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What can the Dodgers expect from Clayton Kershaw over the next seven years?

Jan 15, 2014, 7:18 PM EDT

kershaw getty Getty Images

Per MLB.com, the Dodgers locked up Clayton Kershaw for seven years at $215 million earlier today. Dodgers president Stan Kasten is hopeful that the club will make the deal official by Friday morning. The news caused our eyes to jump to the horizon, wondering how the lefty will fare between now and 2020. But first, let’s put Kershaw in some historical context with what he’s already done.

Kershaw has led the Majors in ERA three years in a row, a feat only accomplished by Lefty Grove and Greg Maddux. In 2011, he became the youngest pitcher since Dwight Gooden to win the Cy Young award in the National League and already has two of them at the young age of 25.

Adjusting Kershaw’s ERA for league and park factors, we find that Kershaw’s 194 adjusted ERA in 2013 was the 41st-best dating all the way back to 1901 among starters who qualified for the ERA title. (Note: 100 is average.) Since 1930, it’s the 24th-best. If you limit the time frame to 1970-2013, Kershaw is one of only 11 pitchers to post an adjusted ERA of 190 or better.

Expanding the time frame back to 1901, Kershaw’s 2013 was the 10th-best by a left-handed starter. He is one of 12 left-handed pitchers to post an adjusted ERA of 190 or better in the last 112 years.

Now, back to his contemporaries. Combining 2011, 2012, and 2013, Kershaw’s aggregate 166 adjusted ERA is the best in baseball among starters who have tossed at least 500 combined innings. The next-best is Justin Verlander at 149, followed by Cliff Lee at 139. Among left-handers, only Kershaw, Lee, and Gio Gonzalez (126) have finished above 125 since 2011.

Kershaw’s deal makes him the most well-paid pitcher in baseball, ahead of Justin Verlander, who signed a seven-year, $180 million deal with the Tigers on March 29 last year.

How will he do going forward? It’s difficult to make comparisons with Kershaw since he is such a unique pitcher given his age, his resume, and the way he pitches. Since 1901, there have been 19 pitchers to post an adjusted ERA of 125 or better while throwing at least 1,000 innings before the age of 26. Only five – Walter Johnson (176), Kershaw (146), Tom Seaver (141), Roger Clemens (141), and Hal Newhouser (141) – were above 140. Kershaw, Newhouser, Noodles Hahn, and Gomez are the only lefties, and Newhouser was the most recent – he retired after the 1955 season.

Baseball Reference lists Kershaw’s ten-best comparables through the age of 25. They are Gary Nolan, Seaver, Jim Palmer, Vida Blue, Jim Maloney, Pedro Martinez, Dave McNally, Roger Clemens, Lefty Leifield, and Hal Schumacher. Nolan and Seaver get the highest similarity scores by a wide margin.

Nolan posted a 1.99 ERA in 1973 at the age of 24, but he missed time in August and September with neck and shoulder issues. He only threw 10 1/3 innings the next season due to arm issues, and missed all of 1974 as well. Though he was solid in 1975 and ’76 for the Reds, he quickly ran out of steam. He posted  6.09 ERA in 57 2/3 innings in ’77 at the age of 29 and then was out of baseball due to more arm and shoulder issues.

Seaver, of course, is a success story. Despite putting a strenuous workload on his arm throughout his career, topping 200 innings pitched in 16 of 20 seasons, he was able to pitch through his age-41 season. After his age-25 season, he had already won a Rookie of the Year award and a Cy Young award, but he wasn’t finished. He won two more Cy Youngs in 1973 and in ’75 at the ages of 28 and 30, respectively. Through age 32 – which is how old Kershaw will be in the final year of his deal – Seaver had a career 2.48 ERA (142 adjusted ERA) in nearly 3,000 innings.

Generally speaking, one would expect Kershaw to more or less match his output in the recent past through about his age-29 season before gradually tapering off. At the moment, we only have projections for 2014, but here’s what they look like from multiple sources:

  • Steamer: 192.0 IP, 3.08 ERA, 197 K, 52 BB
  • Oliver: 233.0 IP, 2.13 ERA, 237 K, 55 BB
  • ZiPS: 227.1 IP, 2.26 ERA, 233 K, 54 BB

By all three projection systems, Kershaw is expected to once again be the best starter in baseball in 2014. Starting from there, Kershaw should continue to be plenty productive as he wraps up the latter half of his 20’s. He has a lot of room to be worse and still provide enormous value to the Dodgers, as long as he can stay healthy.

