Two days ago, the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw agreed to extend the deadline for his decision on his 2-year, $65 million option. The common sense interpretation of was that both sides wanted more time to come to an agreement on an extension, and that assumption has turned out to be correct, as Kershaw will sign a 3-year, $93 million contract to stay with the Dodgers through 2021. Effectively, Kershaw got one additional year for $28 million.
Source: Dodgers and Kershaw have a deal.
— Tim Brown (@TBrownYahoo) November 2, 2018
Dodgers-Kershaw agree to three-year, $93-million contract. With bonuses. No opt-outs.
— Tim Brown (@TBrownYahoo) November 2, 2018
Kershaw breakdown: $31M in 2019, ‘20 and ‘21, plus $1M each for 24 starts, 26 starts, 28 starts, 30 starts. Also gets $1.5M for Cy Young, $500K for second- or third-place finish.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 2, 2018
As Dodgers fans are surely aware, Kershaw is an all-time great. He’s a seven-time All-Star that has won the Cy Young Award three times and should arguably have more of both. Additionally, he has done the rare thing for a pitcher and actually won the MVP as well. Clayton has a comical 2.39 ERA over 2096.1 innings in his career and will be a no-brainer selection to the Hall Of Fame when he retires. Thus, it would seem like there should be no controversy that this was a stellar deal.
But, and there’s always a ‘but’, in 2018 he went on the disabled list for his third year in a row due to a back injury. This time he added arm concerns as well with a biceps scare, the only time he has gone on the disabled list for an injury not connected to his lower back since when Kershaw first went on the disabled list in 2014 for an upper back issue.
Despite the injuries, Kershaw posted a 2.03 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 30.6% K, 3.4% BB, and a .544 OPS against in 324 innings over the 2016 and 2017 seasons. However, he took a clear step back in 2018, posting a 2.73 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 23.9% K, 4.5% BB, and .630 OPS against over 161.1 innings. Perhaps most importantly, his fastball fell from averaging 92.7 MPH in 2017 to 90.9 MPH in 2018, the fall representing the fourth consecutive season his velocity has declined (93.6 MPH in 2015). Thus, one could make the case that paying elite-level money for a pitcher who could be well into his decline phase is unlikely to go down as all that great of an idea.
That said, despite everything that went wrong in 2018, Kershaw was still a great pitcher (~4 WAR) with the rate stats of a front-line starter. That’s how impossibly good he was before. And despite concerns about his decline, he has shown a willingness to adjust his ways to maintain at least this level of performance.
Back in April I wrote at The Athletic about Kershaw’s apparent decline and the concern about his pitches meshing closer together. While the decline did end up happening, as he did post his worst season since he was 22, by August it was noted by Daniel Brim at The Athletic that Kershaw found a way to make things work. That ability to adjust quickly if necessary could prove key going forward.
In terms of belief, it just feels like Kershaw would be somebody who could find a way to make it work for at least the next three years. Whether it’s regaining velocity, adding a changeup, working on a two-seamer, continuing to alter the shape of his slider, or whatever, somebody with his work ethic and determination seems unlikely to just let the decline happen.
Speaking of, there’s also the reality that Kershaw provides clubhouse and off-the-field value to the Dodgers that we could never know, as if his example helps guys like Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, and Caleb Ferguson develop and progress then who knows how much he’s actually worth. And as the OG Dodgers blogger Jon Weisman pointed out, seeing Kershaw in nothing but a Dodgers uniform provides value to fans beyond winning.
Furthermore, the Dodgers absolutely need starting pitching at the moment and don’t really have any better place to spend their money. With Patrick Corbin all but a member of the Yankees at this point, the alternatives don’t get much better than Kershaw. Especially so when factoring that they’ll get him on what is basically a short-term contract that minimizes the risk for what still figures to be a key player for the Dodgers. If ownership returns the payroll to where it should be, then they got the best starting option they could’ve found in free agency and it shouldn’t prevent them from making trades to add on if they feel necessary.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’m glad Clayton Kershaw is returning to the Dodgers, both for baseball and non-baseball reasons. So a welcome back is due, and hopefully the Dodgers can finally win a World Series with one of their all-time greats on the roster.