History, Peaks, and Clayton Kershaw

In the opening minutes of his great documentary Baseball, Ken Burns characterizes the sport in terms that are both pleasing on their own and also relevant to yesterday’s post regarding Mike Trout‘s peak, and now today’s on Clayton Kershaw‘s:

“It is a haunted game, in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time, and timelessness.”

It’s a much more succinct and effective way of making the point I attempted to make yesterday, in that today’s players don’t yet have the luxury of having a legacy, in turn making it tough to contextualize their potential place in history while that legacy is still being built. Looking at what today’s players accomplished in their primes, relative to the primes of the ghosts (both figurative and literal) who have gone before can help us do that.

Trout’s place in history has been well documented and updated since the completion of his 10-win rookie season. For the better part of three years now, you’ve been hearing all types of Trout stats, included with some sort of “under __” age filter that places him alongside the game’s all-time greats like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for his production, relative to his age. It’s been hard to avoid the company which Trout has kept.

With Kershaw, seems we haven’t heard that as much. Part of it, likely, is just Trout stealing the thunder. Part of it, likely, is that Kershaw didn’t begin truly dominating until his age-23 season, so the fun “under-21” stats weren’t as fun. Part of it, perhaps, is the ridiculous Kershaw postseason narrative. Probably the biggest part of it is just that pitchers are tougher to compare across generations, and it might be easier to “dismiss” the historic nature of what Kershaw has done by recognizing that it’s happened during one of the most depressed run environments the live-ball era has ever seen.

Even with the run environment considered, what Kershaw has done these past five seasons is absolutely historic.

Trout’s “peak” — his first four seasons in the Majors — already ranks as one of the 10 greatest peaks by a position player in baseball history. He’s not alone. Kershaw is currently in the midst of a top-10 all-time peak himself. We’re lucky enough to experience them both.

Granted, I made an executive decision that dilutes the pitcher top-100 leaderboard somewhat. I chose to only look at 1961-Present, the expansion era, rather than beginning my pool at 1921, the start of the live-ball era, as I did with hitters. Maybe you don’t agree with this decision, but it’s based on some logic, at least.

The way in which the game’s best hitters are utilized has remained essentially unchanged for the last century, making for simple comparisons across history. With pitchers, though, usage has changed drastically since the start of the live-ball era. If I would have included pre-expansion pitcher peaks in this table, it would become littered with pitchers who consistently racked up seven-win seasons by throwing 300 innings a year back in the 20s, and I don’t think that’s what anybody wants to get out of this. At least, it’s not what I wanted to get out of it. I wanted to see comparisons of pitchers who threw in a way that resembled today’s game, while dominating the league over multiple seasons. It’s hard for a pitcher to maintain excellence over long periods without succumbing to injury or ineffectiveness, which is what makes the guys at the top of this table so special.

As mentioned earlier, another limitation in this table is the divide on how pitchers should be measured. Some believe run prevention is the key factor. Others would prefer to evaluate their pitchers based on domination in the categories they can control (strikeouts, walks, home run prevention). I think most of us agree that the truly elite pitchers are good at both. With that in mind, I decided to simply use a 50/50 split of the WAR calculated by means of runs allowed, and the WAR calculated by means of FIP. I also included raw ERA and FIP, along with raw ERA- and FIP-, to allow for simple comparisons across changing generations and run environments, so you can gain a better sense of which type of pitcher each guy was. I’d even momentarily considered sorting the table by E-/F- (a 50/50 split of ERA- and FIP-), because that might give a better sense of who the most truly dominant pitchers were, rather than those who “inflated” their WAR by pitching tons of innings. Whatever. It’s all in there! Rank them however you please!

As with yesterday’s post, the columns in this table are all sortable, and there’s plenty of fun little nuggets within, so please, play around with it. I promise you’ll learn something new. After the jump, I’ll share some assorted notes that I find interesting. I encourage you to do the same in the comments.

