On Tuesday night, while you were busy inhaling tubed meats and carbonated booze, Clayton Kershaw was excellent again. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, losing it on an infield hit. He finished with two hits allowed in seven innings, the third time he’s posted that line this season.
And, more importantly to this baseball nerd, he pushed his career WHIP below 1.000. The full list of pitchers with a career WHIP under 1:
- Addie Joss
- Clayton Kershaw
Three pitchers, Mariano Rivera, Ed Walsh, and Cy Young, have WHIPs right at 1. That’s it. That’s the full list of pitchers who averaged one or fewer baserunners per inning. Kershaw is roughly the equivalent of one of the greatest closers in baseball history, stretched out for seven or eight innings at a time, unless you get him for the full nine innings.
My argument today isn’t that Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, which he is. It isn’t that he’s one of the best pitchers of all-time, with a non-zero chance to be the best pitcher of all-time, which he could be. It’s that he’s the most watchable player in baseball.
If you have someone who is showing the slightest interest in baseball, my advice to you is this: Skip Mike Trout. Forget Carlos Correa. Don’t even worry about Aaron Judge. Go straight to Clayton Kershaw.
This isn’t a scorching hot take. This is an appeal to raw numbers. In the 2017 season, Kershaw has faced 473 batters. Of those batters ...
- 110 of them reached base
- 363 of them failed at their job
Which is a ruder but more satisfying way of saying that 363 times, Kershaw succeeded at his job. Do a similar tally for Judge, who has a chance at the Triple Crown. He’s in the middle of an absolutely transcendent season that will be appreciated for a century. He’s come to the plate 347 times this season, and in those plate appearances ...
- he reached base 155 times
- he made an out 192 times
With Kershaw, you’re getting more guaranteed success. It’s the way the game is designed — the pitchers have the control. And if you’re not satisfied with a binary safe/out measure of success, we can move to the signature play for each player. Judge hits long dingers. Kershaw makes opposing batters look like dummies who can’t hit a baseball.
In 8.1 percent of his plate appearances, Judge does what everyone is expecting him to do.
In 30.9 percent of plate appearances against him, Kershaw does what everyone is expecting him to do.
Now, long dingers and strikeouts aren’t perfectly comparable, specifically because of the relative rarity of home runs, so feel free to adjust those numbers accordingly. Even though Kershaw does his thing three times more often than Judge, if home runs are four times as exciting as strikeouts, the watchability scales tip toward him.
Remember that Kershaw has more chances for these events, however, going head-to-head with an opponent over 100 times more than Judge this year, and that gap will eventually increase. Kershaw is the steadier bet for a positive outcome, and if you’re looking to sell someone on baseball’s beauty, this is the best way to go about it. Start with someone who is going to remind you of why he’s brilliant more often any of his peers.
A player like Trout or Judge also suffers from the biggest marketability problem that baseball has. I wrote about it last year:
Hitters go 0-for-4, and they do it often, even if it looks like a mismatch on paper. Several times this season, (Giancarlo) Stanton will roll into a city and leave without a home run. No one should be surprised.
Imagine that in another sport. Imagine Steph Curry passing through town, taking one shot every 45 minutes for three hours, missing them all, and leaving for the night. It's not a zero-sum game, but that’s is baseball's competition, and the odds are overwhelming that if you carve out three hours for Curry, he's going to do something Curry-ish before the night is over, even if he has a dreadful night.
In baseball, a player can just ... kind of ... you know ... disappear.
With Kershaw, you’re guaranteed that kind of return. When he comes into town, he might have an off night, but the odds are that you won’t. And even if he does, he’ll probably do something that impresses the heck out of you. He’s the best in baseball at making you whistle like an old-timey radio guy and say, “Boy, this fella is simply the eel’s ankles, I’m telling you, just the leopard’s stripes, he is.”
This leads us to one of baseball’s other marketing problems: There are 478 games every season, give or take. So many games. Look, there are games tonight! And tomorrow. And the next day. So, so many games. And Judge or Trout or Correa might get one or two singles in 15 hours worth of baseball stretched over five nights. That’s unavoidable. Getting a baseball-curious person into the Church of Kershaw requires one service every five days. There are no subscriptions, no commitments, no tithing, and less of a chance for disappointment.
The ratios tip a little more in the favor of a tools monster like Trout, who can thrill in the field and on the bases and mess up that rough success/fail percentage that I entered into evidence up there, but it’s not enough. This is my marketing advice for baseball: Sell the pitchers. They succeed more.
Every time I gurgle and coo about Clayton Kershaw for turning me into an easily amazed baby-man, there’s always someone ready to comment or email something like, “[clears breath] POSTSEASON CHOKER. PLAYOFF PERFORMANCE, NOT CLUTCH CAN’T HANDLE PRESSURE, NOT PROVEN ON THE BIGGEST STAGE, AND LET’S BE HONEST THAT ISN’T THE STRONGEST BEARD GAME, EITHER.” My response usually has something to do with the unfair position he’s put in by the Dodgers, whose plan for the last several years has been to grind him on short rest instead of acquiring third and fourth starters they would also trust in the postseason.
This time, though, I can use a different response: Yeah, the postseason will tear your innards out and wear them as an ascot, and any prospective baseball fans should learn that right up front. This makes Kershaw the perfect gateway drug for anyone who isn’t sure why people watch baseball on purpose.
He’ll succeed more than everyone else. He’s more reliable than anyone else. He’s an absolute tornado of physical wonder, and everyone should appreciate that more than they already do. Watch more Clayton Kershaw. Tell your friends to do it, too. More than any other player in baseball, if not baseball history, you won’t regret it.