A Clayton Kershaw Thought Experiment

Clayton Kershaw is ridiculously good. You know this. I know this. There is not much to say about him for fantasy owners other than you should start him every time in every format. But perhaps because I hit my dog days of summer two months early this season, I wanted to write an article about Kershaw to wrap my head around just how good he has been.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to rely on a stat called Game Score, which Bill James came up with to compare starts to one another. You can look up exactly how Game Score is calculated here. Unless you are in a format that rewards pitchers for getting outs, Game Score is not a perfect proxy for the fantasy value of a start, but it does reward pitchers for strikeouts and penalize them for earned runs, hits, and walks, all of which play into the standard rotisserie categories. Meanwhile, Game Score is a convenient way to place one number on a start that reflects its quality.

It’s easy to tell that Game Score works because Kershaw has 3 of the top 10 Game Scores so far this season. No other starter has 2.

Highest Game Scores, 2016
Player Game Date Game Score
Vincent Velasquez 4/14/2016 97
Jaime Garcia 4/14/2016 97
Clayton Kershaw 5/1/2016 95
Clayton Kershaw 5/12/2016 93
Chris Sale 4/15/2016 92
Clayton Kershaw 5/23/2016 89
Jake Arrieta 4/21/2016 89
Johnny Cueto 5/23/2016 89
Drew Smyly 4/19/2016 89
Matt Andriese 5/14/2016 88

But Kershaw’s dominance is not just about high highs. Kershaw has high lows. His most recent start on June 4 was his first with fewer than 7 innings pitched. He’s had just one start with more than 2 earned runs, and he struck out 10 batters in that outing to keep his Game Score over 50, which is the score for an average game by design. The average of all of Kershaw’s Game Scores this season is 74, which is 8 points better than Jake Arrieta in second place. Eight points below Arrieta? Justin Verlander and Steven Matz, who have the 24th and 25th best average Game Scores (among pitchers with at least 8 starts).

Highest Average Game Scores, 2016
Player Average Game Score
Clayton Kershaw 74
Jake Arrieta 66
Jose Fernandez 64
Noah Syndergaard 64
Madison Bumgarner 63
Marco Estrada 63
John Lackey 63
Johnny Cueto 63
Jon Lester 63
Chris Sale 63

Kershaw’s average Game Score is off the charts, and, in fact, it is the highest of any pitcher going back to at least 2002. Fittingly, Kershaw is on pace to break his own modern era record of an average Game Score of 70 from 2014. Kershaw also has 2 other seasons in the top 10 of the last 15 seasons. Arrieta is the only other pitcher with 2 such seasons in that span.

Highest Average Game Scores, 2002-16
Player Season Average Game Score
Clayton Kershaw 2016 74
Clayton Kershaw 2014 70
Zack Greinke 2015 67
Randy Johnson 2002 67
Jake Arrieta 2015 67
Clayton Kershaw 2015 67
Clayton Kershaw 2013 66
Jake Arrieta 2016 66
Justin Verlander 2011 65
Felix Hernandez 2014 65
Chris Sale 2014 65
Johnny Cueto 2014 65

Now for a thought experiment. I was curious whether a psychic could have done better than pick Kershaw in daily fantasy in each of the days Kershaw has pitched this season, so I calculated the Game Scores of every other start on those days and ranked them from highest to lowest. I don’t believe there were any ties for the best non-Kershaw starts, but in general, I gave a better rank to starts with more strikeouts in the event of Game Score ties. Also, I ignored salaries.

Kershaw has made 12 starts this season, and so these results show the 12 best starts from other pitchers on the days that Kershaw pitched, the 12 second-best starts from other pitchers, and so on.

Combined Stats, Nth Best Game Scores on Kershaw’s Game Dates
Rk W ERA WHIP K Average Game Score
1 9 0.48 0.53 93 80
Kershaw 8 1.46 0.65 109 74
2 8 0.64 0.73 81 72
3 10 1.25 0.75 82 70
4 7 1.55 0.86 88 68
5 6 1.29 1.00 74 65
6 8 2.38 0.98 75 63
7 7 2.30 1.03 69 61
8 5 2.32 0.94 48 59
9 7 2.99 1.10 59 57
10 3 3.39 1.19 59 55

I think I was relieved to find that Kershaw has not been as good as the best non-Kershaw starters on the days he’s pitched. If he had been better, I would have concerns for the universe. Still, Kershaw is pretty close. His ERA is almost a run worse, which mostly reflects how Game Score chooses its best starts, but he actually has 16 more strikeouts. Think about that for a minute. I take Kershaw and you take the pitchers with the best performances on the days he pitches, and I have 16 more strikeouts than you do. Meanwhile, Kershaw has been better than the second-best non-Kershaw starts on the 12 days that he’s pitched, both by Game Score and by every other category except ERA (and wins, which are tied).

So, in conclusion, Kershaw is amazing and possibly a robot. As such, I think it’s only appropriate that we take the time to congratulate the 10 pitchers—2 of whom are on here twice—who were able to pool their best efforts together in order to be slightly better than Kershaw this season.

Best Starts on Kershaw’s Game Dates, Excluding Kershaw
GameDate Player W ERA WHIP K Game Score
4/4/2016 Jake Arrieta 1 0.00 0.43 6 78
4/9/2016 Vincent Velasquez 1 0.00 1.00 9 72
4/15/2016 Chris Sale 1 0.00 0.22 9 92
4/21/2016 Jake Arrieta 1 0.00 0.44 6 89
4/26/2016 Johnny Cueto 1 0.00 0.89 11 83
5/1/2016 Julio Teheran 0 0.00 0.43 9 81
5/7/2016 Jon Gray 0 0.00 0.43 5 78
5/12/2016 James Shields 1 0.00 1.14 9 71
5/17/2016 Madison Bumgarner 1 1.00 0.56 11 84
5/23/2016 Johnny Cueto 1 0.00 0.22 6 89
5/29/2016 Jake Odorizzi 0 2.57 0.29 6 72
6/4/2016 Jason Hammel 1 2.57 0.43 6 71

Good luck the rest of the season. Kershaw has the possibly Posey-less Giants in pitcher-friendly AT&T Park on Friday.

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Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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I wondered recently what Kershaw’s numbers would be as a reliever. I’ve not been a Fangraphs reader long enough to know if any sort of translation/prediction work from SP performance to RP performance has been done, but everyone (right?) gets a boost if they move to the ‘pen…