The Top 100 Five-Year Pitcher Peaks, 1961-Present
Name Years Age ERA FIP ERA- FIP- E-/F- K% BB% HR/9 BABIP tWAR HOF?
Randy Johnson 1998-02 34-38 2.63 2.60 58 57 58 34.1% 7.3% 0.85 0.308 45.3 X
Sandy Koufax 1962-66 26-30 1.95 2.05 60 66 63 26.8% 5.9% 0.58 0.248 43.8 X
Greg Maddux 1994-98 28-32 2.10 2.54 50 59 55 20.2% 3.3% 0.36 0.265 43.0 X
Pedro Martinez 1997-01 25-29 2.18 2.28 47 52 50 32.9% 5.7% 0.64 0.275 42.8 X
Bob Gibson 1968-72 32-36 2.35 2.30 66 70 68 20.8% 7.1% 0.40 0.267 41.7 X
Roger Clemens 1987-91 24-28 2.74 2.61 65 65 65 23.3% 6.8% 0.54 0.285 39.9
Tom Seaver 1969-73 24-28 2.35 2.55 65 74 70 23.0% 6.6% 0.70 0.256 39.8 X
Kevin Brown 1996-00 31-35 2.52 2.87 61 65 63 21.8% 5.2% 0.49 0.278 38.5
Fergie Jenkins 1968-72 25-29 3.04 2.69 79 75 77 20.1% 4.7% 0.84 0.269 37.9 X
Clayton Kershaw* 2011-15 23-28 2.11 2.32 58 61 60 28.7% 5.6% 0.53 0.267 37.6
Bert Blyleven 1971-75 20-24 2.74 2.55 75 69 72 20.4% 6.1% 0.60 0.281 37.1 X
Roy Halladay 2007-11 30-34 2.80 2.97 66 70 68 20.7% 3.9% 0.67 0.296 35.4
Gaylord Perry 1970-74 31-35 2.75 3.13 75 86 81 16.3% 6.9% 0.68 0.254 34.9 X
Juan Marichal 1965-69 27-31 2.30 2.58 69 80 75 18.6% 4.0% 0.72 0.252 34.5 X
Johan Santana 2004-08 25-29 2.82 3.21 64 75 70 26.1% 5.7% 0.99 0.265 34.2
Curt Schilling 2000-04 33-37 3.24 3.02 71 67 69 26.2% 4.1% 1.07 0.294 34.0
CC Sabathia 2007-11 26-30 3.09 3.17 71 73 72 22.2% 6.1% 0.71 0.297 32.3
Cliff Lee 2008-12 29-33 2.89 2.85 70 69 70 22.0% 3.7% 0.72 0.301 32.2
Justin Verlander 2009-13 26-30 3.05 2.99 72 72 72 25.1% 6.9% 0.74 0.286 32.1
Jim Bunning 1963-67 31-35 2.72 2.71 77 80 79 20.3% 5.2% 0.80 0.265 32.0 VC
Dwight Gooden 1984-88 19-23 2.62 2.46 74 68 71 22.6% 7.0% 0.43 0.278 31.7
Jim Palmer 1973-77 27-31 2.58 3.34 72 91 82 13.7% 7.7% 0.58 0.245 31.1 X
Phil Niekro 1974-78 35-39 3.16 3.34 80 85 83 16.1% 8.3% 0.64 0.276 30.5 X
Wilbur Wood 1971-75 29-33 3.08 3.19 84 88 86 13.2% 5.8% 0.68 0.270 30.4
Mickey Lolich 1969-73 28-32 3.20 3.13 88 83 86 19.6% 7.3% 0.86 0.279 30.3
Don Sutton 1971-75 26-30 2.63 2.66 77 78 78 18.0% 6.0% 0.55 0.249 30.3 X
John Smoltz 1995-99 28-32 3.16 3.07 75 71 73 24.3% 6.9% 0.72 0.288 29.9 X
Kevin Appier 1992-96 24-28 3.22 3.22 69 72 71 21.0% 8.8% 0.53 0.275 29.6
Ron Guidry 1977-81 26-30 2.68 2.82 69 72 71 20.9% 7.3% 0.64 0.268 29.5
Mike Mussina 1997-01 28-32 3.43 3.33 75 72 74 22.1% 5.3% 0.92 0.294 29.5
Steve Carlton 1972-76 27-31 3.10 3.04 84 84 84 19.6% 8.6% 0.69 0.274 29.5 x
Dave Stieb 1981-85 23-27 2.95 3.58 71 88 80 14.9% 7.9% 0.70 0.247 29.2
Whitey Ford^ 1961-65 32-36 2.85 3.04 79 82 81 16.9% 6.1% 0.71 0.273 29.2 X
Felix Hernandez 2009-13 23-27 2.85 2.95 73 73 73 23.6% 6.6% 0.62 0.292 29.0
Bret Saberhagen 1985-89 21-25 3.20 3.04 77 77 77 16.8% 4.7% 0.71 0.279 28.9
Jim Maloney 1963-67 23-27 2.80 2.80 77 80 79 23.3% 9.4% 0.57 0.275 28.8
Don Drysdale 1961-65 24-28 2.78 2.90 80 87 84 18.2% 5.7% 0.72 0.264 28.5 X
Jose Rijo 1990-94 25-29 2.64 2.92 68 73 71 21.1% 6.9% 0.59 0.280 28.4
Roy Oswalt 2004-08 26-30 3.22 3.39 75 76 76 18.8% 5.5% 0.72 0.303 28.3
Dean Chance 1964-68 23-27 2.60 2.75 79 80 80 18.5% 8.0% 0.46 0.257 28.2
Nolan Ryan 1973-77 26-30 3.03 2.99 85 82 84 26.4% 14.5% 0.46 0.267 27.9 X
Frank Viola 1986-90 26-30 3.27 3.36 80 84 82 18.7% 6.5% 0.88 0.285 27.6
