Best pitcher in baseball? Title finally up for grabs

Scherzer, Kluber staking claims with Kershaw sidelined again

May 8th, 2018

There are supposed to be things that you can rely on in an ever-changing world. The sun will come up. Gravity will keep us connected to the ground. Seven times five will be 35. Chocolate will be awesome. There will be a Marvel movie playing at a theater near you. And will be the best pitcher in all of baseball.
These are the simple truths, the little bits of certainty that keep us tethered even when the wind howls all around us.
And so it's really strange, almost surreal to say this.
For the first time in a long time, Kershaw is not the best pitcher on earth.
Mirror, mirror on the wall. It was obviously quite a shock to the stepmother in Snow White to find out one day that she wasn't the fairest of them all. She went a little bonkers about it, you know, poison apples and all, but hey, she had been the fairest for so long. It was obviously hard to hear that her time has passed.
Kershaw is just 30 years old, and he is coming off a fantastic season in which he led the National League in ERA for a fifth time. He almost won a fourth Cy Young Award. So this is not meant in any way to say that Kershaw is finished as a great starter or that he will not return to his perch atop the game.
But something has changed.
For seven seasons -- 2011-17 -- Kershaw was the best pitcher in baseball. He was not necessarily the best pitcher every single season. was better one season. was probably better a couple of years. made a much bigger mark in the postseason.
But being the best for a year or two, or in the playoffs, is a different thing. ... Kershaw was the best pitcher. It's like in golf or tennis -- Tiger Woods or Roger Federer did not win every week, did not win many weeks, but they were the best and everybody knew it. Kershaw's greatness was like that. In those seven seasons, he went 118-41 with a 2.10 ERA, he won three Cy Young Awards, and he led the NL in at least one major category every single year. Kershaw was a modern-day Sandy Koufax, another pitcher who had his time as the best in the game.

