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How does Clayton Kershaw compare with peak Bob Gibson?

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The Dodgers ace has invited historic comparisons. How does he compare with the greatest Cardinals ace of them all?

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the world. He has led all of Major League Baseball in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement in each of the last three seasons and leads so far in 2016. Baseball Reference is slightly more tempered in ranking Kershaw: its WAR model places him "only" 3rd in 2015 while placing him in 1st for 2013, 2014, and 2016.

In short, he's good. And yes, Kershaw had his struggles against the Cardinals in the postseason. And then he had some more strugglesAnd some more. But despite this favorable recent history for the Cardinals, there is certainly no pitcher I would less want to face in a pivotal game than Clayton Kershaw.

Well, no current pitcher, at least.

Clayton Kershaw is currently in his age 28 season, and to this point in each's career, there is no comparison between Kershaw and Cardinals legend Bob Gibson.

Bob Gibson, age 25 3.9 4.4
Clayton Kershaw, age 25 7.1 7.8
Bob Gibson, age 26 6.0 5.6
Clayton Kershaw, age 26 7.7 7.5
Bob Gibson, age 27 4.4 2.4
Clayton Kershaw, age 27 8.6 7.5

And that's not even to mention Kershaw's 4.1 fWAR, 3.5 bWAR start to 2016. But Bob Gibson was something of a late bloomer. While he had been a good pitcher before, it was during his age 32 season that Gibson turned into indisputable legend Bob Gibson.

For comparison, through age 31, Bob Gibson was, by fWAR, the 78th greatest pitcher ever. Clayton Kershaw, who has about 3 2/3 seasons left to add to his fWAR total through age 31, already ranks 23rd. But not only was Bob Gibson the best pitcher in MLB history for age 32 through age 34 seasons by fWAR, only three other pitchers had more fWAR if you also count their age 35 seasons (Gibson still ranks 1st if you let him count his age 35 season).

It is entirely possible, if unlikely, that Kershaw is on a Gibson-like trajectory, at which point all comparisons of Clayton Kershaw to any other pitcher in baseball history will be rendered useless: he will be the undisputed king. But until that happens, let's look at the best three seasons of Kershaw (the last three) with the best three seasons of Gibson (1968-1970).

Bob Gibson, 1968-1970 103 65-29 912 2/3 79 22.3% 146% 6.7% 77% 2.13 58 2.09 64 27.3 30.5
Clayton Kershaw, 2013-2015 93 53-19 667 13 30.3% 150% 4.9% 64% 1.92 53 2.08 55 23.4 22.8

Both Gibson and Kershaw pitched in what could be fairly described as "pitcher eras". Not all pitcher eras are created equal, and thus it is still preferable to use statistics adjusted for the specific offensive environment, but unlike, say, comparing Clayton Kershaw to turn-of-the-last-century Pedro Martinez, the mental gymnastics are not quite as exhausting.

And on raw numbers, Kershaw appears to have advantages in rate stats while Gibson has advantages in counting stats. Adjusted for eras, this is still the case, though not to nearly as extreme of a degree.

Unsurprisingly, Gibson has a substantial edge in terms of statistics related to endurance. Here is how his 1968-1970 peak run compares to the top pitcher in baseball from 2013-2015 in the respective categories.

Bob Gibson, 1968-1970 MLB leader, 2013-2015
Games Started 103 101 (James Shields, R.A. Dickey)
Innings Pitched 912 2/3 667 (Kershaw)
Complete Games 79 13 (Kershaw)

As you can see, things escalate here. "Hm, Gibson had two more starts than Shields and Dickey, I guess that's pretty impres...oh, wow, quite a few more innings than Kershaw. The 245 2/3 innings gap is only 5 1/3 less than Justin Verlander had in the season in which he led the 2010s in innings. Now to peruse the complete g...HOW DOES BOB GIBSON STILL HAVE A RIGHT ARM?

To give you an even more pronounced idea of how much times have changed: Clayton Kershaw's 667 innings pitched from 2013-2015 would have ranked 33rd from 1968-1970. And his 13 complete games? Tied for 70th.

Certainly, there are some old-school fans wincing at how Kershaw's endurance compares with Gibson's, but they should not view this as an indictment of Clayton Kershaw's lack of intestinal fortitude.

If circumstances dictated that Kershaw needed to throw 300 innings a year while completing over three-fourths of his starts, he would certainly try and it would not be absurd to think he could succeed. However, Kershaw would almost certainly be less effective by pitching later into games. Even Bob Gibson, whose name is synonymous with unblemished durability, was.

Bob Gibson, Innings 1-3 1.81 309
Bob Gibson, Innings 4-6 2.13 308
Bob Gibson, Innings 7-9 2.39 267
Clayton Kershaw, Innings 1-3 1.98 277 2/3
Clayton Kershaw, Innings 4-6 1.85 267 1/3
Clayton Kershaw, Innings 7-9 1.92 122

Two things stand out immediately to me. One is that Bob Gibson pitched only one fewer inning in innings 4-6 than 1-3. Aside from two starts in May 1970, one in which he went 5 1/3 and one in which he went 5 2/3, he made it through six every time. In fact, in his legendary 1968 season, Gibson's shortest outing was seven complete innings.

Another is that unlike Gibson, Kershaw's ERA actually improved in the middle innings and is better in the later innings than in the first three. At first this seems unnatural but the selection bias at play does make sense here: in modern baseball, a pitcher will be pulled in the middle innings if he is struggling and if he makes it into the late innings, it generally means he is pitching well.

In contrast to Kershaw, Bob Gibson pitched fifteen times in extra innings, tallying 28 2/3 innings and accumulating a 3.14 ERA. While a 3.14 ERA is hardly bad, he had a 2.10 ERA in regulation from 1968-1970. The difference between a 2.10 and his overall 2.13 ERA  may seem negligible, but every little detail matters when discerning between these two super-aces. Clayton Kershaw has never pitched in extra innings.

In the end, comparing Gibson and Kershaw is like comparing Wayne Gretzky to Pelé: they're both great but when it comes down to it, they are essentially (or in the case of the latter two, literally) playing different sports. The modern bullpen has enabled Clayton Kershaw to be more effective, even relative to the soaring strikeout rates of his era, on a per-batter basis than Bob Gibson. And perhaps the presence of Kenley Jansen and company allows Kershaw to exert more effort per pitch; it certainly allows him to leave games before fatigue takes too much of a toll on his performance.

Had Kershaw pitched in the late 1960s, he would probably have pitched more innings with worse rate stats, and had Gibson pitched today, he would probably have pitched fewer innings with better rate stats. But in each's own era, he is regardless the greatest pitcher of his generation.