Less than a week ago, Clayton Kershaw had to worry about every single pitch he was throwing in the World Series. And then after he threw most of those pitches well, but some of those pitches not well enough, he had to worry about the future of his career. Kershaw had to decide whether to opt out of his existing contract, which promised him $65 million over the next two years. If you’ve stayed in touch with baseball at all this week, you knew Kershaw and the Dodgers had moved the decision point to Friday. Decision’s been made. Kershaw will stay in LA, and he’s effectively getting a one-year extension.
Kershaw breakdown: $31M in 2019, ‘20 and ‘21, plus $1M each for 24 starts, 26 starts, 28 starts, 30 starts. Also gets $1.5M for Cy Young, $500K for second- or third-place finish.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 2, 2018
Instead of two years and $65 million, Kershaw’s contract has been reworked to three years and $93 million, with some achievable bonuses. This doesn’t guarantee that Kershaw will stay with the Dodgers for the rest of his life, but it’s a major step in that direction, since when this is over Kershaw will be approaching 34 years old. This was the clearest opportunity for Kershaw to leave. The opportunity wasn’t seized, and while I have no specific rooting interest, I’m rather pleased about that.
There was a chance this wasn’t going to happen. Now, I’m asking you to rewind a ways, but imagine if Kershaw had gotten to this point while he was still pitching close to his best. Imagine if he got here and deciding whether to opt out was obvious. Then Kershaw would’ve been more inclined to test the free-agent market. And, who knows how the free-agent market would’ve responded to an available Clayton Kershaw, pitching near his highest level? I know there was interest elsewhere in the league in trying to knock Kershaw’s socks off. Offer him a contract that would look absolutely bananas, the kind of contract the Dodgers wouldn’t want to match. Maybe it would’ve been smart, and maybe it would’ve been stupid, but it would’ve made a statement, and it would’ve changed the game. It would’ve changed Kershaw’s uniform. And then reality happened. Forgive this weird and ugly plot.
What’s shown here, you already understood. Not that long ago, Kershaw was clearly the best pitcher in baseball. Then he started missing time due to injury. His fastball velocity has dropped. His strikeout rate has dropped. Interestingly, his slider and curveball velocities haven’t dropped — not sure how to explain those — but Kershaw’s no longer on the summit, if you will. Navigate around Twitter and it won’t take you more than a few seconds to find people mocking Kershaw’s present condition. He’s trash. He’s a loser. He’ll never get it back. The point has nothing to do with the explicit critiques — people on Twitter are stupid. But Kershaw’s declined. There’s no arguing that Kershaw’s declined. The Dodgers have guaranteed $93 million to a declining starting pitcher.
For Kershaw’s part, he realizes his stuff is down. He’s vowed to try to get his velocity back. That’s fine. There’s some chance he’ll succeed. There’s a greater chance he won’t. Velocity mostly trends in one direction. But if we can just put him in context for a second — Kershaw’s gotten worse, but it’s just as important to remember that, at his peak, he was unparalleled. Someone that great can afford to give up a little ground. Here are some of Kershaw’s percentile rankings among starters over the past four years:
In 2015, Kershaw was amazing. In 2016, he was amazing. In 2017, he was still mostly amazing. In 2018, he was mortal, but he was still tremendously good. Don’t lose sight of that. For all the talk about how Kershaw’s stuff has gone backwards — and it has — in the most recent regular season, when he could pitch, he was greatly successful. Who’s the best free-agent starting pitcher on the market? Patrick Corbin? Would you rather have Patrick Corbin or Clayton Kershaw? Corbin’s got his own yellow flags. His track record isn’t even in the same universe as Kershaw’s. This is a good pitcher. A good pitcher the Dodgers still have.
Now, is Kershaw a $93 million over three years pitcher? Based on cold, analytical formulas, he’s probably not. That’s a lot of money for a 91 mile-per-hour fastball. That’s a lot of money for a pitcher becoming accustomed to the disabled list. Back problems tend not to get better with age, and we know that even the best big-league pitchers can fire only so many bullets. If you caught Andrew Friedman in a moment of total honesty, he might admit that this is an overpay. I think that’s significant, for the statement being made.
