How long will 30-year-old Clayton Kershaw remain an elite pitcher?

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Of all that the Los Angeles Dodgers possess – some good players, some smart people, a lovely ballpark, a decent run of almosts, the NL West – what they have the best and most of is money, and I only bring this up because of Clayton Kershaw and tomorrow.

Kershaw had until Friday afternoon – 1 p.m., Chavez Ravine time – to opt out of the remaining two years and $65 million of a seven-year, $215-million deal that is the second-largest ever given to a pitcher.

He chose to remain a Dodger for $93 million over three years, sources told Yahoo Sports Friday afternoon, a conclusion appropriate for all involved.

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Clayton Kershaw will remain with the Los Angeles Dodgers after agreeing to a three-year, $93 million extension. (AP)
Clayton Kershaw will remain with the Los Angeles Dodgers after agreeing to a three-year, $93 million extension. (AP)

“Honestly, I wanted to stay here,” Kershaw said later Friday. “Financial and everything aside, it was more valuable for me to be here.”

He cited the Dodgers’ recent custom of winning baseball games, if not the last one. Also, he said, “The kiddos love it here. Ellen loves it here,” meaning his two children – Cali and Charley – and his wife.

He is either the finest pitcher in franchise history or close enough, in the top two or three, and he is also 30 years old, and he also has suffered from recent and temporary physical breakdowns and, if velocity is your thing, he also has suffered there. So the conversation in Los Angeles and elsewhere has been about Clayton Kershaw and tomorrow, as in how the two will get along, with or without the Dodgers, what with all those miles on that otherwise incomparable arm.

The initial decision – stay, become a free agent and stay, become a free agent and leave – would be Kershaw’s. The Dodgers’ part in this would be to measure Kershaw’s worth to the team and the city, to yesterday and today, and to take a reasonable and educated guess at tomorrow, and to write down how many dollars that is worth either in a contract extension or a new deal.

The details of Friday’s agreement reflect all of that, the contract being short on years and long on annual value, and are a reasonable compromise in a moment of uncertainty, both for the club and Kershaw, along with what the market would bear for Kershaw.

Pitchers on the other side of 30 are notoriously uncertain propositions. Elbows and shoulders and, in this case, backs and the rest of the parts are lucky to get there. Pitchers with fading fastballs on the other side of 30, which makes about all of them, must have a go at some form of reinvention, reprioritization, acquisition of cleverness. Otherwise, it’s bat barrels for you, pal, and the back of the rotation.

There’s no knowing about tomorrow, mostly. What you can know, though, is the person endeavoring to get there, the person you can rely on to be there, the person you know better than anyone. He counted that as another reason to remain a Dodger, that being the prevailing notion he is slipping, which clearly irked him. Others who have likewise piled innings on innings – Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer were two he named – remain at the tops of their games.

“It gives me a chance to prove a lot of people wrong,” he said. “There’s a lot of people saying I’m in decline.

“I have some ideas of what maybe I can do to improve upon that. But at the end of the day it’s just about getting people out on the field.”

I’d bet on Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers are not some small-market mopes who’d wear fourth place for a decade if they were wrong. They were right to bet on him, too. Kershaw long ago became their best and most recognizable player, and just after that became their competitive conscience. Those are the types of pitchers/teammates/members of a community ballclubs can only believe in and risk a little of themselves for. There are no absolutes. There are simply times to believe. Or not.

Kershaw was drafted by the Dodgers seventh overall in 2006, out of Highland Park High School outside of Dallas. He debuted in the major leagues two years later, two months after his 20th birthday. In 2011 he won the first of three Cy Young Awards, including in 2014, when he also was the National League’s MVP. He led the league in wins three times, in ERA five times, in strikeouts three times. He was second in the league in Cy Young voting as recently as 2017, and in 2018, the third season in a row in which he lost at least five starts because of back injuries or ailments, his ERA was 2.73, fourth in the NL among pitchers with at least 160 innings.

All worth mentioning, because the recency of Kershaw’s diminished fastball velocity and uneven postseason record – 2018 produced a mix of great and forgettable starts – brought various debates over the pitcher Kershaw can be in the second half of his career.

Big fastball or not, back ailment or not, other side of 30 or not, Kershaw remained an elite pitcher. (AP)
Big fastball or not, back ailment or not, other side of 30 or not, Kershaw remained an elite pitcher. (AP)

He is, along with being the most decorated pitcher of his generation, among the more worn. In 11 seasons, eight of those extending into October, Kershaw made 340 starts. He threw 2,248 1/3 innings. He ranks 11th among active pitchers in regular-season innings (2,096) and is at least two years younger than the 10 pitchers ahead of him. Of those, only Justin Verlander and Jon Lester come close to matching Kershaw’s October workload in the past decade.

In 2018, when in 26 starts he threw 161 1/3 innings, he experienced declines in areas such as hits, strikeouts and walks per nine innings to go along with a fastball that had lost three ticks from its peak. Kershaw does not freely discuss his injuries. It is, therefore, unknown to what extent a shoulder and back injury – he missed most of May, made one start and missed three more weeks – might have influenced his fastball velocity. And, if it did, if there is an offseason solution to that. Then, if this is his fastball going forward, does it matter? Again, his ERA was under 3, and actually was 2.45 before allowing eight runs over 11 innings in his final two regular-season starts.

Big fastball or not, back ailment or not, other side of 30 or not, Kershaw remained an elite pitcher, if not the best pitcher in baseball, the standard he’d set for himself over most of a decade. What that means for tomorrow is not a certainty. He won’t be – couldn’t be – him forever. But, a few more years? A couple more?

Maybe.

We’ll find out tomorrow.

Kershaw said he’d agreed to a three-year contract because he believes he has at least that in him, and at the level he’s established for a decade.

“I would never want to sign anything I couldn’t live up to,” he said. “We’ll see where we are after three years.”

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