Kershaw vs Sale: A Battle of Lefty Monsters

Tonight at 5:09 PM, the Los Angeles Dodgers are set to take on the Boston Red Sox in the 2018 World Series. Despite both teams having made the playoffs dozens of times in their respective franchise histories, this will be their first World Series matchup between the pair going back 102 years to 1916.

At the time, the Dodgers weren’t in Los Angeles, and they were not even named the Dodgers, being called the Robins back then. The Red Sox rotation featured a great young pitcher who would end up known for his thunderous bat rather than his electric arm, the great Babe Ruth. In that series, Ruth pitched just once, starting game 2 of the series, throwing an unbelievable 14 inning complete game effort allowing just 1 run on 6 hits. The Red Sox won the game 2-1.

In the opening game of the series, the matchup featured Rube Marquard for the Robins facing off against Ernie Shore of the Red Sox. While both of these pitchers were good in their day, neither one was a Hall of Fame talent. Marquard did win 26 games for the New York Giants in 1912, while Shore had a 1.64 ERA for the Red Sox in 1915, but it wasn’t exactly a historic matchup before or after game 1. Meanwhile, in the current day, fans of baseball everywhere are getting a treat with the announce game 1 matchup:

The Two Best Pitchers of This Generation

Kershaw vs Sale is a regular season matchup that baseball fans drool over. It’s a matchup that you go out of your way to make it to the game, or at least watch live. Taking the greatness of both pitchers and putting it on the biggest stage in baseball in game 1 of the World Series has the potential to be mind-blowing.

When looking at Fangraphs splits leaderboards going back to 2002, minimum 1000 innings pitched, here are Kershaw and Sales’ ranks:

ERA: Kershaw – 2.39 (1st), Sale – 2.89 (2nd)

FIP: Kershaw – 2.64 (1st), Sale – 2.84 (2nd)

WHIP: Kershaw – 1.00 (1st), Sale – 1.02 (2nd)

xFIP: Sale – 2.90 (1st), Kershaw – 2.94 (3rd)

K%: Sale – 30.2% (1st), Kershaw – 27.6% (4th)

BB%: Sale – 5.4% (T/13th), Kershaw – 6.5% (T/48th)

K-BB%: Sale – 24.9% (1st), Kershaw – 21.1% (5th)

K/BB: Sale – 5.6 (2nd), Kershaw – 4.3 (6th)

HR/9: Kershaw – 0.6 (T/1st), Sale – 0.9 (T/27th)

Batting Average Against: Kershaw – .204 (1st), Sale .217 (2nd)

wOBA: Kershaw – .254 (1st), Sale – .271 (2nd)

OBP Allowed: Kershaw – .262 (1st), Sale – .272 (2nd)

SLG Allowed: Kershaw – .311 (1st), Sale – .345 (2nd)

fWAR: Kershaw – 61.6 (3rd), Sale – 41.8 (16th)

Win Probablity Added: Kershaw – 39.89 (1st), Sale – 27.61 (6th)

Innings Pitched: Kershaw – 2096.1 (26th), Sale – 1482.1 (77th)

We have a lot of stats listed here, but things that keep coming up time after time in their ranks are “1st” and “2nd“. Kershaw and Sale rank first and second in seven categories: ERA, FIP, WHIP, BAA, wOBA, OBPA, and SLGA. These are essentially all of the most important things for a pitcher to need to do well to succeed.

Stacked Competition

One thing to remember with this time frame are the other pitchers who were around then. Yes, this was somewhat towards the end of the Maddux, Clemens, Johnson, and Pedro era, but it was the start of the Halladay, Johan, Lee, Sabathia, Verlander generation. The latter five mentioned here may not necessarily be inner-circle Hall of Fame types like Maddux, Clemens, Johson, and Pedro, but these are excellent Cy Young-winning pitchers who helped define this generation.

Add onto that pitchers such as Kershaw, Sale, Price, Greinke, and Scherzer who came a bit later. Then you’ve got guys like Oswalt, Felix, Hamels, Lester, Peavy, Haren, and some others who were Cy Young level talents in many seasons, but aren’t likely to end up in the Hall of Fame.

To see Kershaw and Sale dominate the leaderboards against so many other extremely talented pitchers says a lot about the pair and the immense talent they posses.

2018 Season

The 2018 season was a bit off for both Kershaw and Sale. Neither pitcher qualified for the ERA title, both barely missing with 161.1 and 158 innings pitched respectively.