Frank Tanana 1974-78 20-24 2.86 3.07 80 84 82 19.9% 6.5% 0.81 0.270 27.5
Vida Blue 1974-78 24-28 3.04 3.07 85 82 84 14.9% 7.2% 0.53 0.272 27.4
Catfish Hunter 1972-76 26-30 2.77 3.38 81 96 89 13.6% 5.7% 0.83 0.231 27.2 X
Tom Glavine 1996-00 30-34 3.19 3.81 73 86 80 15.9% 7.9% 0.68 0.278 27.2 X
Dan Haren 2007-11 26-30 3.33 3.33 76 79 78 22.0% 4.7% 0.95 0.288 26.8
J.R. Richard 1976-80 26-30 2.79 2.74 82 78 80 23.0% 10.6% 0.43 0.258 26.8
Orel Hershiser 1985-89 26-30 2.69 3.05 76 84 80 16.6% 7.3% 0.46 0.264 26.6
Luis Tiant 1972-76 31-35 3.12 3.33 80 88 84 14.7% 6.8% 0.76 0.261 26.5
Sam McDowell 1967-71 24-28 2.94 3.04 84 83 84 23.6% 11.3% 0.65 0.266 26.5
Tim Hudson 2000-04 24-28 3.31 3.65 73 81 77 16.8% 7.0% 0.70 0.276 26.4
Tim Lincecum 2007-11 23-27 2.98 2.93 74 73 74 26.5% 8.9% 0.58 0.293 26.4
Brandon Webb 2004-08 25-29 3.30 3.50 72 77 75 18.8% 7.7% 0.62 0.289 26.3
David Price* 2011-15 25-29 3.02 2.98 78 76 77 24.4% 5.3% 0.79 0.292 26.0
Jack Morris 1983-87 28-32 3.38 3.79 83 90 87 18.3% 8.3% 1.02 0.257 26.0
David Cone 1991-95 28-32 3.20 3.43 77 82 80 21.5% 9.3% 0.69 0.270 26.0
Steve Rogers 1976-80 26-30 2.97 3.10 81 86 84 14.8% 7.2% 0.48 0.270 25.6
Andy Messersmith 1972-76 26-30 2.64 3.10 77 88 83 17.7% 8.2% 0.65 0.241 25.5
Jake Peavy 2004-08 23-27 2.95 3.18 74 75 75 25.5% 7.4% 0.78 0.286 25.4
Jon Matlack 1972-76 22-26 2.84 2.81 82 81 82 17.2% 7.1% 0.51 0.275 25.2
Rick Reuschel 1976-80 27-31 3.33 3.26 84 85 85 13.2% 6.6% 0.54 0.290 25.1
Bob Veale 1964-68 28-32 2.83 2.83 83 88 86 20.9% 10.6% 0.40 0.282 25.1
Jack McDowell 1991-95 25-29 3.49 3.60 83 84 84 16.7% 7.1% 0.75 0.285 24.9
Bill Hands 1968-72 28-32 3.08 3.16 80 87 84 14.0% 5.5% 0.76 0.268 24.9
Teddy Higuera 1985-89 26-30 3.28 3.31 78 82 80 19.3% 7.4% 0.80 0.268 24.7
Mark Buehrle 2001-05 22-26 3.61 3.95 78 85 82 14.3% 5.4% 0.95 0.281 24.5
Dennis Eckersley 1975-79 20-24 3.13 3.52 79 88 84 18.0% 7.4% 0.93 0.261 24.5 X
Fernando Valenzuela 1981-85 20-24 2.93 2.89 84 82 83 19.6% 8.7% 0.48 0.272 24.5
Denny McLain 1965-69 21-25 2.95 3.37 87 95 91 18.2% 6.7% 1.03 0.241 24.5
Jered Weaver 2008-12 25-29 3.21 3.56 78 86 82 21.4% 6.6% 0.95 0.268 24.2
Mike Scott 1985-89 30-34 2.93 3.04 83 87 85 21.6% 7.2% 0.75 0.248 24.2
Jason Schmidt 2002-06 29-33 3.35 3.28 79 78 79 24.1% 8.7% 0.75 0.272 24.2
Chris Short 1963-67 25-29 2.82 2.83 82 85 84 18.5% 7.2% 0.58 0.275 24.1
Zack Greinke* 2011-15 27-31 2.82 3.00 75 78 77 24.1% 5.8% 0.76 0.287 24.1
Camilo Pascual^ 1961-65 25-29 3.17 3.34 82 85 84 19.1% 8.2% 0.87 0.264 24.0
Gary Peters 1963-67 26-30 2.50 3.01 75 88 82 17.7% 7.9% 0.58 0.253 24.0
Max Scherzer* 2011-15 26-30 3.36 3.12 83 79 81 27.5% 6.3% 0.99 0.297 23.9
Cole Hamels 2010-14 26-30 3.00 3.27 78 84 81 23.7% 6.2% 0.88 0.285 23.9
Bartolo Colon 1999-03 26-30 3.73 4.01 80 87 84 19.6% 8.8% 1.00 0.285 23.8
Mark Langston 1989-93 28-32 3.37 3.45 85 86 86 19.8% 9.5% 0.71 0.275 23.8
Mike Witt 1984-88 23-27 3.59 3.52 88 84 86 17.2% 8.0% 0.78 0.282 23.7
Dave McNally 1968-72 25-29 2.85 3.28 85 94 90 14.6% 6.6% 0.78 0.246 23.5
Carlos Zambrano 2003-07 22-26 3.30 3.89 74 87 81 20.8% 10.5% 0.73 0.267 23.5
Tommy John 1976-80 33-37 3.11 3.14 83 82 83 10.8% 5.8% 0.40 0.286 23.4
Dennis Leonard 1977-81 26-30 3.45 3.48 86 89 88 15.2% 6.2% 0.85 0.271 23.1