Therein lies the rub. Kershaw must stay healthy. Projecting injuries is still at best an inexact science and a science best left to the experts. But as a general point, gambling seven years on Kershaw’s age 26 through 32 seasons is a lot better than gambling five years on Ryan Howard’s age 32 through 36 seasons, for example.

Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs has done tremendous research on injuries and predicted rather well for the 2013 season. In his formula, Zimmerman suggests that for every year older a pitcher gets, his likelihood of suffering an injury increases by one percent. If he makes a full season’s worth of starts (33), his odds diminish by three percent. If he suffers through an injury-plagued year, his odds increase by eight percent.

Over his six-year career, Kershaw has been almost perfectly healthy. He has never been on the disabled list, and has only missed time due to the AC joint in his right shoulder in 2009 (missed 13 games) and an impingement in his right hip last season (missed 10 games). Kershaw has also made exactly 33 starts three seasons in a row (he made 32 and 30 in the seasons prior, as well). So Kershaw’s odds of suffering an injury are pretty low going into 2014.

Taken all together, this is about as good of a gamble as the Dodgers could have hoped to have taken. The Dodgers are gambling on seven years which encompass the entirety of Kershaw’s prime and the contract barely takes him into his 30’s. Moreover, Kershaw has had a pristine bill of health through six seasons, especially since he has avoided elbow and shoulder injuries in his pitching arm. And, of course, he has been by far the best pitcher in baseball in recent years. There’s always the chance that this deal will go horribly wrong for the Dodgers, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more favorable situation with which to invest $215 million.

  1. nymets4ever - Jan 15, 2014 at 7:32 PM

    Stellar pitching, admirable charity work, and big accounts payable…

    • mick2014 - Jan 15, 2014 at 10:11 PM

      He can now get injured for 2-3 years like Johan, Zito, Hampton and every other pitcher that signed a massive contract. it’s so obvious what will happen!

      • 78mu - Jan 16, 2014 at 12:08 AM

        Or he can turn into Lincecum and fall off the cliff when he reaches his prime age. That’s the scary thing with pitchers. Tom Seaver is a rare case of durability and performance.

  2. scatterbrian - Jan 15, 2014 at 7:38 PM

    With the opt out, we probably only need to be looking at the next five years. By then, this deal will either be dead weight for the Dodgers or below market value for Kershaw. It’s pretty unlikely that we’ll get to the 2018 off-season and value a 30-year-old free-agent Kershaw at 2/$60M.

    • clemente2 - Jan 15, 2014 at 7:58 PM

      The article looks at the contract from the point-of-view of Dodgers’ downside risk–if Kershaw crashes, its going to be a seven year contract. So, looking at seven years seems OK. And extra wins for the Dodgers are more valuable than wins for the Royals, as they mean playoffs and playoff wins, which greatly add to revenue. His bWAR for the last three years is in the high 6s; at $7 million a win, he is adding $42 million a year, so a big win for the Dodgers if he keeps going, and by year 5.5 he could explode and it was still a good deal. The discount for potential injury on pitchers on playoff teams is pretty high–they are being dragged down by wins being less valuable to non-playoff teams.

      • stex52 - Jan 16, 2014 at 8:44 AM

        Back in 2005, when the Astros went to the World Series (my how things have changed), I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to estimate the value of each one of those playoff games. Just looking at doubled ticket prices and concessions and broadcast payments – and even discounting the payments to the players’ pension fund, it is an amazing amount of money. And I ignored the sale of team logo’s, bats, etc. because I had no way to figure those at the time.

        Bottom line: If you think a particular player is the difference between you making it through the playoffs and not making it; you can pay him almost any number you want. You will still come out ahead.

  3. mjhutmkr - Jan 15, 2014 at 7:47 PM

    What a waste of money!

    No baseball player is worth it.

    • fanofevilempire - Jan 15, 2014 at 7:53 PM

      so you would turn down that money, you need a slap.

    • clemente2 - Jan 15, 2014 at 8:00 PM

      Each and every one of them is paid exactly what their teams thinks they are worth, and that is the measure of “worth it”.

