Success in sports is measured in championships. At least that’s what we’re always told. And when measuring team success, it’s hard to argue that a championship is not the ultimate gauge. But that gauge has often been used to judge a player’s overall success as well. Basically, the argument being that if a player is truly that great, there’s no reason they shouldn’t lead their team to the promise land at least once.
That theory is put to the ultimate test when considering someone like Clayton Kershaw.
Earlier this week, Kershaw had yet another dominant performance, striking out 10 New York Mets and walking none. He became the first pitcher in the modern era to reach 100K’s in a season with only 5 Walks. His strikeout-to-walk ratio this year is now an absurd 21/1 (the MLB record for a season is 11.6/1.) He once again either leads the league or is near the top in practically every major pitching statistic. Kershaw looks well on his way to another Cy Young Award, and possibly even another MVP.
The strikeout-to-walk ratio is just the latest in a long list of Kershaw accomplishments that just makes you shake your head in disbelief. Over the last 6 years or so, he has undoubtedly been the best pitcher in the game, and somehow continues to improve. Just when you think he may have hit the pinnacle, he puts up some other crazy stat.
This year it’s the K/BB ratio. Another year it’s a streak of 40+ straight scoreless innings. Yet another year, it’s throwing a classic no-hitter (which should have been perfect game) or leading MLB in ERA for an unprecedented 4th straight season. And on, and on, and on.
The “Championship” Factor
With the kind of numbers that Kershaw continues to put up, one might think that there shouldn’t be much debate when it comes to his place in history. It would seem that it’s not a question of if he will go down as one of the greatest pitchers of all time, but simply where to place him on that list.
The few that would question Kershaw’s greatness really can only base their argument on one thing: the lack of postseason success.
Agree or disagree, it does pose an interesting question. Can a player be considered one of the greatest ever with no championship to show for it?
I couldn’t count the amount of times that someone has brought up the “championship factor” when comparing a player’s overall greatness. “Well, how many titles have they won,” they’ll say. Or, “If he could only win the big one.”
While intuitively, I can understand the point they’re trying to illustrate, it’s still hard for me not to question the validity of a blanket statement like that. No matter how great one player is, there is absolutely no way they can single-handedly win a championship. They can definitely lead their team, and be a key contributor to their success, but they can’t do it by themselves.
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) June 1, 2016
This is especially true in a sport like baseball. It’s not like the NBA, where one player can really take over a game, and put a team on their back. If you look at the top players in the NBA, you’ll find that usually the teams playing in the playoffs have at least one of those top players (Lebron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden ect.) On the other hand, if you look at the top players in baseball, you won’t find that same correlation all the time. Mike Trout? Nothing going for the Angels right now. Bryce Harper? Couldn’t take the Nationals to the playoffs last year. And Clayton Kershaw? Close, but so far no cigar.
Meanwhile, you could argue that the Kansas City Royals didn’t have a top 50 player on their team last year.
The point is, it’s probably a little unfair to use championships as the sole factor when judging a specific player. Just as I don’t think Robert Horry (even with all his rings) is a better player than Charles Barkley or Karl Malone, I also don’t think I’d take Edinson Volquez over Clayton Kershaw.
Sure, maybe those are extreme examples. Nevertheless, it’s a slippery slope once you start using team achievement (or lack thereof) to gauge individual players.
One caveat that should be pointed out though, is how a player’s individual performance in post-season games can alter their image. If someone continuously struggles for some reason when the stakes are higher, it would be hard to ignore that aspect of their performance, and it could justifiably be used to question how great they are.
So, with that said, what about Kershaw’s playoff performances? Do they qualify as a reason to label him as someone who can’t perform on the biggest stage, and thus, diminish the overall player he is?
Kershaw will be the first to admit that he hasn’t pitched his best during his post-season career. If you look closer at his numbers, however, you may realize that his “playoff struggles” may be a little exaggerated.
Three of his first five post-season appearances were made in a relief role, including his rookie year of 2008. They all came pre-2010, before Kershaw was the Kershaw he is today. So, if we look at just those games where he was considered “the best pitcher in the game,” it leaves us with the last 3 years. And while those numbers still aren’t Clayton Kershaw-type numbers, they’re not as bad as you might expect.
Here are Kershaw’s 8 playoff starts the last 3 years:
7 Inn, 3 Hits, 3 BB, 1 ER, 12 K’s
6 Inn, 3 Hits, 1 BB, 0 ER, 6 K’s
6 Inn, 2 Hits, 1 BB, 0 ER, 5 K’s
4 Inn, 10 Hits, 2 BB, 7 ER, 5 K’s
6.2 Inn, 8 Hits, 0 BB, 8 ER, 10 K’s
6 Inn, 4 Hits, 2 BB, 3 ER, 9 K’s
6.2 Inn, 4 Hits, 4 BB, 3 ER, 11 K’s
7 Inn, 3 Hits, 1 BB, 1 ER, 8 K’s
As you can see, most of the damage to Kershaw’s numbers came in two starts. Each of the other six outings qualify as Quality Starts, with most of them being the typical Kershaw-like performance we’re used to seeing.
But maybe that’s part of the problem. Perhaps, the continued dominance at the level we witness with Kershaw spoils us. So much so that when the guy gives up a whopping 3 runs, we act like we’re seeing something totally unheard of.
Holding great players to higher standards should be expected. So, if you want to say that Clayton Kershaw hasn’t been the best post-season pitcher so far, fine. Say it. No one would debate you too much on that. But to go a step further, and say that his lack of post-season success somehow diminishes his overall greatness as one of the best to ever toe the rubber? Naw.
Legacy is Secure
If I can have one pitcher for a game, give me Clayton Kershaw. Any time, any day. I like my chances. Also, I suspect that he’ll have some more playoff appearances ahead of him in his career, and if I were a betting man, I’d say he’ll be his dominate self more times than not.
Dodgers fans hope this argument will all be put to rest someday. If the Dodgers can manage to win a World Series sometime soon, with Kershaw leading the way, all this talk will go away. If it doesn’t happen though, it should have no bearing on where he stands among the all-time greats. It’s just impractical to discard everything he’s done, and all his accomplishments, because his team couldn’t win a championship.
While a World Series would be a cherry on top of an already illustrious career, it’s not needed to cement Kershaw’s legacy. He’s done that already.
Besides, cherries are over-rated.