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Clayton Kershaw is the best Dodgers pitcher ever

The case for Kershaw over Koufax

Sandi Scully wife of Hall of Fame and former Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully passed away at age of 76 due to ALS. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the history of the Dodgers. Yes, even better than Sandy Koufax.

I don’t think this is a particularly controversial statement, though I also realize this is essentially an unwinnable argument. Comparing pitchers across eras is difficult enough, but especially when the usage of starters has changed so dramatically in the last 60 years.

Kershaw’s case boils down to a very simple truth: he’s been at an elite level for a much longer period of time than Koufax.

But first, let’s look at their peaks. Koufax is defined by his five-year run from 1962-66, during which he led the National League in ERA all five years and won three Cy Young Awards, back when there was only one winner for both leagues, and an MVP. He threw four no-hitters, and earned the nickname “The left arm of God.”

Kershaw also won three Cy Young Awards and an MVP in his peak, from 2011-15. He led the league in ERA four times in that five-year stretch, and like Koufax led the majors in ERA times in that stretch.

Peak years

Pitcher Years W-L IP ERA ERA+ bWAR fWAR CYA no-hitters
Pitcher Years W-L IP ERA ERA+ bWAR fWAR CYA no-hitters
Koufax 1962-66 111-34 1,377 1.95 167 40.8 40.0 3 4
Kershaw 2011-15 88-33 1,128 2.11 172 36.3 37.1 3 1

Koufax rode this incredible peak into the Hall of Fame, and deservedly so, but it also came during one of the most pitcher-friendly environments in major league history. If this was it, it would be hard not to pick Koufax over Kershaw.

But take a look at what Kershaw has done since his peak:

Post-peak Kershaw

Pitcher Years W-L IP ERA ERA+ bWAR fWAR
Pitcher Years W-L IP ERA ERA+ bWAR fWAR
Kershaw 2016-21 68-25 798⅓ 2.56 158 20.1 21.0
through June 6, 2021

Injuries have eaten into later Kershaw, mostly back-related but he also introduced most Dodgers fans to the term “teres major” along the way. He’s only had enough innings to qualify for the leaderboard twice in that time. But when he’s pitched, he’s still been pretty great.

Kershaw got Cy Young votes in four of the last five years, finishing second once (in 2017) and fifth another time (2016).

Therein lies the rub when trying to compare Kershaw and Koufax, given the eras in which they pitched. Being a starting pitcher in the 1960s, for the most part, meant finishing what you started more often than not. Koufax started 176 games in those five peak seasons, and completed 100 of them, and even pitched into extra innings in 13 career starts.

It was a different time.

Kershaw in his peak, for instance, completed 20 of his 159 starts, but he also led the league in complete games twice (2014-15), same as Koufax (1965-66).

Major league pitchers from 1962-66 completed 24.6 percent of their starts, but from 2011-15 they completed 2.7 percent of starts. This is not a failure of modern pitchers, but rather a conscious choice made by teams with ever-growing pitching staffs.

Looking at it another way, Koufax led his league in innings pitched twice, and Kershaw once. Both finished in the top four in the NL four times.

During his peak, Kershaw’s innings total was at least 97 percent of the NL leader’s total in four of the five years. Koufax only reached that in three of his five peak years.

Deployed like an ace

Peak year Koufax NL leader Koufax % Kershaw NL leader Kershaw %
Peak year Koufax NL leader Koufax % Kershaw NL leader Kershaw %
1 184.3 314.3 58.6% 233.3 237.3 98.3%
2 311.0 321.3 96.8% 227.7 233.7 97.4%
3 223.0 321.3 69.4% 236.0 241.7 97.7%
4 335.7 335.7 100.0% 198.3 243.7 81.4%
5 323.0 323.0 100.0% 232.7 232.7 100.0%
Totals 424.8% 474.8%

Yes, Koufax’s stamina was incredible, and the numbers are eye-popping to look at. But it was also a product of the time. Kershaw was pushed and ridden like an ace in his time even more than Koufax was. I don’t think there’s any doubt that if Kershaw was pitching in the 1960s he would have reached 300 innings, too.

As much credit as Koufax gets, and deserves, for being such an astonishing workhorse, it’s also the reason why he was done at age 30.

“I don’t regret for one minute the twelve years I’ve spent in baseball, but I could regret one season too many,” Koufax said at his retirement press conference in 1966. “I’ve got a lot of years to live after baseball and I would like to live them with the complete use of my body.”

Part of Koufax’s legend is the mystery of it all. We never got to see his decline phase, so it’s easier to build a mythology around him.

With Kershaw, we’ve seen the decline phase, and so far it’s still been pretty damn good. And the so-called down years have given Kershaw the chance to finally remove the championship monkey off his back. There’s no getting around the fact that Kershaw’s postseason numbers (4.19 ERA in 189 innings) are far worse that his regular-season standard.

Koufax, on the other hand, had an 0.95 ERA in his 57 postseason innings, all in the World Series (he also allowed four unearned runs in addition to the six earned runs, but even if all were earned Koufax’s ERA would be a still-stellar 1.58), along with the legendary two shutouts in a four-day span to finish off a second championship in 1965.

Had Kershaw’s career ended in his age-30 season (2018), he would have finished without a title. But he’s still going, and the Dodgers are better for it.

There’s a good chance Kershaw might not agree that he is better than Koufax. Or perhaps he just isn’t concerned about such frivolity.

“I don’t care about legacy. I don’t care about what happened last year. I don’t care about what people think. I don’t care at all, man,” Kershaw said in October. “The 2020 Dodgers won the World Series. Who cares about all that other stuff? To be a part of that team, all that other stuff is just pointless.”

Both Kershaw and Koufax are champions, and all-time greats. I happen to think Kershaw is the better of the two, but it’s a true gift that the Dodgers got to have them both.