If you read something about baseball at least periodically, it’s quite difficult to not come across the name Clayton Kershaw. As most — if not all — of you know, Kershaw has easily been the most dominant pitcher of this generation. He’s without a doubt the most feared and the hardest starting pitcher to figure out. Even during a bad day for Kershaw, he’s still a more difficult opponent than a majority of the league’s starters. Because of Kershaw’s credentials, people tend to compare him to similarly dominant starters from generations past.
One particular comparison I see repeatedly is Kershaw and another Dodgers legend, Sandy Koufax. Koufax dominated the game similarly to Kershaw, and is often considered the best pitcher of his generation as well. This all despite his career being shortened due to injuries which required him to retire at only 30 years old. What he did in the 11 seasons between 1955 and 1966 though, has been reminisced for decades and for good reason. Dodgers fans know what I am talking about. Koufax is the blueprint for how you want to pitch, winning three Cy Young’s in the span four seasons and an MVP to top it off.
The regular season comparison is obvious as Kershaw and Koufax hold regular season career ERAs and FIPs under 3.00, both average at least nine strikeouts per nine innings as well as both average less than seven hits per nine innings. Without question they were dominant during the regular season and there’s no arguing that.
Once you reach the postseason though, the comparison no longer makes sense. Although Kershaw hasn’t been terrible, he hasn’t been all that great either as he’s allowed at least four runs in six of his 16 postseason starts and only pitched at least one out in the seventh inning on eight occasions, so his starts have been hit or miss to say the least. His postseason performances have hardly been the dominating starts we’ve come to expect from April to September.
Even if you cherry-pick Kershaw’s seven best starts in the postseason and compare them to Koufax’s seven total career postseason starts, Koufax still beats him in almost every statistical category, or at least the categories that we’re able to calculate from the data that was tracked during Koufax’s era. In comparing those seven starts, Koufax pitched an additional 14 innings, only giving up two more walks while striking out 16 additional batters. The chart below compares Koufax’s seven career postseason starts with Kershaw’s seven best postseason starts of his career (picked based on the number of runs he allowed).
Kershaw vs Koufax: Postseason
And now for their entire postseason careers.
Kershaw vs Koufax Postseason Career
On top of Koufax beating Kershaw in almost every metric, Koufax had four complete games, two of which were shutouts. Admittedly, it was a different time, but Kershaw’s best postseason start was during the Game 2 of the 2016 NLCS where he pitched seven shutout innings allowing two hits and a walk against six strikeouts; it was a good start, but not at Koufax’s level. Additionally, by the end of the 2009 postseason, in three starts Kershaw had allowed three home runs which is more than Koufax allowed in all eight postseason appearances.
Kershaw allowed three home runs in two starts during the 2014 NLDS series. You can even throw in Game 1 of the 2017 NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks where Kershaw allowed four homers in just the one start. Avoiding giving up the longball in the postseason was something in which Koufax and while Kershaw seems to struggle. This speaks to not only the level that Koufax was pitching, but also how much the game has changed.
It’s altogether not entirely a fair comparison. After all, during Koufax’s era, there weren’t Division and Championships series; instead the best regular season AL team faced off against the best regular season NL team for the World Series, which explains the lack of postseason appearances for Koufax despite having three World Series rings to his name. Still though, the two are not on equal-footing.
Not only did the layout of the postseason differ, since that time significantly changes have been made to how pitchers are used, as back in Koufax’s era pitchers threw many more pitches in one start than today’s average starter since there were no pitch counts, they also threw more innings throughout the season and often on much shorter rest. Just to drive that point home, here’s a nice comparison between Koufax’s final season and Kershaw’s last two seasons.
Clayton Kershaw 2016 & 2017:— Dan Hirsch (@DanHirsch) October 15, 2017
324 IP, 10.2 WAR
Sandy Koufax's final season (1966):
323 IP, 10.3 WAR
Yes, Kershaw had injury problems the last two seasons which significantly limited his innings totals, but Koufax had his own injury issues, since he was forced into retirement that season due to chronic arthritis in his ‘golden’ arm. Even with the injuries Koufax still started 41 games that season and put up the second best season of his career based upon bWAR. Kershaw has only pitched in two seasons fewer than Koufax, yet Kershaw has 105 fewer regular season starts and would need at least 53 starts the next two seasons in order to catch Koufax. That is something that one can comfortably say will never happen again.
There is no doubt an understandable desire to want to compare Kershaw and Koufax for many reasons as both pitchers have uncanny similarities, from their last names and left-handedness to the team they played for, and their regular season dominance, but that is where the comparisons should end. Kershaw is not the next Koufax, at least not when you consider postseason pitching, which is arguably more important. It’s especially important if it means leading your team to the World Series, to which Koufax has two World Series MVPs that backup the statistical contributions he made in those two Series.
While it’s disappointing that Kershaw hasn’t been the reincarnation of Koufax during the postseason, Kershaw has the opportunity to turn it around and given what we’ve seen from him over the last 10 seasons, no one should bet against him. And after all, you are only in a slump until you break out of it.