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It’s important, if you want to speak intelligently about baseball in the past or the present, that the past and present don’t stand on equal footing. In absolute terms, baseball players have gotten better over time, and not by any small margin. Even in relative terms, they’ve gotten better: players and the people who support them understand the game better than ever, including the crucial area of anticipating and strategizing against an opponent’s choices and actions.

If you could make every player in baseball history their best selves and have them all play against each other for a year, the WAR leaderboards would include very, very few guys whose career began before JFK was shot. In every way, baseball is better (maybe not as beautiful or as purely enjoyable, at times, but better) than ever. Of course, that kind of thinking can be taken too far.

It’s very, very unlikely that Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, or Ted Williams would be as good as they were in their time if they were facing modern players, but they’re all still all-time greats. They had exceptional skill sets, and were exceptional competitors—the kind who could stand out in any crowd. It’s eminently fair to call Mike Trout the greatest young player, the greatest player through six seasons, of all time, but it would be wildly premature to call him the best player ever—a position some people have nonetheless taken, and for whom interesting cases can be made, even though it’s ultimately wrong.

It’s relatively easy to wave away the case for Trout as the greatest ever, because we have so many hitters—Ruth and Williams, but also Barry Bonds—with gaudy, mind-blowing stats, and because those stats basically look the way great hitters’ stats look now. What these guys did at a level no one else could—Ruth’s homers, Williams’ OBP, Bonds’ both—is still what we look for hitters to do.

We know that Ruth’s strikeout rate wasn’t a real problem. We know that Bonds’ good-but-not-great batting average wasn’t indicative of his value, at all. Trout would need to be as good at slugging and/or getting on base as one of those guys, in order to join the ranks of history’s greatest hitters. He’s not even at the levels Mays achieved, once you adjust for the parks and leagues in which Mays had so many of his best seasons.

Pitchers are different. The job of a starting pitcher is radically different than it was 30, 40, 50, or 60 years ago. It’s harder, because there are fewer lightweights in big-league lineups. It’s easier, because no one is asking you to throw complete games with any regularity. We know now that great pitchers strike a lot of batters out, and don’t walk many. Of course, now that we realize that (and are training pitchers to do it, and aren’t worrying about getting hurlers into the eighth or ninth inning every time), strikeouts have become much more common across the league, so no single strikeout is as valuable.

For many reasons, then, it’s unfair to compare Walter Johnson, Warren Spahn, and Clayton Kershaw. If one weren’t careful, one could end up arguing that Kershaw actually is the best pitcher ever. As it happens, one very notable baseball newsman has fallen into exactly that trap. It began several weeks ago, as a whisper, but Buster Olney of ESPN has called Kershaw “arguably” or “perhaps” the best of all time a bunch recently, and with increasing conviction. He’s suggested more than once, lately, that we’ve never seen anything quite like Kershaw.

That last bit is true, I guess, insofar as every player is unique and special, and every great player is especially special. To call Kershaw the best ever, though, is clearly and flagrantly false. I’m not going to try to compare the Dodgers lefty to that other famous Dodgers lefty, or to Christy Mathewson, or to Cy Young. I don’t think Olney meant to do so, either. He’s (correctly, if you buy into the timeline adjustment) tossing those players out as candidates, understanding that they played almost a different sport and did a different job. Kershaw isn’t the greatest ever, though, because he isn’t even (yet) on the Mount Rushmore of modern starters.

In some order, the greatest pitchers of all time were Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson. These four guys pitched in a different era than Kershaw, but the differences don’t preclude a relatively direct comparison. In the name of stopping a silly argument in its tracks, let’s take a look at what Kershaw would really have to do to become a part of that pantheon.

Where Kershaw Stands

Firstly, let’s put some numbers to Kershaw’s greatness, because numbers will be the frame within which to have this argument. (There’s a singular aesthetic joy to watching Kershaw, too, of course, with the two dazzling breaking balls and the crane-like grace of his delivery, but there were breathtaking stylistic elements to each of the other four, too.) He’s been an established big-league starter since 2008, and a truly elite one since 2011.

In the six-plus seasons since he made that leap, Kershaw has posted a sensational aggregate line:

Clayton Kershaw, 2011-2017

Batters Faced

True Average

FIP

cFIP

DRA-

ERA

WARP

5,171

.199

2.23

69

54.0

2.06

44.3

DRA- is just DRA (our newfangled pitching metric, scaled to ERA, which takes into account a pitcher’s total contribution to run prevention, and strips out some things that other ERA estimators can’t), scaled to 100, where lower is better. Kershaw has nearly cut his opponents’ expected run scoring in half for over six years. His cFIP suggests that his true talent isn’t quite at that extraordinary level, but it’s an amazing run, any way you slice it.

It just doesn’t measure up to these guys.

Randy Johnson, The Late Bloomer

Kershaw won’t even turn 30 until next March. He’s been, arguably at least, the best pitcher in baseball since he was 23. Johnson, by contrast, didn’t really figure things out until he was as old as Kershaw is now. By then, he’d been a big-league starter for over five years. He’d been worth 15.2 WARP over that span, and there had been flashes of greatness, but he’d been excruciatingly average, given his insane combination of size, deception, and stuff.

In 1993, he found the light switch. Here are Johnson’s next 10 seasons.