      • clemente2 - Jan 15, 2014 at 8:00 PM

        Free agents, that is—the teams are riding over the pre-arb players.

    • scatterbrian - Jan 15, 2014 at 8:01 PM

      What else are baseball teams supposed to do with the insane amounts of money they earn every year? Keep it?

      • asimonetti88 - Jan 15, 2014 at 11:29 PM

        for the price of 1 Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers could have bought 1,240 Toyota Prius.

    • gothapotamus90210 - Jan 15, 2014 at 8:30 PM

      The free market determines one’s worth, commie scumbag.

    • themanytoolsofignorance - Jan 15, 2014 at 9:39 PM

      I was informed that communism was dead.

  4. fanofevilempire - Jan 15, 2014 at 7:51 PM

    Kershaw gave the Dodgers a discount on this contract, I think he could have commanded 300 million. The Dodgers shouldn’t expect anything more.

    • clemente2 - Jan 15, 2014 at 8:03 PM

      Agree–I don’t think they would have flinched from $35 million a year on the same years. Maybe some of the discount is explained by the year 5 opt-out.

  5. moogro - Jan 15, 2014 at 8:01 PM

    Great article.

  6. happytwinsfan - Jan 15, 2014 at 8:35 PM

    for this kind of money dodger fans should expect him to be wafted up to heaven in a whirlwind like what’s his name in the bible the moment after throwing the final pitch of a perfect World Series Game Seven in the final year of his contract.

  7. Minoring In Baseball - Jan 15, 2014 at 8:51 PM

    Signing a pitcher for that long for that kind of money is always risky. This is today’s game, though, because the sky is the limit when it comes to contracts. That being said, Kershaw is one of the best in baseball right now, and probably will be for years to come. I wish I could have seen him throw when he was in the minors with the Great Lakes Loons.

    http://minoringinbaseball.com/

    • 78mu - Jan 16, 2014 at 5:10 AM

      Well, the ‘right now’ is the scary part.

  8. uyf1950 - Jan 15, 2014 at 9:23 PM

    Not sure what the Dodgers can expect from Kershaw over the next seven years, but I can tell you what they can expect from the commissioners office for 2014 and beyond. That’s a huge luxury tax bill especially if they sign Tanaka.

    Factoring in this contract to the baseball-reference estimate of the Dodgers 2014 payroll adding in the balance of the 40 man roster and benefits MLB uses to calculate a teams payroll for luxury tax purposes the Dodgers 2014 payroll as of today not including a Tanaka signing comes to between $255 and $260MM.

    If they were to sign Tanaka add another $20MM to that on a per year basis and the Dodgers payroll for luxury tax purposes would be about $280MM. The Dodgers are taxed at a 30% rate on their 2014 payroll, 30% of $91MM (difference between $189MM threshold and $280MM) = $27MM approximately. A total expense for the 2014 Dodgers ownership for the team to take the field, $307MM

    Without a Tanaka signing their bill for 2014 would be $$281MM +/- instead of the $307MM with Tanaka.

    Don’t misunderstand me I’m not saying they can’t afford to sign Tanaka only what the total team cost would be if they did.

    • Reflex - Jan 16, 2014 at 3:31 PM

      The Dodgers are spending their money to improve the product on the field. They have huge revenues, a massive cable tv deal and managed to avoid counting a good chunk of that in their revenue sharing agreement.

      Its good for the fans, its good for the sport, its good for the players. And its good that they aren’t being cheapskates, they play in the second largest market in the nation, they absolutely should spend like it.

      Your Yankees could learn a thing or two. How they cheaped out on Cano was a disgrace to their loyal fans. Pretending the luxury tax is a barrier is disingenuous at best. The Yankees are wildly profitable, and they are cheating their fans by pretending their limits are what they claim they are.

  9. gonderfan - Jan 15, 2014 at 10:17 PM

    Does leading the league in ERA 5 years in a row not count as ‘3 years in a row’?

  10. El Pollo Loco - Jan 16, 2014 at 10:52 AM

    for seven years I expect 7 straight Cy Youngs and 7 World Series wins

  11. phillysports1 - Jan 16, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    ^ 😂😂😂

  12. that's the best linebacker i've seen since Joe Montana - Jan 16, 2014 at 7:54 PM

    NL West wrapped up for the next 7 years

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