Larry Jackson^ 1961-65 30-34 3.38 3.28 88 88 88 12.3% 5.4% 0.70 0.270 23.1
Bob Friend^ 1961-65 30-34 3.14 3.05 86 86 86 11.7% 4.7% 0.58 0.284 23.0
Ken Holtzman 1969-73 23-27 3.31 3.33 89 91 90 14.9% 6.8% 0.76 0.275 22.9
Chris Sale* 2011-15 22-26 2.94 2.96 72 72 72 28.3% 5.9% 0.88 0.294 22.8
Brad Radke 1997-01 24-28 4.06 3.98 84 87 86 15.3% 4.5% 1.04 0.299 22.7
Mario Soto 1981-85 24-28 3.16 3.28 85 89 87 21.8% 8.6% 0.87 0.248 22.7
Jim Kaat 1964-68 25-29 2.95 3.03 85 83 84 16.4% 4.9% 0.80 0.278 22.7
Javier Vazquez 2000-04 23-27 3.88 3.70 87 82 85 21.2% 5.9% 1.12 0.295 22.6
Mike Cuellar 1969-73 32-36 2.97 3.51 85 98 92 13.6% 6.8% 0.85 0.246 22.6
Matt Cain 2008-12 23-27 3.09 3.55 79 90 85 20.1% 7.5% 0.76 0.266 22.6
Dave Goltz 1975-79 26-30 3.43 3.44 86 88 87 13.1% 7.4% 0.63 0.282 22.5
Doug Drabek 1989-93 26-30 3.03 3.36 84 92 88 14.9% 6.1% 0.65 0.272 22.4
Mark Gubicza 1985-89 22-26 3.42 3.38 82 85 84 15.6% 9.0% 0.49 0.280 22.3
Barry Zito 2001-05 23-27 3.56 4.06 80 92 86 18.5% 8.9% 0.93 0.260 22.2
tWAR = 50/50 blend of RA9-WAR and FIP-WAR
^actual four-year peak included pre-1961 seasons
  • Sorting by just the mixture of ERA- and FIP-, only Pedro, Maddux and Johnson have ever maintained a five-year level of dominance at the same level as the run Kershaw is currently on.
  • Five active pitchers are still in their top-100 five-year peaks, in Kershaw, Price, Greinke, Scherzer and Sale!
  • The Hall of Fame peaks of years past that never were: Dwight Gooden, Wilbur Wood, Mickey Lolich, Kevin Appier, Ron Guidry, Dave Stieb, Bret Saberhagen, Jim Maloney, Jose Rijo, Dena Chance, Frank Viola, Frank Tanana, Vida Blue.
  • Johan Santana’s placement on this table is like the Grady Sizemore of yesterday’s Mike Trout table. What could have been :(
  • On the flip side, it’s a shame that it took Cliff Lee as long as it did to figure it out, as his peak stretch was similarly Hall of Fame-worthy.
  • Uhh… Kevin Brown?
  • Sort by K% and Sandy Koufax just looks laughably out of place. Only 12 pitchers in this table struck out more than a quarter of the batters they faced over a five-year period. Ten of those 12 have done it in the last 20 years. Koufax did it in the 60s.
  • CC Sabathia is the active leader in career pitching WAR by more than 10 wins according to FanGraphs’ calculation, has surpassed the 60-WAR “threshold” and had a better five-year peak than plenty of Hall of Famers in this study. You do the math.
  • Verlander has the Hall of Fame peak out of the way. Will he be effective enough, for long enough, to rack up the necessary counting stats?
  • Nolan Ryan’s walk rate in his best five-year stretch was north of 14%. That is astounding.
  • I’ll admit I was previously unaware of the tragic story of J.R. Richard, who’s five-year peak were also his final five seasons in the Major Leagues. His strikeout rates, relative to the league averages, were among the best in baseball history.
  • Randy Johnson has the greatest five-year pitching peak in Major League history, while allowing the highest BABIP in this table.
  • From 1994-98, Greg Maddux allowed 45 home runs. James Shields allowed 33 home runs in 2015 alone. Shields pitches at PETCO Park. Maddux was pitching during the steroid era.