Since Koufax retired at the end of the 1966 season, you could more or less mark the years by various pitching eras:
1967-70: Bob Gibson was the best pitcher in baseball. The time was marked by Gibson's intensity and the way he glared at the hitter. He often said he wasn't glaring; he just wasn't wearing his glasses and so he couldn't see the catcher's signs. To which hitters of the era say: Yeah, right.
1971-77: Tom Seaver was the best pitcher in baseball. He had the perfect motion; every kid on a Little League diamond tried to imitate the way his right knee would hit the dirt. "Blind men come to the park," Reggie Jackson said, "just to hear him pitch."
From 1978-84 or so, there really wasn't a "greatest pitcher." There were several pitchers -- Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Ron Guidry, Fernando Valenzuela among them -- who were very good, but none of them quite filled that bill of greatest pitcher. Dave Stieb was probably closest -- from 1982-85, he was superb. But Stieb was destined to be overlooked. And by 1985 another pitcher had come along.
1984-85: Dwight Gooden was the best pitcher in baseball. It was a short stay at the top, but it was Gooden's world then. He was a 19-year-old rookie in 1984, and he struck out 276 in 218 innings -- that 11.4 strikeouts per nine was far and away the highest rate in baseball history up to that point. Then in 1985, Gooden had perhaps the best pitching season of the past 40 years. His time at the top ended fast because ...
1986-91: Roger Clemens was the best pitcher in baseball. It began with his American League MVP Award-winning season in 1986. For six seasons, he was simply incredible. Later, as you know, he was incredible again. The way it ended for Clemens has caused people to forget just how good he was -- Tom Tango and I once broke it down, and you could argue that Clemens career was basically Koufax plus Pedro Martinez.
1992-97: Greg Maddux was the best pitcher in baseball. He was mesmerizing.
1998-2000: Pedro Martinez was the best pitcher in baseball and, quite possibly, the best pitcher of all time. The numbers, in case you forgot them, 60-17, 2.25 ERA, 218 ERA+, 848 strikeouts, 136 walks, .922 WHIP. To be so unhittable in the middle of the craziest offensive age in the past 75 years, it's almost beyond words.
2001-02: Randy Johnson was the best pitcher in baseball. The Big Unit struck out 300-plus batters five years in a row. Really, Johnson and Pedro share this era, but I wanted to give them each their own time.
Then we went into another period where there really wasn't a "greatest pitcher." There were several great pitchers.
2003: Pedro or Roy Halladay
2004: Johan Santana
2005: Probably Clemens, big year from Dontrelle Willis, Pedro and Santana in the mix
2006: Santana and Brandon Webb were both really good
2007: Roy Oswalt, Josh Beckett and Webb were terrific
2008: Santana and
2009: This was Zack Greinke's great year in Kansas City
2010: Halladay was fantastic again, King ascended
2011: Halladay was great, so was Verlander. And this is when Kershaw won his first Cy Young Award and began the Kershaw Era.
It is hard to argue the Kershaw is the best in the game now. Injury is one reason. He's on the disabled list again, and it's the third straight season that he will not make his full complement of starts. Kershaw has been sensational when he's pitched, but he threw only 149 innings in 2015, 175 innings last season, and it's hard to be the greatest pitcher when you're not out on the mound.
But the bigger reason is the rather shocking emergence of two pitchers, both of them older than Kershaw, neither of them expected to ever surpass him.
In 2011, the year Kershaw first made his mark, Max Scherzer had a 4.43 ERA for the Tigers, and the theme was that he would never cash in on his great promise. He was no kid; Scherzer was 26 that season. He made two starts in the AL Championship Series and Detroit lost both. Scherzer was pummeled in the decisive game; he didn't make it out of the third.
The next year was somewhat better -- Scherzer did lead the AL in strikeouts per nine innings -- but nobody could have guessed what was to come.
in 2011 was a 25-year-old Minor Leaguer who got to pitch in three September games. The next year, he was given 12 big league starts -- he went 2-5 with a 5.14 ERA. Kluber was given another chance in 2013, and he pitched better but not dramatically better. Nobody could have guess what was to come for him either.
Scherzer became a dominant pitcher in 2013, suddenly and forcefully. He went 21-3 with a 3.90 ERA and led the AL in WHIP. He won the AL Cy Young Award. The next year, Scherzer was just about as good. When Washington signed him for crazy money before the 2015 season, many thought it was a huge mistake, that his good performances in Detroit were somewhat fluky, that he would not age well. Scherzer has won the past two NL Cy Young Awards.

Kluber became a dominant pitcher in 2014. He won the AL Cy Young Award. The next year, Kluber led the AL in losses, which left some calling him a one-year wonder; but he really pitched well most of the season. The next year, he finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting. Last year, Kluber won his second AL Cy Young Award.
Both Kluber and Scherzer are off to fantastic starts this season.

And right now, you'd have to say that both of them have stronger claims than Kershaw for the title of baseball's greatest pitcher. They have raised their games to extraordinary heights. And Kershaw can't quite stay healthy.
Oh, also, if Verlander keeps pitching the way he's pitching, you have to put him in this conversation too. And -- late addition -- I just completely overlooked Chris Sale. I guess that's a common thing since Sale has spent his career dominating just enough to not win a Cy Young Award -- he has finished top six in voting every single year since 2012 but has yet to take it. Sorry, Sale fans. He's in the argument, too.
It's a strange thing. Kershaw had been the game's greatest for so long that you didn't even think about it anymore. It's a bit like 's place as the game's greatest player. Kershaw (and Trout) were the standard, the thing you measured everybody else against. Trout remains at the top.
And Kershaw? Here in this season where everything is going wrong for the Dodgers, he has looked positively human, he has given up seven home runs in 44 innings, his 2.86 ERA and 3.72 FIP are both much higher than typical, and he's on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis. The world seems to be moving on. It goes without saying that Kershaw can absolutely come back stronger than ever, pitch like he has his whole career and regain the title of greatest pitcher.
But that's the point: Kershaw will have to regain the title because, at the moment, it doesn't belong to him.