Is Clayton Kershaw Still The #1 Starting Pitcher in Fantasy?

Should you be taking Clayton Kershaw as the first starting pitcher off the board?

(Photo by Kevin French/Icon Sportswire)

As Clayton Kershaw enters his age-30 season in 2018, his Hall of Fame career is at a crossroads. He’s young enough, with a sufficiently recent history of dominance that rumors of his demise remain mere whispers instead of a full-fledged buzz. Although he’s been good as ever while on the mound, Kershaw has averaged just 162 innings across 2016-17, almost 30 percent down from the 225.6 he averaged in 2011-12. It’s easy to envision him bouncing back from his current spate of injuries and showing that he’s still the 220-inning horse he was over the first half of the decade. It’s also easy to imagine him missing more time and raising more red flags, as Kershaw has back-related DL stints in 3 of the last 4 seasons (’14, ’16, ’17). While Kershaw retains a reasonable claim as Baseball’s Best Pitcher, the community no longer views him as the fantasy landscape’s alpha SP1. Depending on whom you ask, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber might all return more fantasy value in 2018, as they did just last season. If faced with the decision of taking the first pitcher in your draft, is Kershaw still your guy? Let’s find out:

2017 (Recent Memory)

For starters, let’s isolate the performance of the consensus top 4 in 2017 alone, denoting the top performer in each stat:

Kershaw Kluber Sale Scherzer
W 18 18 17 16
K 202 265 308 268
K/BB 6.73 7.36 7.16 4.87
HR/9 1.18 0.93 1.01 0.99
ERA 2.31 2.25 2.90 2.51
WHIP 0.95 0.87 0.97 0.90
FIP 3.07 2.50 2.45 2.90
IP 175.0 203.2 214.1 200.2

Considering the hype Sale and Scherzer generated, it’s surprising how many categories Kluber paced. Based on ESPN’s Player Rater, Kluber naturally finished 1st among starting pitchers (and players!), followed by Scherzer, Sale, and then Kershaw, who lagged behind in Ks due to throwing significantly fewer innings than his contemporaries.

However, let’s widen the sample to include the last 3 seasons (2015-17). This won’t significantly change Kershaw’s quantity issues, as 2 injury-marred seasons comprise the majority of the sample size. That said, Sale, Scherzer, and Kluber arguably all had career seasons in 2017. A 3-year sample properly balances the short and long-term in assessing the qualitative and quantitative aspects of each pitcher’s respective body of work.

2015-17 Composite

Kershaw Kluber Sale Scherzer
W 46 45 47 50
K 675 737 815 828
K/BB 8.13 5.34 6.27 5.71
HR/9 0.7 0.9 1.0 1.1
ERA 2.07 2.98 3.21 2.76
WHIP 0.86 1.00 1.03 0.93
FIP 2.28 2.92 2.89 2.76
IP 556.2 640.2 649.2 657.2

Each pitcher’s annual average yields:

Kershaw: 15 W, 225 K, 2.07 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 185.2 IP

Kluber: 15 W, 246 K, 2.98 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 213.2 IP

Sale: 16 W, 272 K, 3.21 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 216.2 IP

Scherzer: 17 W, 276 K, 2.76 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 219.1 IP

At this point, it’s still tough to argue that Kershaw isn’t baseball’s best pitcher on a per-inning, per-game basis. However, in a fantasy landscape that heavily weights consistency and volume of production, the superior reliability and K production offered by Sale, Scherzer, and Kluber is a significant equalizer, whether Kershaw proponents like it or not. With the chronic and progressive nature of back injuries, it’s fine to hope for a fully healthy season from Kershaw, but wiser to expect a truncated season of top-shelf production (à la pre-2017 Carlos Gonzalez).

Keeping that in mind, what happens if you take Kershaw? Is your bottom line better with him or with a usurper of his throne?

First, let’s rewind to July 23, 2017. It’s a balmy 84 degrees on a Sunday afternoon, with 44,701 fans rocking the house in Dodger Stadium. It’s only the second inning, but it already feels like Kershaw and the Dogs are in cruise control against an anemic Atlanta Braves offense.

After delivering a pitch to Tyler Flowers, Kershaw suddenly grimaces on the mound, clutching his back. The world inside Dodger Stadium ceases to turn on its axis as Kershaw tentatively delivers a few warm-up pitches to his batterymate, Austin Barnes. Kershaw gets back on the slab, walks Flowers, but comes back to strike out Matt Adams to close the book on the top of the 2nd. In the bottom of the inning, though, as #8 hitter Joc Pederson strides to the plate, reserve outfielder Trayce Thompson is in the on-deck circle.

“Is he lost?” you ask yourself. “What’s he doing with a bat in his hands?”

You see Kershaw remaining resolutely still on the Dodgers bench. Thompson ambles to home plate to hit for Kershaw. You scream with anguish and curl into the fetal position. You don’t know what to feel anymore.

