So Clayton Kershaw is a beast if you didn’t already know. Also, Pedro Martinez’s 2 year span of 1999 and 2000 was lights out. As I recently had a conversation with a friend regarding whether or not Kershaw in 2014 is the best pitcher since Pedro in 2000 (for the record, I said that he was; the only season for a starter since 2000 that could compare is Zack Greinke’s 2009), I decided to break it down here as to who was better. At first glance, it seems like it’s not even a debate, but I wanted to get a closer look. The only challenge will be resisting the urge to talk to girls at a bar about this just because they say they’re Red Sox fans. I’ll try my best.
Before I get to the actual comparison, though, I need to make a quick note about Pedro’s 1999 and 2000 seasons. In 1999, Pedro had a 2.07 ERA, 1.39 FIP (not a misprint), 13.20 K/9, 1.56 BB/9, .38 HR/9 and .93 WHIP in 213.1 IP. In 2000, he had a 1.74 ERA, 2.17 FIP, 11.78 K/9, 1.33 BB/9, .71 HR/9, and .74 WHIP in 217 IP. There were no stats for HR/Fly ball or xFIP back then. Many, including most statheads, would consider Pedro’s 1999 season as the superior one. Count me among the minority who will look to his 2000 season first, although I totally understand the reasoning for choosing 1999. After all, that FIP (fielding independent pitching, whose definition is here) is microscopic. But I still tend to put more emphasis on ERA than FIP, because the game isn’t played by robots. It’s entirely possible that a hurler will pitch differently than he would in a different ballpark or with a worse/better defense, which is what he’s supposed to do: pitch to get outs, not improve his stats. In my opinion, FIP overestimates how much control a pitcher has over whether or not his surrendered fly balls turn into home runs, which I’ve never understood considering that FIP is supposed to show that what happens after a ball gets put in play is largely luck.
All this is meant to say that I’ll take Pedro’s 2000 season as the barometer for best pitching season of the past 15 years up through maybe Kershaw’s 2014. (See what I did there? Tease the rest of the column. Pure brilliance.) I usually trust baseball reference’s WAR calculations a little more than fangraphs, anyway, and baseball reference shows his 1999/2000 WAR to be 9.7/11.7, compared to fangraphs’ 11.9/9.9. Take your pick with your own reasoning, but I’ll go with Pedro’s 2000 season.
Now, since I’ve already showed Pedro’s numbers, let’s look at Kershaw’s. The Dodgers southpaw has a 1.86 ERA, 1.87 FIP, and 1.99 xFIP. The xFIP number really only proves that his ERA and FIP numbers are not really lucky/unlucky, because there’s not much difference between the 3. And right there, we have a big difference from Pedro’s 2000 right off the bat, because Kershaw’s ERA and FIP are very similar. Pedro’s 1.74/2.17 is a difference of .43 to Kershaw’s whopping difference of .01. Kershaw’s HR/9 is .50, which is lower than Pedro’s .71, and could make up for some of the discrepancy between their FIPs. While we can’t see Pedro’s HR/Fly ball rate, Kershaw’s is 8.2%, which is definitely below average but not out of the realm of reasonable expectations for a pitcher of his caliber.
Time for the stats that Sportscenter won’t show in a 5 second graphic that’s somehow supposed to tell you everything. Kershaw strikes out 10.78 batters per 9, exactly 1 fewer than Pedro. His BB/9 rate, however, is .15 lower than Pedro’s at just 1.18. If I’m going to choose Pedro’s 2000 over 1999 because I’m not putting a ton of stock in strike outs and I’m putting a lot of stock in allowing baserunners at all, then I have to be consistent and say that Kershaw’s .15 BB/9 actually comes close to making up for the 1 K/9 fewer than Pedro. After all, if a pitcher gets out over 65% of the batters he faces (and for a stud like Kershaw, it’s definitely higher), then it’s more important to just get guys out, in part by not walking them, than to strike them out. That being said, even with the higher BB/9 rate, Pedro still beats Kershaw in WHIP, with a rate of .74 to .84.
Of course, Pedro would win if we just went by innings pitched. Martinez threw 217 that year, and Kershaw isn’t even at 150 because of a short DL stint. (Also, rumor has it that the baseball season has a month and a half left. But I factored that in, as you’ll see.) So let’s look at how deep each starter went into the games. Fourteen years ago, Pedro threw 217 IP in 29 starts, which is an average of 7.48 innings per outing. That’s an ace right there. But Kershaw does come close, with 20 games started in 145.1 innings, for an average of 7.27 innings per outing. That’s not even one out worse than Pedro, so there’s not a huge difference. Kershaw does lose some points for simply missing 3 starts early in the year, though, because those 20+ innings went to the Dodgers’ 6th starter instead of their ace. It sucks to blame a guy for injuries, but they do matter when having a debate like this.
Break this all down, and it looks like Pedro comes out on top with just the stats alone, although a huge FIP-believer could make a case that Kershaw narrowly edges Pedro on the stats, because a .30 difference is definitely something to notice.
But if there’s one beef that I, and most baseball fans, have with sabermatricians, it’s that they don’t realize that the entire game isn’t determined by stats. There’s two facets of this that clearly shift the argument in Pedro’s favor. First, Kershaw throws in Dodger Stadium, which was 23rd in terms of park factor in 2013. (That means that it was the 8th most favorable to pitchers.) Fenway, on the other hand, was 7th for hitters. Because FIP does not take this into account (FIP- on Fangraphs does), it shows that Pedro was facing a tougher time during most of his outings.
And here’s another reason that Pedro had a tougher time each outing: Steroid ERA. As far as I’m concerned, if the stats are as close as they are, the “steroid era” line ends the argument. Remember what Martinez did in the 1999 All Star Game to the juiced guys in the national league? That’s what pitchers in the league were facing at the time. Now, it’s entirely possible that Pedro cheated as well, and I don’t want to get into a moral argument, because that’s another debate for another day. But I just mean to show that offense was way, way better 14 years ago than it is now. Pedro pitched through that on the way to an insane 1999 and 2000 seasons, and Clayton Kershaw, while dominant, isn’t the same pitcher. After all, Pedro had 11.7 WAR in 217 IP, and Kershaw has 6.1 WAR in 145.1 IP. Pro-rate that to 217, and he’s still at just 9.1 WAR. Pedro’s the clear winner here, to the delight of all Red Sox fans.