For Sale, though in just 158 innings pitched, he was still an absolute force on the mount when he did pitch: 2.11 ERA 1.98 FIP 2.31 xFIP 13.50 K/9 1.94 BB/9 0.63 HR/9 and 6.5 fWAR. If not for the missed innings, it’s likely Sale would have easily won his first Cy Young award. Instead, he is likely to finish around the top five in voting, much like Kershaw in his excellent but injury-shortened 2016 season (1.69 ERA 1.80 FIP 6.5 fWAR in 149 IP).

On the flip-side, Kershaw may have just had the worst season of his career aside from his age 20 rookie season: 2.73 ERA 3.19 FIP 3.19 xFIP 8.65 K/9 1.62 BB/9 0.95 HR/9 and 3.5 fWAR. All of these numbers were Kershaw’s worst marks since his 2012 season. Part of this has been his decline in fastball velocity to around just 91 MPH, down from 93 even just a season ago. Even still, a 2.73 ERA and 3.19 FIP is something most starting pitchers dream of doing over a full season.

Postseason Struggles and Triumphs

Kershaw

As anyone who has been living on this planet the past five years likely knows, Clayton Kershaw has had some postseason struggles. The narrative for the uninformed, or just flat out trolls, is that Kershaw cannot handle pitching in the postseason and he chokes. The reality of it is more complex. For one, Kershaw hasn’t been exactly as good in the playoffs as the regular season, unlike what most people expect out of him. He’s also been leaned on too much in previous years thanks to thin bullpens. This has led him pitching deeper into games than necessary, and at times said bullpens have let him down in big ways once he’s left.

There, of course, have been some real meltdowns, such as 2013 NLCS Game 6 against the Cardinals, 2016 NLCS Game 6 against the Cubs, World Series Game 5 against the Astros, and 2014 NLDS Game 1 against the Cardinals. While the last 2014 NLDS Game 1 against the Cardinals started as a very nice start through 6 innings pitched, the rest went to hell early for Kershaw.

Otherwise, Kershaw’s playoff record is filled with mostly very good games, most times having very few blowups outside of a handful of games. Jon Weisman does a great job of showing this with his handy color-coded playoff game chart:

In the current postseason, Kershaw has been much better than years past. He does have a real stinker in NLCS Game 1 versus the Brewers, but that is sandwiched between two excellent starts, one against the Braves and the other against the Brewers. Add to that a scoreless 9th inning to cap off NLCS Game 7.

Going back another three years, Kershaw has a 3.50 ERA in 90 innings pitched since his last series against the Cardinals in 2014. In the 17 games he’s appeared in, the Dodgers have a 12-5 record in those games. Clearly, Kershaw is trending in the right direction.

Sale

Chris Sale had never seen the playoffs in his career until 2017, his first season with the Red Sox. This makes sense considering he was drafted by the White Sox and remained with them until he was traded, but his playoff inexperience showed in the 2017 playoffs against the Astros. In his first start, Sale was rocked for 7 runs, including 3 home runs, in just 5 innings of an 8-2 loss in ALDS Game 1. Things improved a bit in a 4.2 IP relief appearance in ALDS Game 4, but he still allowed a home run and 2 runs overall in a 5-4 loss for the Red Sox.

Sale was looking to do more for his club going into the ALDS in 2018 against the Yankees, and had a nice start with 8 strikeouts 2 walks and 2 runs allowed in 5.1 IP in ALDS Game 1, the Red Sox taking the game 5-4. Sale pitched a scoreless inning in ALDS Game 4 in another win for the Red Sox, taking the series in 4 games.

His next and only other playoff start was once again against the Astros. Sale pitched just 4 innings this time around. While he allowed just 1 hit, he walked 4 and allowed 2 runs to score. The Red Sox lost the game 7-2.

For his career, Sale has a 5.85 ERA with 26 K 7 BB 4 HR and 19 H allowed in 20 IP in the postseason. The sample size is so small that two or three good outings in the World Series against the Dodgers could change everything for him.

Game 1 Predictions

Normally when matchups like this come along, baseball, well, baseballs, and the score ends up an 8-6 slugfest. I think with legacy on the mind of both pitchers, we do end up with the pitching duel we are all craving:

Kershaw: 7 IP 5 H 2 R 8 K 1 BB

Sale: 7 IP 7 H 3 R 10 K 1 BB

I won’t pretend to know if the Dodgers bullpen can continue their great play against MLB’s best offense, so I can’t say which team would win, but I think we see two absolute monster lefties do their thing.