Randy Johnson, 1993-2002

BF

TAv

FIP

cFIP

DRA-

ERA

WARP

8832

.214

2.69

47

47.0

2.73

86.0

Kershaw might have done it a little more tidily, even compared to the Johnson who had relatively good command, but Johnson’s dominance was overwhelming. He pitched in worse parks, in a hitter-friendly era, with worse defenses and catchers helping him along. At a basic level, though, he demonstrated talent and durability over these 10 years that Kershaw has not come close to replicating.

Maybe Kershaw will defy the odds, as Johnson did, and be better in his 30s than he was in his 20s. Unless he is, he falls short of Johnson, and Johnson’s isn’t the most formidable track record in this bunch. (By the way, Johnson threw 1,127 innings and was worth nearly 35 more wins after the 10-year window highlighted here. Kershaw’s case for Best Ever is built around his peak, though, so that’s not perfectly relevant for our purposes.)

Roger Clemens, The Right-Handed Kershaw

Just like Kershaw, Clemens debuted young, but took a couple uneven seasons to fully establish himself. Just like Kershaw, he turned a corner at 23, and was the best pitcher in baseball for the following six or seven years. Given those facts, let’s just compare Clemens’s run from 23-29 to Kershaw’s.

Roger Clemens, 1986-1992

BF

TAv

FIP

cFIP

DRA-

ERA

WARP

7247

.221

2.63

64

56.8

2.66

58.5

Like Johnson, Clemens was unable to wreck an opposing hitter’s line the way Kershaw does. Pitching in Fenway Park, and in an era when the league had fewer ways to systematically prevent hits on balls in play, has something to do with that. The fact that great pitchers of Clemens’ day didn’t mind issuing a walk as much as today’s great ones do is also a factor. Even without overwhelming hitters the way Johnson and Kershaw did, Clemens basically matched Kershaw’s DRA- and cFIP.

A constant theme, here, of course, will be the much higher WARP figures for the guys Kershaw is chasing. They just threw a lot more, and didn’t suffer from it (in terms of health or in terms of performance) the way our modern concept of pitcher workload management might have led us to expect. You’re within your rights if you choose not to ding Kershaw for that piece of the puzzle, but it’s worth pointing out that unlike these recent aces, he doesn’t stand out for his durability or volume of innings even among his peers.

Greg Maddux, the Pitcher from the Future

Here’s where we really jump into the next dimension. Kershaw’s best season to date was 2015, when he was worth 8.3 WARP over a season in which he threw 233 innings. From 1991 through 1998, Greg Maddux was worth at least 8.5 WARP in every season, including two strike-shortened seasons. Over the nine-year span from 1990-1998, Maddux’s value just dwarfs that of Kershaw’s career to date.

Greg Maddux, 1990-1998

BF

TAv

FIP

cFIP

DRA-

ERA

WARP

8623

.208

2.71

70

48.7

2.44

81.9

This is a nine-year streak of brilliance Kershaw hasn’t even started yet. Maddux was markedly better, in addition to being the most durable pitcher in baseball, and he did it for nine years. If Kershaw got five percent better tomorrow, ceased to tire when he pitched, and stared Dave Roberts back into the dugout once per start to extend his outing, he would still have to sustain that miraculous escalation for an amount of time basically equal to the length of his career to date. It’s not even close.

Pedro Martinez, the Nail in the Coffin

Kershaw really has had some unbelievable individual seasons recently, though. Despite the lack of elite innings totals, the way he’s just shut down opposing offenses makes Kershaw’s 2014-2016 run look to be right on par with the best of Maddux, Johnson, and Clemens. It’s not quite there, but it’s close, and close is nice.

Pedro existed, though. He was real, and his 1999-2001 were the best three consecutive seasons (discounting workload as a primary driver) in pitching history. Let’s compare Kershaw’s best three campaigns to Martinez’s. (I’m cutting out ERA, FIP, and WARP here, because the drastic differences between the contexts in which these two achieved what they achieved make those values fairly uninformative.)

Pedro Martinez, 1999-2001

Season

Batters Faced

TAv

cFIP

DRA-

1999

835

.189

24

41.7

2000

817

.167

27

42.5

2001

456

.188

42

42.3

Clayton Kershaw, 2014-2016

Season

Batters Faced

TAv

cFIP

DRA-

2014

749

.195

62

52.6

2015

890

.194

62

48.8

2016

544

.166

64

47.2

There it is. As with Maddux over a long period, Kershaw is unable to match up with Martinez over a short period. This isn’t an article bashing Kershaw, or even Olney. It’s good to appreciate Kershaw, who is the best pitcher in baseball right now. The only problem with it is that we can be drawn in by hyperbole, and by recency bias, and end up saying things that just aren’t true.

What I most hope we can take from this is a deeper appreciation of just how great the four pitchers who owned the 1990s and 2000s were. It would also serve us well to take a closer look than ever at all the ways the Dodgers have supported Kershaw—with good defenders and good data, and with good coaches and development staff, and with money paid not only to him, but to all of the teammates he’s needed to reach the playoffs for four straight seasons.

No (starting) pitcher can succeed without a good support system, and Kershaw’s has been very good. More importantly, he’s pitched over the period during which our understanding of pitching has deepened in ways unimaginable even a decade ago. He’s the perfect modern pitcher, able to capture our imaginations and our passion, available to us on MLB.tv all the time, exciting even on the stat sheet. He just isn’t the greatest pitcher ever.