The great ace debate: Madison Bumgarner or Clayton Kershaw?

When they said that Madison Bumgarner might be the best pitcher in the National League, last October, we scoffed. Well, I shouldn’€™t speak for you. I did scoff, though. We knew, before October, that Clayton Kershaw was the best pitcher in the league. By a fair piece. Could a few weeks of Bumgarner’€™s brilliance really change that much?

I sure didn’€™t think so.

Now I’€™m wondering, at least a little.

No, not because of what happened last fall, when Kershaw got rocked and Bumgarner was All-World. Not only because of that, anyway.

And certainly not because Tuesday night, Bumgarner outpitched Kershaw.

No, it’s more than that. More than anything, I just figured it wouldn’€™t hurt to wonder, even spend a few minutes with some numbers. They’€™re just sitting there, after all. Might as well take a peek.

The first thing I did was choose a seemingly arbitrary beginning point: Aug. 1, 2014. I could have chosen another. I chose that one, largely because Bumgarner gave up a few runs in his last July start.  So yes, I’€™ve stacked the deck. If ever so slightly.

Once I had my (seemingly) arbitrary beginning point, it was simple to add 2014’€™s postseason statistics to each pitcher’€™s ledger, and finally this month’€™s numbers.

Your results?

Madison: 156 1/3 innings, 38 runs, 18 walks, 147 K’€™s, 15 home runs

Clayton: 121 innings, 46 runs, 25 walks, 151 K’€™s, 10 home runs

It’€™s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison here, because Bumgarner piled up so many innings last October. More on those in a minute. To make this easier, I’€™ll just generalize and report that Bumgarner has a slightly better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Kershaw, who has a slightly better home-run rate than Bumgarner. When I say slightly, I mean slightly.

Bumgarner owns a substantial lead in runs allowed (per nine innings).

But we don’€™t pay much attention to that any more, right? DIPS and FIP and all that?

Which means we’re looking at something like a push, at least before looking at anything else. Park effects, quality of competition, that sort of thing. But even if we did look at more things, nobody’€™s getting a big lead. Looking just at what’s happened in the last four baseball months –€“ August, September, October, and April –€“ there’€™s just not much separating Bumgarner from the guy who’€™s won three of the past four NL Cy Young Awards.

Is it appropriate to look at just the last four months?

Of course it’€™s not. Everything counts, including Kershaw’€™s earlier brilliance.

I’ve got a real point to make here, though. Projections are fine. You use them. I use them. Our dogs use them. But projections miss things. A long list of things. You’€™ve seen a list before, I’€™m sure. Nobody saw Jose Bautista coming in the projections, because the projections couldn’€™t know about his career-saving adjustment. Nobody saw Mike Moustakas coming in the projections, because the projections couldn’€™t know that Moustakas would stop trying to pull everything.

You can’€™t blame the projections for those ones! I will, though, blame the projections –€“ from what I know about them, anyway –€“ for not taking postseason performance into account. I know it wouldn’€™t make a big difference, and would make even a small difference only in a few cases. Maybe, for example, when a pitcher throws more than 50 innings … and is brilliant in most of them?

Yeah, I’€™m still taking Kershaw. But during the World Series last fall, when even the pundits were suggesting that Bumgarner might actually be the best pitcher in the league, I dismissed the notion out of hand.

Which I shouldn’€™t have. It’€™s a weird, wonderful, unpredictable world out there.