$10,000 A Pitch: The Clayton Kershaw Deal

http://www.thechiefly.com/features/analyzing-the-clayton-kershaw-deal/

What do you get when you combine the best pitcher in the game, the Los Angeles Dodgers and their seemingly unlimited budget, and the free-flowing cash that permeates throughout Major League Baseball? You get Clayton Kershaw’s seven-year, $215 million contract extension, by far the biggest deal ever handed out to a pitcher. (The previous record-holder was Justin Verlander and his seven-year, $180 million pact signed last year.)

Kershaw’s newly-minted deal, which is actually not expected to be made official until Friday, will pay him an average of $30.7 million annually. There’s reportedly a clause in the deal that will allow Kershaw to opt-out after five years and enter free agency in the 2018-’19 offseason. Kershaw was entering his final arbitration-eligible season in 2014 and would have hit free agency next year had the Dodgers not inked him to a long-term deal.

Just how good is he?

The left-handed Kershaw, who has drawn comparisons to former Dodgers’ great Sandy Koufax since his rookie year, has won two National League Cy Young awards in the last three seasons. He’s also won the MLB ERA crown for three consecutive years, the NL strikeout title in 2011 and 2013 (he missed by a single whiff in 2012), and he’s quickly developed into a perennial 33-start, 230-inning workhorse thanks to a near unblemished injury track-record.

Oh, yeah — he doesn’t turn 26 years old until spring training. Kershaw’s numbers, since his first full season in 2009, show just how dominant he’s been in his relatively young career:

Year Innings ERA Strikeout % Walk % HR % ERA+
2009 171.0 2.79 26.4 13.0 1.0 143
2010 204.3 2.91 25.0 9.6 1.5 133
2011 233.3 2.28 27.2 5.9 1.6 161
2012 227.7 2.53 25.4 7.0 1.8 150
2013 236.0 1.83 25.6 5.7 1.2 194
Career 1180.0 2.60 25.4 8.3 1.5 146

Statistics from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs

Just how many pitchers, you ask, have been that good through their age-25 season?

According to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, among pitchers with at least 1000 innings pitched through their age-25 season, only legendary dead-ballers Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood have bettered Kershaw’s 146 ERA+ (176 and 150, respectively). Kershaw ranks ahead of more contemporary greats like Rogers Clemens (141), Tom Seaver (141), Bert Blyleven (132), and Felix Hernandez (128). If you sort by Wins Above Replacement, Kershaw ranks 10th all-time under these parameters, punished only for the fact that hurlers simply don’t throw 300-plus innings anymore.

Kershaw works primarily with a four-seam fastball, slider, curve ball, and the occasional change-up. The graph below, from Brooks Baseball/Baseball Prospectus, shows how his pitch usage has developed over the years.

ClaytonKershawPitchChart

Kershaw was primarily a two-pitch pitcher during his rookie season and into the early part of ‘09. He relied on an excellent fastball and a devastating curve, but such a limited repertoire leaves little to the big-league hitter’s imagination. Kershaw’s development of a nasty slider gave batters three potential out pitches to worry about, and helped him develop into the dominant starter he is today. For your viewing pleasure:

But what about the money?

$215 million is a lot of dough, especially for a pitcher. Unlike their position-player brethren, pitchers are generally more prone to catastrophic injuries to the elbow and shoulder, which can, at best, put them on the disabled list for an extended period. At worst, after the long stints to the DL, the pitcher returns as a shell of his former self.

Tim Lincecum had a Kershaw-esque start to his career, but he hasn’t approached a league-average ERA over the last two years. (And he hasn’t even had to deal with serious injury problems). Mark Mulder looked like a longtime ace after his age-25 season, but he’d go on to have only two more decent seasons before succumbing to shoulder injuries. (Mulder’s trying to make a comeback). Matt Harvey, one of last year’s lone bright spots for the New York Mets, was shutdown in late-August and underwent Tommy John surgery in October. He won’t throw another major-league pitch until 2015.

Any amount of anecdotal evidence doesn’t change the idea that pitchers are, in general, a risky bunch. Sure, you can point to many pitchers that remain durable and effective, avoiding the injury bug that bites so many promising arms. (Justin Verlander, for example, just keeps on rollin’ along.) Good luck picking them out of the bunch. The ominous injury cloud lurks over every pitching mound and it makes dealing with ace-level hurlers in contract negotiations an affair not for the faint of heart.

The more unpredictable career-path of pitchers is why most of MLB’s biggest contracts have been handed out to position players, like the 10-year, $240 million deal second basemen Robinson Cano signed this offseason with Seattle. In fact, nine out of the 10 biggest deals in major-league history belong to hitters, with Kershaw’s still unofficial deal now 6th on the list. Verlander’s seven-year, $170 million deal is actually tied for 10th, and Felix Hernandez’s seven-year, $165 million deal is 12th all-time.

Kershaw has a couple of things going for him, though. One, as we’ve already mentioned, he’s in the very upper echelon of major-league starters. Not just in current day MLB, but ever (through age-25). He’s been remarkably consistent, effective, and durable and he doesn’t have any serious injury warts on his resume. Two, he’s still extremely young and while that doesn’t exempt him from potential future injury, it certainly doesn’t hurt. When the Detroit Tigers signed Verlander to his mega extension prior to the 2013 season, he had just turned 30 years old.

The good news for the Dodgers is that seven years and $215 million, believe it or not, isn’t an outlandish amount for the game’s best pitcher. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs conveniently enough wrote an article on Kershaw’s value prior to the reports of his extension Wednesday, estimating that, based on his projected performance and the rising cost of a marginal win over the next seven years, Kershaw is worth something like 7/$230 on the open market. After the deal was announced, Cameron later concluded that, perhaps, Kershaw took a little off the average annual value of his deal to gain the five-year opt-out clause, which seems about right.

For now, LA has its man locked up. The Dodgers can pencil in Clayton Kershaw as their ace for the foreseeable future, and with a star-studded supporting cast and endless resources, they have positioned themselves as a perennial NL contender.

The early Kershaw-Koufax comparisons may have looked overly bold – okay, crazy — five or six years ago. Sure, Kershaw shared Koufax’s left-handedness, wore the same uniform, and had an impressive curve ball, but comparing a prospect or young major-leaguer to baseball royalty always seems to highlight our anxiousness to anoint the next superstar more than anything else. Usually our expectations aren’t met.

Kershaw’s last few years are starting to resemble what a modern day Koufax run (1962-1966 version) might look like. For the Dodgers, and certainly Kershaw, they hope the dominance doesn’t come to such an abrupt end.

Dustin Palmateer

Dustin Palmateer

Dustin Palmateer

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