Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game today. He is the kind of pitcher around whom you plan your week to make sure you are available to watch him pitch*.
*Editor's Note: Truth. I've done this. I'm also a Royals fan.
Is there a pitcher whose career is on the same trajectory Kershaw's was to begin his career? It may seem hard to imagine or unfair to compare someone to Kershaw, but there actually is. His name is Chris Sale.
This past Saturday, the Dodgers and White Sox, and Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, matched for a Spring Training game. During the game, the announcers made a comparison between Sale and Kershaw, which led me to dig deeper into this comparison. In order to get an accurate comparison, Kershaw's stats are through his first 887 innings (about Sale's career total). This takes us from his debut through his start on 8/15/2012 against the Pirates. A hat tip goes to John Choiniere for providing Kershaw's stats.
Here’s a look at the data:
|Clayton Kershaw||141||58||34||0||887||3610||305||284||693||910||320||9.23||3.25||0.275||2.88||3.02||17.7 - 23.6|
Both pitchers have faced over 3,000 batters and a similar total in general, which is normally a good indicator of success for a pitcher (if the pitcher were bad, he'd be gone). Through Sale’s first two seasons, 2010 and 2011, he pitched out of the bullpen, which means that Sale may have a little bit of an advantage since starters generally perform better in bullpen roles (Wade Davis, for example).
One of the standout aspects of Kershaw's game has always been his ability to strike out batters. 200 strikeouts in a season has become the expectation for Kershaw. The difference in strikeouts is quite stark; Sale has 101 more than Kershaw did at that point in his career. Sale’s mechanics have caused some in the game to be concerned not only with future injury, but control as well. However, in terms of walks, Sale also bests Kershaw with 105 fewer. Transferring these numbers into rate statistics, Sale has a K/9 of 10.3 to Kershaw’s 9.23 and a BB/9 of 2.19 to Kershaw’s 3.25.
Sale's strikeout numbers are better than Kershaw's. If at least 200 strikeouts has become the expectation for Kershaw, what does that say for Sale, who has better numbers than Kershaw? He's gotten only better every year as a starter. Sale has the chance to put up strikeout numbers the game has not seen since Randy Johnson.
Aside from strikeouts and walks, there are stats where Kershaw has the advantage overall. Notice that his BABIP allowed is only .275, which explains why the ERA is about the same despite Sale's strikeouts and walks being superior. Kershaw has maintained this low BABIP throughout his career, as he is one of the best contact managers in the game. Sale, on the other hand, is merely average even after adjusting for his home park.
In terms of fWAR, it is hard to get an exact number of Clayton Kershaw’s WAR since his stats are from the middle of a season. However, before the 2012 season, Kershaw had accumulated a career fWAR of 17.7 and after the 2012 season Kershaw’s career fWAR was 23.6. After his August 15th start in 2012, Kershaw had accumulated about 75 percent of his total innings that year. Ending the season with an fWAR of 5.9, Kershaw may have accumulated around 4.4 fWAR (.75*5.9) at that point. That would bring his total to 22.1 fWAR.
At the same point, Chris Sale has accumulated a career fWAR of 22.8. Since Kershaw’s stats come from late in the 2012 season and his fWAR after the 2012 season is so close to Sale’s, we’ll assume their fWAR’s are about equal.
After going through the data of Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale through their first 887 innings, perhaps it is time to pay closer attention to the career of Chris Sale. Clearly, he has lined his career up with one of the best pitchers of his generation in Clayton Kershaw. If Chris Sale continues on the trajectory he’s currently on, in five years we may be talking about Chris Sale the same way we do now of Clayton Kershaw.