Why the Dodgers had to sign Kershaw and why they will also regret it
By Dan Holmes February 27, 2019
He’s the Claw, the most iconic pitcher to toe the rubber for the Dodgers since Sandy Koufax.
Clayton Kershaw is a future Hall of Fame pitcher, one of the greatest pitchers in history despite one of the goofiest and ugliest deliveries we’ve ever seen on the mound.
This past off-season, the Los Angeles Dodgers inked the three-time Cy Young Award winner to a three year, $93 million contract that makes him a Dodger through the 2021 season.
One has to look only as far as [still unemployed] Bryce Harper to see how baseball’s open market has changed. There was a time when a young ballplayer like Harper would have been gobbled up by a free-spending team for hundreds of millions of dollars. But in an unusual display of common sense not normally seen from executives, teams are trusting analytical data which indicates that high-priced, long term free agent contracts are risky at best. Financial responsibility has come to baseball! Somewhere George Steinbrenner’s grave spins like a Kershaw curveball.
But the Dodgers had to sign Kershaw, and it was a wise decision, at least from one perspective.
Which brings me to the second part of this article. The regret side. Yes, keeping Kershaw in LA blue was a great legacy move, a great non-baseball move. You secure the franchise icon for three more years. But, it was also an unwise financial investment.
Before I explain why, let me admit that the Dodgers won’t suffer from having signed Kershaw, even if what I think will happen, indeed happens. Their treasure is deep and their commitment to winning is unsurpassed in the sport.
Signing Kershaw was a bad idea from a performance standpoint because this is a fragile athlete. The lefthander shows all the signs of a guy who will peter out in his thirties.
When he debuted as a bushy-haired, clean-shaven rookie in 2008, Kershaw slipped into a veteran rotation and pitched well enough to stick for 21 starts. He pitched out of the bullpen in the playoffs, but in 2009 he was in the rotation for good, making 30 starts. It was the first of ten consecutive seasons where Kershaw posted an ERA under three.
When he was 26, Kershaw won his third Cy Young Award when he pitched as well as he ever has. But that year (2014) the lefthander missed six starts with elbow tightness. That was just the beginning of his injury troubles.
Over the last five seasons, the ace of the Dodgers has missed a total of 30 starts. He’s only had one season since 2013 where he did not spend time out of the LA rotation due to injury.
A few days ago the Dodgers revealed that Kershaw has a sore shoulder. The face of their franchise, their ace, their highest-paid employee, he’s on the sidelines. Will he need to go under the knife? Is it career-threatening? We won’t know for a while.
Over the last five years, Kershaw has averaged 183 innings per season, He’s missed an average of six starts per season due to arm or other problems.
With those injuries has come caution. In the last three seasons (2016-18) Kershaw has pitched fewer than eight innings in 61 of his 74 starts (82%). Compare that to the rest of his career (2008-2015) when he pitched fewer than eight innings in 54% of his starts. In 2018, Kershaw only pitched into the seventh inning in 11 of his 31 starts, counting the postseason. A workhorse he is not.
Contrast that with Justin Verlander, who has averaged 32 starts and 211 innings per season since his rookie year. Verlander has missed only 12 starts in his entire career, all of them coming in one season. Although he is five years older than Kershaw, last season Verlander worked fewer than eight innings in only 54% of his starts and is able to drive deep into games when needed.
What’s the cost of Kershaw to your team? It goes beyond the millions of dollars and cents. Since he’s now basically an 18-out pitcher, that means the bullpen will be stretched to perform three innings of work at the back end of his games. In a 162-game season, that has an impact.
In March, Kershaw will turn 31. How likely is it, given his injury woes the last several seasons, that he will be healthy through this three-year contract and (potentially) beyond? The answer to that question is why the Dodgers will eventually have some pangs of buyer’s remorse.
A 23 or 24-start Kershaw is better than most starting pitchers in baseball. His presence on the Dodgers is important for the franchise, the fans, and baseball history. But with an arm injury already in his first spring camp after re-signing with the club, it’s likely that over the next three years we’ll be talking less about his brilliance and more about what Clayton Kershaw is not doing on the field.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.