The Los Angeles Dodgers open up postseason play on Friday against the Washington Nationals, with two of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball squaring off in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
Sending three-time Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP Clayton Kershaw to the mound was clearly the Dodgers’ lone option. Such was the case for the Nationals, who boast an ace of their own in Max Scherzer.
Both pitchers have thrived in the Majors since their respective debuts in 2008, racking up a plethora of wins and strikeouts, with plenty of hardware to go with it.
Let’s dig deeper at what separates Kershaw and Scherzer from the rest of the league and how they’ve sustained their winning ways for many years.
While Kershaw has a reputation of struggling in the playoffs, he has relatively dominated the opposition over the last three seasons.
Dating back to the 2013 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, Kershaw allowed just one earned run in 13 innings — good for a 0.69 ERA. His strong performance helped lead the Dodgers to a series victory.
He wasn’t quite as sharp in the NL Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, pitching to a 6.30 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 10 innings. The numbers on the surface look bad, but Kershaw didn’t give up any home runs and posted solid ratios of 9.0 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings.
Fast forward to 2014 and Kershaw’s postseason numbers looked even worse than the previous season. He posted a 7.82 ERA in two starts against the Cardinals in the NLDS, but that number is inflated by one poor inning in both outings.
After mowing down the St. Louis lineup for six innings on two separate occasions, Kershaw fell apart in the seventh inning each time, leading to the Cardinals taking both contests. He particularly received flak after the Dodgers were eliminated because of the historic numbers he put up during the regular season.
Finally in 2015, Kershaw rebounded with a strong showing in the NLDS against the New York Mets.
In an elimination game on the road, he allowed just one run in seven innings — propelling the Dodgers back to Los Angeles for a winner-take-all Game 5. Overall, he posted a 2.63 ERA in 13.2 innings (two starts).
Scherzer, on the other hand, appeared in the postseason twice over the last three seasons (2013-2014) as a member of the Detroit Tigers.
Scherzer’s greatest success came in 2013, when he pitched to a 3.00 ERA and 2.70 ERA respectively in the ALDS and ALCS, respectively. In 22.1 combined innings, he allowed seven earned runs.
The following year, Scherzer yielded eight baserunners and five runs in 7.1 innings — amounting to a 6.14 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. Like Kershaw that postseason, the righty struggled with the home run ball (2.5 per nine).
Because Kershaw missed significant time during the 2016 regular season, Scherzer is widely viewed as the NL Cy Young favorite. It’s a shame because Kershaw was on track to shatter all of his previous records.
In 149 innings, he pitched to a 1.69 ERA and 1.80 FIP, while also recording a 0.73 WHIP — the lowest in MLB history among pitchers with a minimum of 100 innings.
That’s not a knock on Scherzer, of course, who also had an incredible regular season. He posted a sub-three ERA and led the NL in games started (34), wins (20), innings (228.1) and strikeouts (284).
Both aces also enjoyed excellent 2015 campaigns. Kershaw led the NL in innings (232.2), strikeouts (301) and FIP (1.99). Scherzer led the league in games started with 33, complete games (four) and shutouts (three).
The pair finished in the top-five for Cy Young voting, though Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs eventually took the honor.
Cy Young comparisons
Kershaw and Scherzer have won a combined four Cy Young Awards, with both of them winning one in 2013, when the latter pitched in the AL.
That season, Kershaw posted a 16-9 record with a 1.83 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 232 strikeouts in 236 innings pitched. What’s more, he was worth 7.8 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference.
Scherzer, meanwhile, led the Majors in wins with 21 and pitched to a 2.90 ERA with 240 punchouts in 214.1 innings. With those numbers, he was worth 6.7 wins using the same criteria.
Kershaw won additional Cy Young Awards in 2011 and 2014, while Scherzer placed top-five in voting twice during that span.
With both pitchers still in their prime, it’s likely that these two still have many epic head-to-head matchups to come, whether it being on the diamond or in the race for future accolades.