I should acknowledge, first of all, that an overpay hurts the Dodgers less than it would hurt, say, the Brewers. Almost no other team could match the Dodgers’ spending power. There’s no getting around the fact that that’s part of this. But you know much of the Dodgers’ front office has backgrounds with lower-budget ballclubs. You know the Dodgers haven’t made a habit of acting irresponsibly. In recent years, for the most part, the Dodgers have been guided by those cold, analytical formulas. They’ve acted like the Rays, but with three times the payroll. The Dodgers have made a point of trying to win every transaction.
That’s not unique to them. That’s the way the game has been going. And more recently, at least online, a conversation has bubbled to the surface, regarding whether the information age has helped or hurt the baseball product. Is baseball better for bullpenning? Is baseball better for all the shifts? Is baseball better for the death of the sacrifice bunt? What do we make of all of these strikeouts? The game has prioritized trying to win. That’s good — all fans want their teams to win — but there have been side effects. There’s been less room for emotion. There’s been less consideration of sentiment. Teams have worshiped at the altar of efficiency and surplus value, and certain elements have fallen by the wayside.
Clayton Kershaw wearing a Dodgers uniform doesn’t make a difference in the projections. I mean, the Dodgers project better, but the projections wouldn’t treat Kershaw differently if he pitched in Miami or Boston. The argument in favor of giving Kershaw a little too much money has little to do with statistics. It has almost everything to do with the Kershaw story. The story from the start to the hopeful finish. Kershaw was drafted by the Dodgers in 2006. He debuted with the Dodgers in 2008. He’s pitched for the Dodgers in eight separate playoffs. He’ll one day be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I don’t know if Kershaw is the Dodgers, but he’s been the face of the ballclub. The only ballclub he’s ever known.
Among all active players, only Felix Hernandez has a higher total of plate appearances or batters faced while playing for only one team. With the Mariners, Felix has faced 10,958 batters. With the Dodgers, Kershaw has faced 8,252. Now, that’s a big gap, but this sort of career is a rarity. Seldom does baseball get the one-team superstar. I think everybody, to a person, wishes there were *more* one-team superstars, but it always makes sense when someone makes a change. Maybe a team was stuck in the basement. Maybe the player wanted to exercise his right to explore the market. It’s good that players aren’t trapped. But I also know how Yankees fans revere Derek Jeter. I know how Padres fans revere Tony Gwynn. I know how Orioles fans revere Cal Ripken, and I know how Mariners fans revere Edgar Martinez. You can still love a player who played for another team, but there isn’t the same kind of purity. The story of Ripken and the Orioles — it’s completely their own. The highs, the lows, and everything in the middle.
This was shaping up to be an interesting test of the Dodgers’ front office. Everything up there is an appeal to the softer side of the game. It’s not about maximizing payroll efficiency. How much would they allow that to factor into their calculations? Kershaw is still good, which helps, but what kind of value would the Dodgers put on the *story* of baseball, versus just the daily realities? Versus just the statistics? Perhaps the front office ultimately had little to do with this; maybe ownership simply insisted that Kershaw not leave. I don’t know. But baseball, I believe, is better with Clayton Kershaw wearing Dodger blue. Even if it’s not the most optimal use of resources. Baseball is bigger than optimized spending.
It might be instructive to consider how things have gone for Felix in Seattle. These days, they’re not going well. A lot of fans think they’re ready to see him go. Kershaw might end up in the same kind of place. But for one thing, Kershaw is presently the far better pitcher. And for another, we can’t yet judge the value of the fact that Felix is still a Mariner. It’s one of those things we’ll better understand in 10 or 20 years. Felix is struggling, but it’s different from how it would be if he were struggling with another team. That emotional connection wouldn’t exist. Mariners fans have gotten to live every day of Felix’s major-league life. Once that isn’t true, there’s no going back. It’s a story Seattle can call its own.
And the Kershaw story belongs to Kershaw, and to Los Angeles. Maybe he’s sufficiently determined to make the right adjustments. Maybe he will get his velocity back. Seems like a good role model. Definitely a good human. Kershaw might still bounce back as a pitcher. Even if he doesn’t, though, that’s not all that matters. Kershaw will be remembered for far longer than he’s watched.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.