best hitters are utilized has remained essentially unchanged for the last century, making for simple comparisons across history. With pitchers, though, usage has changed drastically since the start of the live-ball era. If I would have included pre-expansion pitcher peaks in this table, it would become littered with pitchers who consistently racked up seven-win seasons by throwing 300 innings a year back in the 20s, and I don’t think that’s what anybody wants to get out of this. At least, it’s not what I wanted to get out of it. I wanted to see comparisons of pitchers who threw in a way that resembled today’s game, while dominating the league over multiple seasons. It’s hard for a pitcher to maintain excellence over long periods without succumbing to injury or ineffectiveness, which is what makes the guys at the top of this table so special.
As mentioned earlier, another limitation in this table is the divide on how pitchers should be measured. Some believe run prevention is the key factor. Others would prefer to evaluate their pitchers based on domination in the categories they can control (strikeouts, walks, home run prevention). I think most of us agree that the truly elite pitchers are good at both. With that in mind, I decided to simply use a 50/50 split of the WAR calculated by means of runs allowed, and the WAR calculated by means of FIP. I also included raw ERA and FIP, along with raw ERA- and FIP-, to allow for simple comparisons across changing generations and run environments, so you can gain a better sense of which type of pitcher each guy was. I’d even momentarily considered sorting the table by E-/F- (a 50/50 split of ERA- and FIP-), because that might give a better sense of who the most truly dominant pitchers were, rather than those who “inflated” their WAR by pitching tons of innings. Whatever. It’s all in there! Rank them however you please!
As with yesterday’s post, the columns in this table are all sortable, and there’s plenty of fun little nuggets within, so please, play around with it. I promise you’ll learn something new. After the jump, I’ll share some assorted notes that I find interesting. I encourage you to do the same in the comments.
- Sorting by just the mixture of ERA- and FIP-, only Pedro, Maddux and Johnson have ever maintained a five-year level of dominance at the same level as the run Kershaw is currently on.
- Five active pitchers are still in their top-100 five-year peaks, in Kershaw, Price, Greinke, Scherzer and Sale!
- The Hall of Fame peaks of years past that never were: Dwight Gooden, Wilbur Wood, Mickey Lolich, Kevin Appier, Ron Guidry, Dave Stieb, Bret Saberhagen, Jim Maloney, Jose Rijo, Dena Chance, Frank Viola, Frank Tanana, Vida Blue.
- Johan Santana’s placement on this table is like the Grady Sizemore of yesterday’s Mike Trout table. What could have been 🙁
- On the flip side, it’s a shame that it took Cliff Lee as long as it did to figure it out, as his peak stretch was similarly Hall of Fame-worthy.
- Uhh… Kevin Brown?
- Sort by K% and Sandy Koufax just looks laughably out of place. Only 12 pitchers in this table struck out more than a quarter of the batters they faced over a five-year period. Ten of those 12 have done it in the last 20 years. Koufax did it in the 60s.
- CC Sabathia is the active leader in career pitching WAR by more than 10 wins according to FanGraphs’ calculation, has surpassed the 60-WAR “threshold” and had a better five-year peak than plenty of Hall of Famers in this study. You do the math.
- Verlander has the Hall of Fame peak out of the way. Will he be effective enough, for long enough, to rack up the necessary counting stats?
- Nolan Ryan’s walk rate in his best five-year stretch was north of 14%. That is astounding.
- I’ll admit I was previously unaware of the tragic story of J.R. Richard, who’s five-year peak were also his final five seasons in the Major Leagues. His strikeout rates, relative to the league averages, were among the best in baseball history.
- Randy Johnson has the greatest five-year pitching peak in Major League history, while allowing the highest BABIP in this table.
- From 1994-98, Greg Maddux allowed 45 home runs. James Shields allowed 33 home runs in 2015 alone. Shields pitches at PETCO Park. Maddux was pitching during the steroid era.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.