Clayton Kershaw Set To Return to Dodgers on One-Year Deal

Clayton Kershaw
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Another solid pitcher has come off the free agent list on Thursday evening, as Clayton Kershaw is apparently close to a return to the Dodgers on a one-year contract. No financial terms have yet been revealed, but I would expect that the bottom-line figure is similar to the $17 million he made last year, or just a few million dollars more. The team didn’t extend him a qualifying offer, but that may reflect less on what the dollar figure is and more on the fact that he is Los Angeles’ longest-tenured player and a crucial part of the franchise’s history. Bouncing back from an elbow injury that ended his 2021 before the playoffs, Kershaw returned to his usual late-career form, with a 2.28 ERA and 2.57 FIP over 22 starts, good enough for 3.8 WAR and to make him the starting pitcher for the National League in the All-Star Game.

Kershaw has attained the service time and respect with the organization that he’s now one of those players who, as long as he wants to keep returning, can likely receive endless contracts, a status similar to that earned by players such as Adam Wainwright and David Ortiz in recent years. While he avoided a recurrence of the dreaded flexor tendon soreness from 2021, his ongoing back problems limited him to 126 1/3 innings, an expectation that seems likely to repeat going forward. Since leading the league with 232 2/3 innings in 2015, he has only been healthy enough to qualify for the ERA title twice in the last seven seasons. The bigger question wasn’t whether Kershaw would be back in Dodger blue but whether he would be back at all; the general consensus has been that he would either return to the Dodgers, go to his hometown Rangers, or retire.

2023 ZiPS Projection – Clayton Kershaw
2023 10 5 3.41 22 22 121.3 107 46 17 25 129 122 2.3

2023 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Clayton Kershaw
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 197 2.11 4.1
90% 167 2.49 3.5
80% 147 2.82 3.1
70% 138 3.01 2.8
60% 129 3.22 2.6
50% 122 3.41 2.3
40% 111 3.73 2.0
30% 105 3.96 1.7
20% 97 4.30 1.4
10% 89 4.68 1.0
5% 81 5.13 0.6

ZiPS suggests a one-year, $17.6 million contract or a two-year, $31.8 million deal, so the projection is likely in the same zip code, if not the same neighborhood.

If he wasn’t before, Kershaw is officially in the “crafty veteran lefty with moxie” portion of his career. Though he was never really a flamethrower at his peak, he’s lost about four mph off his best velocities, and as a result, the four-seamer is more of a change-of-pace pitch than anything at this point. There were 225 pitchers in 2022 who had a four-seamer as the final pitch in at least 100 plate appearances, and Kershaw had the second-lowest swing-and-miss percentage at 9.9%, better than only Spenser Watkins. That’s rate just about half most of the rest of his career. His slider is only a couple ticks slower than his fastball, and he’s primarily become a curve-and-slider pitcher these days.

There’s little doubt that the yearly retirement rumors are at least partially driven by the fact that Kershaw has likely hit most, if not all, of his potential career milestones. He has his three Cy Young awards and an MVP trophy and got his World Series ring in 2020. He will likely collect win no. 200 sometime early in 2023 and strike out his 3,000th batter should he return in 2024, if the latter even matters to him at all. He was his generation’s likeliest challenger for the 300-win threshold, with ZiPS generally projecting him to finish with 260–290 wins throughout most of his prime. But that pace has slowed down considerably; he’s only won 99 games in eight years, despite excellent pitching, and I can’t see him hanging around anywhere near as long as would be required for another 100.

If he chooses to play out the full rest of his career, ZiPS now projects Kershaw to finish at 240–123 with 3,411 strikeouts in 3,200 innings, good for 79.8 WAR. Since ZiPS now natively projects JAWS, this career line would give him 63.8 JAWS, enough to move him up to 21st in major league history. Truth be told, he should make the Hall now, with 73.4 WAR and ranking 24th in JAWS, and if he struggles to make the 75% threshold quickly, I’m definitely going to throw an unfortunate temper tantrum or two on Twitter (or its successor) in six or seven years. Obviously, he’ll be a checkmark on my ballot.

Bringing back Kershaw for another season is more than an exercise in nostalgia for the Dodgers, as his return solidifies a rotation with several questions. If you check the Roster Resource page for the Dodgers, Ryan Pepiot and Michael Grove project as the fourth and fifth starter based just on who is currently signed to a contract. There was little chance of that actually coming to pass, and with Julio Urías a free agent after next season and Walker Buehler out for 2023 with Tommy John surgery, penciling in Kershaw for 25 solid starts is highly useful. Even the Dodgers don’t treat their payroll as unlimited, and they can now more comfortably commit more long-term dollars elsewhere this offseason, whether it’s to extend Urías or go after one of the prizes in a relatively thin market for starting pitchers.

The Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw are better together, so it’s nice to see him back for at least one more year in LA. The Dodgers have a lot more to do this offseason, but it’s nice that replacing their most significant starting pitcher since Sandy Koufax has been crossed off the to-do list.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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12 to sixmember
1 year ago

thank goodness.

leaving aside that ck and the dodgers staying together makes baseball “better”, the “sunday starter” era of his career has resulted in 28-13 and a 2.76 era over 306ip while still at over 10ks/9. that’s a hell of a sunday if you can get it.

basically, kershaw is what koufax more or less would have been if koufax were willing to become a sunday starter vs. outright retiring – the similarities are pretty wild.

three years ago you could make an argument that kershaw was perhaps the best sp in baseball history – it probably wasn’t a winning argument, but it wasn’t a *bad* argument either (and peak performance i think he remains in the conversation). i think that’s probably gone now, but he belongs with the dodgers and is emblematic of professionalism and dedication in today’s game – as you note, the team and ck are better together.

1 year ago
Reply to  12 to six

I’m not sure how he’s better than Pedro Martinez in either Peak or Career but there’s probably an argument for it

1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Pedro’s stats when compared to league average are almost not fair when compared to much more hitter unfriendly environments. There’s only so much a pitcher can logically do to be better and Pedro had all that space to do it that other guys didn’t.

Please don’t hit me. Pedro is amazing. His era matters. But when it comes to league+ stats, I think you’re better off when your league sucks at what you do. I think there’s something to that.

1 year ago
Reply to  12 to six

if you look at pedros 92-06 and kershaw’s 08-22, there’s only a difference of 4 points in ERA+ and 4 IP per season. remarkably similar

1 year ago
Reply to  12 to six

Even if we’re ignoring Clemens, the Big Unit and his 110 WAR might dispute that. Can we say “among the best”?

Randy put up over 45 WAR from ’98 to ’02. Kershaw never had any season as good as Randy’s average season in that stretch.

Last edited 1 year ago by cowdisciple
1 year ago
Reply to  12 to six

If we’re debating the “best” starting pitcher (and best peak, too, which obviously is related) I’m going to put down my marker for Randy Johnson. On the numbers, you can make an argument for several pre-integration names and the steroid-tainted Roger Clemens but the real debate is between Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson, and Pedro.

But if you take 1951 to the present: Randy Johnson put up 110.5 fWAR and 103.5 bWAR and he had 7 seasons (comprising his peak) that you can put up against anyone in that era (1995, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004), totaling 61.5 bWAR and 63.7 fWAR. That’s insane, and it doesn’t even include his 1993 (7.0 fWAR, 6.6 bWAR) or 1998 (7.6 fWAR, 5.7 bWAR), or 2005 (4.1 fWAR, 5.8 bWAR).

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

You could probably add Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton in there, but pretty much. Kershaw’s fantastic and a slam dunk hall of famer, but he isn’t on the “best pitcher ever” short list.

Also a nod to “Circle Me” Bert Blyleven, who somehow struggled to make the Hall despite being one of eight pitchers to exceed 100 WAR.

Last edited 1 year ago by cowdisciple
1 year ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

Blyleven props = automatic +1 from me. I still have no idea how he doesn’t get his due.

12 to sixmember
1 year ago
Reply to  12 to six

its an entirely speculative argument, and as much watching him and the “i just don’t know how you hit this guy” reaction as stats.

using seven consecutive years as an entirely and wholly arbitrary period:

ck ’11-17 118-41, 2.10, 179 era+ 47 war

johnson ’98-04 122-60, 2.74, 168 era+ 53.8 war

pedro ’97-03 118-36, 2.10, 213 era+(!) 57.3 war

lefty grove ’27-33 172-54, 2.74, 159 era+, 58.8 war

clemens ’86-92 136-63, 2.66, 160 era+, 58.1 war

maddux ’92-98 127-53, 2.15, 190 era+, 54.7 war

seaver ’69-75 136-71, 2.46, 146 era+, 53 war

gibson ’64-70 138-72, 2.52, 143 era+, 51.4 war

there’s a few others – scherzer from 13-19 is a bit behind kershaw and chris sale had a stunningly great seven years before his injury woes.

verlander, carlton, and ryan are similar – great long careers, but they all had a couple of bumps in the middle of their best runs which knocks them back.

blyleven’s best seven are the first seven years of his career – basically .500 (shocker), but a 2.80 era and just under 44 war.

as i said: (i) i don’t know that ck wins, but he’s in the conversation; and (ii) arbitrary, but fun.