Top starting pitchers: Clayton Kershaw, then who?

ESPN Illustration

One day this past June, Madison Bumgarner lounged in the runway leading to the home dugout in AT&T Park and talked about the San Francisco Giants, but he spun into a thought doughnut in mid-sentence and posed the sort of big-picture question that he can’t stand to answer: Are we seeing the greatest pitcher ever at his very best?

Bumgarner was talking about Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ left-hander who is the best pitcher on the planet, and might be the best pitcher to ever walk the planet. Kershaw is Major League Baseball's active leader in ERA at 2.37, significantly better than the pitcher in second place -- Bumgarner at 2.98. The only pitcher to allow fewer hits per nine innings than Kershaw's 6.62 –- the only pitcher, ever –- is Nolan Ryan (6.56). Kershaw is fourth all-time in WHIP at 1.007, and two of the pitchers ahead of him, Addie Joss and Ed Walsh, pitched against Ty Cobb in the dead ball era; the other was a closer, Mariano Rivera.

In the first of our positional and team unit rankings, we present the top 10 starting pitchers in today's game, compiled with help from evaluators around baseball, and it should start with an all-time great.

1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Because of his back injury, Kershaw missed qualifying for the NL ERA by just 13 innings last year, and that will probably mean the excellence of his 2016 season will be lost to history -– which is too bad, because Bumgarner’s evaluation was dead on. Arguably the greatest pitcher of all time at his absolute best.

Kershaw struck out 172 and walked 11 for a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 15.64. In 19 of the 21 starts he made last season, he allowed two earned runs or fewer. He surrendered 10 hits in a start once among those 21 starts and allowed five hits or fewer in 15 starts.

Some opposing hitters say they like to face the Dodgers ace because of the purity of the challenge. Kershaw is going to throw you strikes and, during your at-bat, you will get chances to swing the bat. He will challenge you. But success against Kershaw is intermittent on his worst day, close to impossible on his best day.

Some club officials were pleased by how Kershaw responded to the treatment to his back and that he got through the postseason without a recurrence. Others in the organization were surprised that he had been able to pitch through his physical problems as long as he did. Kershaw turns 29 during spring training.