Five or six hours later, you come to your senses. The Dodgers have won, 5-4, but the loss of Kershaw lingers overhead, an ill omen for the Dodgers and your fantasy team’s playoff prospects. With no other choice, you scour the waiver wire for potential options. If you’re looking to replace Kershaw’s counting stats, you want a SP. If you’re protecting ratios, it’s middle relievers and setup men. Kershaw’s average IP total over the past 3 seasons is about 30-35 lower than Sale, Scherzer, and Kluber, but we’ll envision an even more chilling scenario, with 50 innings to replace.

Exhibit A: Replacement-level SP + Kershaw

The cut-off for “replacement-level SP” will be the fringe of the top 60 starting pitchers. In a 10 or 12-team league, it’s reasonable to expect that caliber of talent to be consistently available. ESPN’s Player Rater had Dan Straily (SP, Miami Marlins), and Ivan Nova (SP, Pittsburgh Pirates) right at around 60-61. Nova lacks strikeout ability, and Straily’s superior bat-missing makes him a viable, realistic replacement. To wit, I picked him up in multiple 12-team $250 Yahoo leagues right around the time of Kershaw’s injury.

Dan Straily 2017 stat line: 181.2 IP, 10 W, 170 K, 4.26 ERA, 1.30 WHIP

Pro-rating Straily’s stat lines, 50 innings would roughly equal 3 wins, 47 K, 65 H+BB, 25 ER. Straily wouldn’t have accumulated 50 innings during the month-plus that Kershaw was on the shelf, but this exercise is meant to approximate the type of production you could expect from a dedicated streaming spot.

IP W K H+BB ER ERA WHIP
Clayton Kershaw (2017) 175 18 202 166 45 2.31 0.95
Dan Straily (2017) 50 3 47 65 25 4.26 1.30
Danton Strayshaw (2017) 225 21 249 231 70 2.80 1.03

Danton Strayshaw vs. The Field 

IP W K ERA WHIP
Danton Strayshaw (2017) 225 21 249 2.80 1.03
Corey Kluber (2015-17) 213.2 15 246 2.98 1.00
Max Scherzer (2015-17) 219.1 17 276 2.76 0.93
Chris Sale (2015-17) 216.2 16 272 3.21 1.03

At first glance, Danton Strayshaw compares favorably to every pitcher besides Scherzer. With a streaming pitcher spot, however, you’d likely be dropping or benching Straily through disadvantageous matchups to protect your ratios. Consequently, Strayshaw’s ratios suffer from artificial inflation, yet still provide a good comparison to the other elite starters. This statistical model better represents a floor than a true baseline for the aggregate production from Kershaw’s roster spot.

In leagues with IP caps, pure quality of inning is as much of a concern as pure counting stats. To honor that possible scenario, Exhibit B examines the production of Kershaw plus a RP pickup.

Exhibit B: Decent reliever + Kershaw

Blake Parker (RP, Los Angeles Angels) provides a perfect example because he was widely available and also had a virtually stagnant ERA during the timeframe of Kershaw’s injury. From July 24-August 31, Kershaw was out of action, and from July 27- August 30, Parker’s ERA moved from 2.18 to 2.14. Parker’s game logs from that exact timeframe produce:

Blake Parker: 15 IP, 9 H+BB, 3 ER, 0 W, 17 K, 1.80 ERA, 0.80 WHIP

If we fuse that 2017 stat line with Kershaw’s 2017 production, we get:

IP W K H+BB ER ERA WHIP
Clayton Kershaw (2017) 175 18 202 166 45 2.31 0.95
Blake Parker (2017) 15 0 17 9 3 1.80 0.80
Clayton Parkshaw (2017) 190 18 219 175 48 2.27 0.92

Comparing Clayton Parkshaw to our 3-year averages once more, we get:

IP W K ERA WHIP
Clayton Parkshaw (2017) 190 18 219 2.27 0.92
Corey Kluber (2015-17) 213.2 15 246 2.98 1.00
Max Scherzer (2015-17) 219.1 17 276 2.76 0.93
Chris Sale (2015-17) 216.2 16 272 3.21 1.03

The innings and Ks are light, but despite that, it’s hard to be too dissatisfied with Parkshaw, as he boasts the lowest ERA by a significant margin, with the lowest aggregate WHIP. Realistically, you’d probably wind up streaming at least a few times during Kershaw’s absence, which boosts your counting stats and dampens your ratios. In any case, our Clayton Parkshaw hybrid has such a dominant ERA advantage that you’d still finish with a competitor in counting stats and a runaway leader in ratios.

