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Clayton Kershaw Is Great. But Pedro Martinez Was More Dominant.

Illustration for article titled Clayton Kershaw Is Great. But Pedro Martinez Was More Dominant.

When Clayton Kershaw is inducted into the Hall of Fame some day, we may well look back on this year as his best. For most batters, their only hope of hitting him this season was to swing at the first pitch hoping for a fastball. As ridiculous as his numbers are, though—a 21-3 record with a 1.77 ERA and 239 strikeouts in just 198.1 innings—Kershaw plays in a pitcher's era, in which no-hitters have risen back to dead ball era rates. If Kershaw played 15 years ago when home runs were at their peak, how would his numbers look and how would they compare to the best pitchers of that era?

To find out, we selected the three starters from 1999 and 2014 with the lowest ERAs over at least 140 innings. The top pitchers in 1999 were Pedro Martinez, Kevin Millwood, and Randy Johnson. The top pitchers this season were Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and Chris Sale. We then adjusted player statistics from 1999 to reflect what they'd look in 2014 and vice versa. For example, Martinez had an ERA of 2.07 in 1999, which is 43.9 percent of the MLB average ERA in 1999, which was 4.71. Since ERA dropped about 20 percent from 1999 to 2014 and is now only 3.74, the equivalent of Martinez's 1999 season today would be an ERA of 1.64 (0.439 x 3.74). We made similar adjustments for WHIP and strikeouts per nine innings pitched. The table below shows how each player would look for both 1999 and 2014; current players are in bold.

Player1999 ERA2014 ERA1999 WHIP2014 WHIP1999 SO92014 SO9
MLB Avg4.713.741.461.286.487.71

Martinez has the best numbers here by far, which shouldn't be surprising, as his peak may have been the best in baseball history. (Look at those K numbers! Relative to the league average, Pedro was striking hitters out at Aroldis Chapman-type rates ... as a starter.) What's actually surprising is how close Kershaw is. This year, he may not have been quite at the level Martinez hit in his prime, but he was about as close as you can get.

While this season will probably be Kershaw's best, one of the reasons he's the best pitcher in baseball is that he's been consistently dominant for several years. One way to see how dominant is to repeat the exercise above, but using three-year spans. We picked three top pitchers from both 2012-2014 and 1999-2001 (since that three-year span featured the most home runs in MLB history of any three-year duration). From 1999-2001 the top pitchers were Martinez, Johnson, and Kevin Brown. The top pitchers from 2012-2014 were Kershaw, Hernandez, and Johnny Cueto.

Player1999-01 ERA2012-14 ERA1999-01 WHIP2012-14 WHIP1999-01 SO92012-14 SO9
MLB Avg4.633.891.441.306.587.61

Martinez is still the most dominant pitcher here, but the exercise points up an uncanny similarity in results between Kershaw and Johnson, who have essentially the same ERA and WHIP, and got them much the same way, with fastball/slider combinations coming from the left hand side. The thing here, of course, is that at this point in his career Johnson was well into his 30s, and had all the knowledge that comes with experience. Kershaw, by contrast, is all of 26. If he can stay anywhere near as healthy as Johnson did, he might yet put up numbers to make us forget this year's.

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