Dodgers’ pending free agents, Part IV: Clayton Kershaw

3 weeks ago 15

Editor’s note: This is the Thursday Sept. 23 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter from reporter J.P. Hoornstra. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.


When the media crowded into rooms for press conferences, way back in 2018, I can remember sitting behind a television reporter prior to a postseason game at Dodger Stadium. Clayton Kershaw was five years into his seven-year contract with the Dodgers. Once the postseason ended, Kershaw could exercise an opt-out clause in his contract. This reporter,speaking casually, said Kershaw was going to opt out and sign with his hometown Texas Rangers. He spoke as if it was a done deal, a mere matter of time. Fatalistic fans routinely utter the same thoughts tinged with frustration. This reporter was dropping “knowledge” as if he was ordering brunch.

Three years later, Kershaw is still a Dodger. Now 33, he’s adapted better than most to the rigors of age. His fastball velocity in 2021 (90.7 mph) is unchanged from 2018 (90.8). His slider, long his best pitch, is now the pitch he throws the most. Injuries to his shoulder, elbow and back have kept Kershaw from bearing a full starter’s load since the Dodgers extended his contract, but he’s still managed to throw 352 1/3 innings the last three years — more than all but 40 pitchers, excluding the postseason. Last but not least, Kershaw helped the Dodgers end their 32-year World Series drought in October.

In a way, the Dodgers’ ability to win a championship with Kershaw playing the role of “co-ace” makes it easier to see him re-signing after this season. A front office can justify spending ace money on Kershaw if it already has enough aces to win a championship. Last year, a rotation of Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urías and a Tony Gonsolin/Dustin May piggyback did the job. Assuming May comes back healthy next season, why shouldn’t that group be given a chance to do it again?

The question of whether or not to re-sign Kershaw defies traditional analysis. No player is bigger than the team, but no pitcher besides Sandy Koufax holds a bigger spot in franchise lore than number 22. I’m not sure how you quantify that. Quantifying value is exactly what teams and players do when they sit down to negotiate. But let’s start with the mushy stuff.

Why Kershaw stays a Dodger

Of the five active players who have been with their original organizations longer than Kershaw, only two — Yadier Molina and Joey Votto — have what I would describe as a “decent” chance of making the Hall of Fame. Kershaw can already start writing his induction speech.

At this point, Kershaw and the Dodgers seem like a couple of bald eagles: they mate for life. Their relationship has persisted through thick and thin. Chairman Mark Walter is certainly able to make Kershaw a Dodger for life; as recently as 2018 he sure sounded willing. The only hang-up to Kershaw signing a longer-term deal then might have been Kershaw himself.

When he last re-signed, Kershaw said, “I would never want to sign anything I couldn’t live up to. We’ll see where we are after three years.” Certainly the Dodgers’ front office is amenable to shorter-term deals. Just look at the unorthodox offers they made to Bryce Harper and Trevor Bauer. Lining up on the years and the money, then, shouldn’t be a problem.

Kershaw said in 2018 that his family loved it in Los Angeles. His wife gave birth to another son in the meantime. Assuming 20-month-old Cooper Kershaw doesn’t object, I imagine both sides will approach this negotiation with optimism.

Why Kershaw doesn’t stay a Dodger

The arguments here are predicated on cold, hard analytics. The Dodgers’ front office built a champion on the strength of cold, hard analytics, so we can’t dismiss their influence on this equation.

There have been two Clayton Kershaws in 2021. The first used a high-spin fastball/slider/curveball combo to hold opponents to a scant .618 OPS in his first 15 starts ofthe season through June 16. In his first 88 1/3 innings, he walked only 15 batters while striking out 104. We admittedly haven’t seen much of the latter Kershaw, but we know his spin rate began to suffer around the time MLB cracked down on pitchers using foreign substances on the mound. Kershaw’s elbow suffered, too.

In five starts since June 16, Kershaw’s ERA has actually fallen from 3.36 to 3.27. His two outings since coming off the injured list have gone well. If the Dodgers view Kershaw’s elbow injury as a “hiccup,” there is certainly room for optimism. It’s also an elbow, which means it might be the most concerning injury in a series that has shortened all but one of Kershaw’s last six seasons — the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. So even though Kershaw’s latest post-injury performance is promising, we know neither what his medical file says about the past or what it predicts for the future. We only know there’s enough there to possibly give the Dodgers, or another team, pause.

It’s telling that Kershaw picked up, and abandoned, his latest dalliance with a changeup around the time his spin rate dipped in June. Scouts have suggested for years that Kershaw would need a changeup to persist as an elite pitcher. I think the jury’s still out on this; just because Kershaw hasn’t stuck with the changeup doesn’t mean he cannot learn the pitch. Just because he’s still pitching at a high level without one at age 33 doesn’t mean he can continue to do so, either. Again, I can’t tell you what any of this says about Kershaw’s long-term prospects, only that it’s the sort of thing that would typically come up in a long-term contract negotiation.

Three years ago, I might have predicted a wave of younger (and cheaper) pitchers clamoring to take Kershaw’s job would make it hard for the Dodgers’ front office to bring Kershaw back. Now I’m not so sure. Not only have the last three years gone pretty well for Kershaw, that rush of young starting pitchers never fully materialized around baseball. There are more reasons to have confidence in a 34-year-old pitcher maintaining what he had at 33.

Between that, and the established interest in a short-term contract between Kershaw and the Dodgers, I’d expect this negotiation to be less complicated than most. And I don’t think he’ll be leaving for Texas.

Dodgers pending free agent reports:

Kenley Jansen | Corey Seager | Chris Taylor


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