Kershaw Returns to Los Angeles on One-Year Deal

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On October 1, in the 160th game of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2021 season, Clayton Kershaw faced 10 Milwaukee Brewers batters and recorded just five outs. He didn’t look right, and it would soon be revealed that he was experiencing left forearm discomfort. Three weeks later, the Dodgers watched from the dugout as the Atlanta Braves celebrated winning the National League pennant. It marked the conclusion of a disappointing postseason run that did not feature an appearance from Los Angeles’ rotation stalwart.

The public speculation about his future began. Was that the last time we would see Kershaw in Dodger blue? Would the proud Texan and dedicated family man decide to spend the latter part of his career with his hometown Rangers? As it turns out, the answer to both of those questions was “no.” On Friday afternoon, the pitcher signed a one-year deal to return to the only team he’s ever known, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. He’ll receive a base salary of $17 million, with incentives that could get him closer to the $20 million-plus AAV most projected for him.

Few in the history of the game can match Kershaw’s five-season run from 2011-15, when he won a trio of Cy Young Awards (he also boasted second and third place finishes during that stretch) while accumulating 37.1 WAR. He isn’t that pitcher anymore — expecting him to be would be foolish — but even the late-career version of Kershaw is still damn good, and he deserves credit for adapting his game over time.

Kershaw’s arsenal isn’t complicated, consisting primarily of fastballs and sliders, with the occasional curve. (While Kershaw has a changeup, its use is exceptionally rare, to the point where he will sometimes go entire starts without throwing one at all.) In his prime, Kershaw sat 93-95 mph with his fastball and could reach back for a few extra ticks when the situation called for it; these days, he’s more 89-92. That kind of velocity drop can end careers, but Kershaw’s heater remains highly effective due to a combination of plus-plus command and one of the more beneficial fastball shapes around, as it features excellent hop and near 12:00 vertical shape.

From there, Kershaw dips into his breaking balls, which he throws more than half of the time. Like his fastball, his upper-80s slider is unique for several reasons. With such a small velocity differential between it and his fastball, the slider is exceptionally difficult to identify out of the hand, and its late, diving action often leaves opposing hitters swinging on top of it. As for his curveball, it’s one of the deepest in baseball as measured by vertical movement. Its extreme break is almost too much, as it makes it difficult to land in the zone, meaning Kershaw can really only use it as a chase pitch.

Age and workload (he threw 1,128 innings, or more than 225 per season, during that 2011-15 stretch and turns 34 this month) have caught up to Kershaw in recent years, and he’s spent time on the injured list due to issues with his back and shoulder, as well as 2021’s elbow problems, which cost him two months and required a platelet-rich plasma injection last October. That means that while Kershaw can still provide quality innings, he’s not likely to throw as many of them as he once did, and his recent health track record seems likely to have been what limited Los Angeles’ offer to one year.

As for where he fits with the 2022 Dodgers, Kershaw will assume one of three set-in-stone rotation spots, along with Walker Buehler and Julio Urías. That trio would make most playoff teams jealous, but in order to get to those playoffs, the club will need to shore up the last two starter slots. Buehler, Urías and Kershaw can only reasonably be expected to start somewhere around half of the team’s games, which leaves half a season of starts going to the likes Tony Gonsolin and Andrew Heaney and likely means the Dodgers will look to add at least one more dependable starter before the season kicks off. (On Friday, MLB placed Trevor Bauer on administrative leave through March 19; the league’s investigation into allegations of assault against the pitcher is ongoing, and could still result in a suspension.)

All of the worries about the end of Kershaw’s Dodgers career were for naught, at least for another year, and if he continues to post seasons in line with what we saw in 2021, there are likely to be more short-term contracts with the team that drafted him in his future. Provided he stays relatively healthy, that means Kershaw, who is on pace to register his 200th win and 3000th strikeout by late 2023 or early ’24, could celebrate those milestones in Dodger blue.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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10 months ago

Good news for LAD! Kershaw in any other uniform would just seem absurd. Fair deal considering injury risk, with a little incentive baked in.

Maybe Kershaw will have a tip or two for Maddux Bruns. No way anyone can be expected to emulate Clayton. Bruns does have a lot of upside though. Definitely looking forward to Dodgers prospect list!