Whenever the Los Angeles Dodgers think about Clayton Kershaw, they surely have two blue mirrors on-hand. One mirror is called the Past, the looking glass for the Dodgers to see how their current great southpaw looks like their former great southpaw clad in white and blue. The other mirror is called the Future, the looking glass that tells them they better keep their current southpaw clad is white and blue so they don’t lose the next Sandy Koufax.
Needless to say, the Future’s advice resulted in the Dodgers giving Clayton Kershaw 215 million nods of approval over seven years.
The seven-year, $215 million extension the Dodgers gave Clayton Kershaw on Wednesday was a bold move that could backfire because of the amount of dollars per year put into Kershaw’s not invincible left arm. But the mega deal – excuse me, I mean mega, mega deal – for the best pitcher in baseball was mostly worth it.
The money appears absurd, and it is on many levels. $25 million a year for a pitcher is a mad investment; Kershaw’s annual salary under his new deal is more than $30 million a year, the highest average annual salary in Major League Baseball history – and by a fair margin too. Add that over the long-term seven years and the Dodgers seem bonkers. Those kinds of deals are always risky, no matter how durable a pitcher is. Starting pitchers pay dividend on contracts less than 50 times a season, and their arms are fragile. There are many examples in recent years alone that make you pause when you stand in awe of how many Benjamins Kershaw has to throw around: Jake Westbrook – signed a multi-year deal with Cleveland prior to the 2008 season, but started five games in 2008 and missed the entire 2009 season – Kevin Brown – in 1999 became the first $100 million man in baseball, and subsequently started more than 22 games only once after the 2000 season – Chan Ho Park – was given a five-year, $65 million contract by the Texas Rangers in the 2001 off season, and then would start only 68 games for them over the next four years.
But Kershaw is one of only two or three starting pitchers in baseball that you would say it’s OK to take such a giant risk of dollars. The two other starting pitchers that most people agree have been the best in the game the last three years are Justin Verlander and David Price, and Kershaw compared well to them in 2011 and 2012. In battle with Kershaw and Price, Verlander won the categories of innings pitched (251 and 238.1), strikeouts (250 and 239), and Earned Run Average+ (172 and 161), but Kershaw won WHIP (0.977 and 1.023) and homeruns (15 and 16) and was slightly better than Price in almost every pitching statistic. But what pushed Kershaw ahead of Price and Verlander was his phenomenal 2013 campaign. Kershaw’s slash line of home runs allowed, strikeouts, and walks last year (11, 232, 52) was overall much better than Verlander (19, 217, 75) and Price (16, 151, 27). Kershaw may pitch in the easiest division in baseball, with a lot of pitcher-friendly ballparks, while Price pitches in a much stouter American League East, with four hitter-friendly confines, but Kershaw’s independent walk and strikeout totals the last three years have been better enough compared to Price’s to push him ahead of that division and league variable. If we only counted the 2011 and 2012 seasons into this assessment, then Verlander would retain his crown as the game’s best pitcher, but 2013 pushed him into second place, allowing the best left-handed pitcher in baseball to become the premier hurler overall. One of the game’s sickest curveballs, pinpoint control, and a workhorse aptitude that is comparable to Verlander and Adam Wainwright point to the Dodgers’ ace as the No. 1 number one.
Kershaw has been at the top or close to the top in almost every major pitching statistic the last few seasons. From 2009 to 2012, Kershaw led the National League in hits per nine innings thrice; he posted a walk-per-nine-innings ratio of 2.5 or less every year the last three years; he was the NL strikeout champion two out of the last three years; he averaged a little over 225 innings pitched the last four seasons, which was comparable to Justin Verlander; and Kershaw had an ERA+ of at least 150 the last three years, a mark no other starting pitcher reached. Overall in the three-year span of 2011-2013, Kershaw bested Verlander – the former clear choice for best pitcher in baseball – in WHIP and homeruns-per-nine-innings, and he topped Verlander twice in the strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
Kershaw’s resume not only makes him the best pitcher in baseball right now, but it also makes him one of the most historically brilliant pitchers we’ve seen this generation. Kershaw’s 194 ERA+ in 2013 was higher than Sandy Koufax’s career-best 190 ERA+ in 1966 (albeit in about one hundred fewer innings, but Kershaw has pitched in the lowered mound era). Kershaw is one of only four pitchers (Lefty Grove, Koufax, and Greg Maddux are the other three) in the modern era to win three straight ERA and WHIP crowns, according to MLB.com. Kershaw is the youngest pitcher to win a third Major League Baseball ERA title, claiming it last year at the age of 25, courtesy of MLB.com. And if he wins another MLB ERA title next year? You got it: he would be the first pitcher in history to win four consecutive MLB ERA titles.
What really makes the $215 million deal less harmful, though, is its timing. It’s better to give him the long-term deal for that much money than it would be to give Verlander or Price the contract, because they’re older than the Dodger lefty (Verlander is 30, and Price is 28). The backend of a Verlander and Price deal wouldn’t be worth it. But Kershaw is only 25-years-old. 25. His entire contract will be so much more valuable because he is in the prime of his career and the deal will cover his entire prime, not paying a penny for his aging decline. Kershaw’s three-year span, along with thumbs up for his early career, is a reliable sample that is worth investing in. It is as sound of a rationale as there is for giving a starting pitcher a big payday. And on top of everything, the Dodgers couldn’t dare let Kershaw be a lame duck in the 2014 season and be offered a ton of giant offers by a throng of teams next off season. Even if the Dodgers are flushed with cash the rule now is to lock up your pitchers before they hit the market, no matter how much money you wield.
There’s a gaggle of risks anyone can think of when it comes to signing a player for more than a year. And Kershaw will make too much money per year. But the pluses outweigh the negatives way too much. There’s no other pitcher to whom a general manager would rather give a long-term deal worth this much money. This was a once-in-a-generation kind of situation when an organization has the best pitcher in baseball barely under contract, he’s been tested, and they have a chance to lock up all of his prime years. They saw the revenue he would bring, and it was a check plus. They saw the numbers he has and should produce, and it was a check plus. And they saw the pitcher that Clayton Kershaw is reminding them of, and it was a check plus-plus. The blue looking mirrors and numerous assessments said it would be stupid to not have the next Sandy Koufax clad in white and blue for the future.