We hoped you liked reading History, Peaks, and Clayton Kershaw by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Anon
Guest
Anon

Nolan RYan – lower career peak than Jose Rijo and Jim Maloney. And there are STILL people who would argue he is the best pitcher of all-time. LOL seems appropriate here.

My favorite fun baseball fact right now: King Felix doesn’t turn 30 until the 1st week of the 2016 season. Man, it seems like he has been around forever. That’s what happens when you start at age 19 and are a regular starter at 20

Anon
Guest
Anon

Oops, check that – King Felix was up at 20 and a egluar at 21.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

homie was up at 19, you were right.

RobM
Guest
RobM

I’ve rarely heard Nolan Ryan called the best pitcher of all time, and I’ve been watching baseball since Ryan pitched in the 70s. There are some random people out there that do, but it’s pretty rare. Maybe Ryan fan boys remembering him from when they were a kid. It’s more likely I’ll read comments from fans trying to knock Ryan claiming there are those who think he’s the greatest of all time. Ryan probably threw harder than any starter in the game’s history. He was the hardest starter to hit in the game’s history. He also was wildly, well, wild, walking a ton. It always felt as if he should have been better. Yet he has the 6th highest fWAR all time. He’s an easy HOFer, flaws and all. The greatest pitcher of all time? Not even close.

Hurtlocker
Guest
Hurtlocker

I don’t think Nolan Ryan was the greatest pitcher of all time, but he certainly is the hardest to hit all time. Ryan only allowed 6.56 hits per game over 27 years! He pitched 7 no hitters and almost 20 one hitters. He threw over 200 innings 14 times and never gave up more than 20 HR’s in a year. He walked a lot of batters, which is part of his legacy, but he is certainly one of the greats.

Bawfuls
Guest
Bawfuls

“I’ve rarely heard Nolan Ryan called the best pitcher of all time”

Then you’re fortunate to have avoided some frustrating discussions!

Ebenezer
Member
Member
Ebenezer

I haven’t heard anyone say that (though I haven’t been in a lot of those discussions, in person or on line), but I was surprised to see Ryan racked up 106.7 fWAR in his career, which is excellent. I don’t think of him as being that good, but he had the peak, and was very effective through his age 44 season.

Ryan “only” had 83.8 rWAR in his career, which is still very good, but about 23 less WAR depending on how it’s computed. Quite the difference. Glad Jeff, I mean August, is averaging both fWAR and rWAR on this.