Is that the greatest multiple-choice quiz question ever, or what?
Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner?
It's a question that my favorite partners in triviality, Mike and Mike, asked me recently, as the World Series dust was settling. And I have to admit my first words were: "That's not fair."
But then I started thinking. Not only was it a fair question, it was an awesome question. It's the kind of question that makes talking sports, and caring about sports, well worth the otherwise insane amount of time and energy we devote to it.
Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner?
We could get like 2,000 consecutive quality hours of sports-talk-radio programming out of a question like that. But I decided to do even better. I fired that question at 16 baseball executives and scouts. And why not? The heck with how we would answer a question like that. How would they answer it?
So these were the rules: They could pick only one ace to build their rotation around for the next five years. And they couldn't use dollars in their deliberations.
This was a pure baseball decision. Cy Young (at age 26) or Mr. October (at age 25)? Which ace would they take if they could take only one?
And the answer -- even after a postseason in which Bumgarner was, basically, Michael Jordan -- was ... surprise, or maybe not ...
Clayton Kershaw. Going away. The results, with all precincts reporting:
• 12 votes - Kershaw
• 2 votes - Bumgarner
• 1 vote - Kershaw for the next five years, Bumgarner for the next 15
• 1 vote - Kershaw to win a game tonight, Bumgarner to win the World Series
It's so easy to get caught up in the moment after any player does what Bumgarner did this October. You watch a man take the entire Giants team, hitch it to his back bumper and almost single-handedly lug it into a sea of ticker tape, and your instinct is to say: "I'll take that."
But the baseball men who cast their votes for the Dodgers' ace reminded us of something we should never forget:
Never make any major decision based on what you saw over a week or even a month in October. Make that decision based on the biggest picture you can hang on your wall. And we heard that logic from this group over and over:
• "I know Bumgarner is the flavor of the month," said an AL executive. "But over the long haul, you've got to go with Kershaw."
• "As easy as it is to love Madison Bumgarner -- which is really easy -- and as easy as it is to get caught up in the tidal wave of 'best postseason performers of all time' labels -- which is legit -- I would have to take Kershaw," said an AL GM. "Bumgarner is a true ace, top-of-the-rotation starter who has been a rock star in the postseason. Clayton Kershaw has simply been the best starter of his generation, and there's no reason to expect that will change in the near future."
• "For the body of his work and the consistency of his work, I think Kershaw is the best," said an NL scout. "The body of Kershaw's work outweighs the greatness of Bumgarner in October, even though all of us would love to have both of them."
• "I look at performance and results," said an NL exec. "And it's Kershaw, because he's done over the last four years what Bumgarner just did over the last four weeks. It's big sample versus little sample. It's a no-brainer."
Well, it might not be a no-brainer, judging by the toll this question took on my brain cells. But if you look at that big sample, it's hard to argue. Just check out the records of each ace since Bumgarner entered the Giants' rotation on June 26, 2010:
• Kershaw: 78-32, 2.17 ERA, 143 starts, 1,008 IP, 737 hits, 1,057 strikeouts
• Bumgarner: 67-49, 3.07 ERA, 147 starts, 942.2 IP, 844 hits, 886 strikeouts
Not to mention that, by the end of next week, Kershaw will own three Cy Young trophies over that span. So comparing those two track records pretty much ends this debate. Except ...
That wasn't the question.
The question was which guy you'd take over the next five seasons, not the past five. So the Bumgarner supporters in this field -- well, both of them -- had plenty of ammunition. But their reasoning couldn't have been more different.
One AL exec admitted he'd changed his mind based almost entirely on what Bumgarner did in October and, especially, in the World Series.
"Bumgarner showed me a combination of stuff, command, competitiveness, feel and durability that isn't often equaled," the exec said. "He also showed the ability to make an adjustment from a high-percentage fastball guy in his first outing [of that World Series] to a guy who mixed pitches and got ahead and then expertly expanded the zone in his next two outings. Just unbeatable on multiple nights, on the biggest stage. So it would be hard to go with anyone but him."
But the other Bumgarner voter was an NL executive with a totally different take. Which of these two men is most likely to hold up over the next five years and beyond, when you consider every possible factor? Easy answer, he said: Madison Bumgarner.
Why? Because Kershaw's delivery is so max-effort, for one thing. Because he's a starter who's pitching every inning as if he's a closer, trying "to dominate every hitter, every pitch, every inning," the exec said. "And guys don't last who do that."
The same exec also worries about the expectations heaped on Kershaw every time he goes out there, feeling the load of an environment where "162-and-0 is the expectation" for his team. That's a burden, the exec said, "that takes its toll on young pitchers."
But Bumgarner, he said, was allowed to ease into being an ace, without those expectations. He also has a less stressful delivery, with "a tall back side and a low arm slot" that are likely to wear well. And when you combine that with an almost unflappable demeanor, "you say, 'This guy should last forever. ... He does it easy.'"
Ah, but no one lasts forever, except maybe Mark Buehrle. And Bumgarner just heaped 42 2/3 extra postseason innings on top of 217 1/3 regular-season innings. So speculating on which guy is most likely to break down is a dangerous gig.
And the Kershaw voters also remind us that their man "just has more out pitches," as another AL exec put it, "more weapons that I see as clear separators for continued dominance." So if this is a stuff-versus-stuff duel, it's hard not to take Kershaw. Except it's not. There's more to it. There's always more to it.
"I'll be honest," said an NL scout who split his vote. "The guy I'd least want to face is Kershaw. He's so dominating, he's so prepared, he has such good stuff, if you're asking me which guy I don't want to face if I need to win Tuesday, I'd say Kershaw, because he just has better stuff than anyone.
"But," the same scout went on, "if you add in that other element, that who-do-you-want-to-be-The-Man-in-October element, then right now there's no way I can say anybody but Bumgarner, because he was The Man."
Oh yeah. He was The Man, all right. And he sure picked the right month to be The Man. But that brings us back to where we started. Should we be making this call based on how these two men have fared in October, when there are all those other months to consider?
Well, that's the kind of thing WE do -- those of us on the outside. We make judgments, develop narratives, define legacies based on the biggest month of the year. And it's a month that's warping our view of Clayton Kershaw. But should it?
His worst postseason moments have all come against one team, remember. So is it fair to base our perception of whether Clayton Kershaw can handle October on his troubles just against the Cardinals?
"I don't think that's fair," said an NL exec. "There are so many factors. Maybe the Cardinals have something on him. It seems like it. But that's something we won't know until years go by."
And in the meantime, we'll make our own judgments. Won't we? We'll look at Kershaw versus the Cardinals the way we look at Manning versus Brady, or Federer versus Nadal. And we'll never wonder how different their legacies might look if those men hadn't kept running into their Kryptonite, because they have. Constantly.
In the meantime, we haven't found Madison Bumgarner's Kryptonite. So we'll go by what we've seen in those unforgettable Octobers of his. But the men who run baseball teams get paid to look beyond the stuff we look at. And their votes are telling us something. So ...
Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner?
"Reminds me of that old question, 'What would you take, a Milky Way Dark Chocolate or Reese's Peanut Butter Cup?'" said one AL exec, "I'll take both, thank you."