Perspective & Peripherals

In 2016, Scherzer beat out Kershaw for the NL Cy Young on the strength of throwing 79.1 more innings. However, a closer look at the numbers reveals that across those innings, Scherzer yielded 113 more baserunners and 47 more ER. If Kershaw had allowed a 5.33 ERA and 1.42 WHIP over those additional innings, he would have matched Scherzer’s ratios to the letter. I mention this example to illustrate how even a Kershaw who misses 6-8 weeks can dwarf the production of an established ace having one of the finest seasons of his career. Kershaw remains the best in the game at pitching’s most fundamental objectives: preventing runs and limiting baserunners, giving fantasy owners both greater margin for error with an elevated floor and greater profit potential with his theoretical ceiling.

To further establish proper context, the basis for statistical analysis in each hypothetical chimera scenario focused on 2017, which was considered an ordinary, unimpressive year for Kershaw. After a brilliant 2016 season, his ERA/WHIP swelled from 1.69/0.73 to 2.31/0.95, fueling the perception that he is on the downswing. The bar is set so high for Kershaw that anything short of peak Pedro Martinez feels like a disappointment. Kershaw’s 2017 made him the 4th most valuable SP in fantasy (per ESPN’s Player Rater), which meant he was objectively the least valuable of the four elite SP. It was arguably Kershaw’s worst season since 2010, and he still radiated brilliance rivaling the best in the game.

It’s fair, however, to look at Kershaw’s 23 home runs allowed (as many as he allowed in 2015-16 combined) and see a pitcher who’s losing his edge. In 2016, Kershaw allowed just 8 HR in an abbreviated 149-inning campaign, and the season before, he gave up 15 in 232.2 frames. Home runs did spike across baseball last year, with teams averaging 17 more home runs than they did in 2016 (a 9.1% increase), but that doesn’t fully explain why Kershaw gave up as many bombs in 175 innings as he did in his previous 381.2. Even if we assume that the historically homer-happy 2017 campaign represents the new status quo, that should only account for a 10% increase in Kershaw homers allowed. That’d give us 1, maybe 2 additional home runs to account for. However, Kershaw’s HR/9 more than doubled last season, and even the most devout Kershaw apologist is going to have a real job explaining THAT. In the absence of a logical explanation, it might be time to close the book on Kershaw’s days of sub-2.00 ERAs.

Although it’s true that Kershaw’s home run rate shot up by a disproportionate rate (0.5 HR/9 in 2016 to 1.2 HR/9 last year), those numbers don’t paint an honest picture of how well hitters actually got to Kershaw. Kershaw allowed more fly balls than he did in 2016 (33.1% vs. 30.1%), but his HR/FB rate more than doubled from 7.5% to 15.9%, indicating that he suffered from bad luck on fly-ball outs that just happened to leave the yard. Kershaw’s average fastball velocity in 2017 was 92.7 mph, in line with his career averages and a shade above the 92.6 he registered in his 2013 Cy Young campaign when he was 25. Superficially, Kershaw’s ratios regressed significantly from his transcendent 2016, but a deeper examination reveals that opposing hitters squared up the ball even less consistently in 2017 as their line drive percentages fell from 20.5 to 18.5, with hard contract rates dipping from 28.4% to 27.4%). His strikeout rate (10.39 per nine) was an exact replica of his 10.39 in 2016. This is not a pitcher who is losing his stuff or showing true signs of decline in his ability to generate weak contact and miss bats. This is a living legend who somehow found a way to climb further skyward in his craft as a pitcher, despite a seismic shift toward one of the most offense-driven baseball climates in recent history.

Sweep the Floors

The first pitcher off my board is still Kershaw because he offers the highest combination of high floor and high ceiling. To be fair, he seems more likely than the other three to hit his floor, but even the floors demonstrated through Danton Strayshaw and Clayton Parkshaw still resulted in Cy Young-caliber production. By contrast, the floors for Sale and Kluber are significantly lower, as Kluber put up ERAs of 3.49 in ’15 and 3.14 in ’16, while Sale trended at 3.41 and 3.34 before his 2.90 in ’17. For all the talk about Kershaw missing time, Kluber has a lifetime 4.04 ERA in March/April and a 3.66 career mark in May (while Sale historically fatigues down the stretch, with a lifetime 3.78 ERA/1.24 WHIP in September/October). I’ll concede that Scherzer’s had the best combination of pristine ratios with workhorse durability, and it’s defensible if you prefer his lower-ceiling stability over Kershaw’s wider range of outcomes. At the end of the day, though, I want Kershaw first. Not because I’m a Dodger fan until the end of time, but because his brilliant ratios, combined with competitive strikeout ability and a stellar supporting cast give him unmatched league-winning upside, with a floor that honestly isn’t as scary as the masses would have you believe.

To round it out, here are some quick hits regarding the benefits & drawbacks I’d associate with drafting any of these 4 pitchers:

Kershaw: Benefits

1) Still the best in terms of pure quality. Literally no starting pitcher whose career began after the dead-ball era has a lower career ERA or WHIP. Taking historical context into consideration, you could reasonably argue that inning for inning, Kershaw is the greatest starting pitcher of all time.

2) A decent bet to pace or at least keep pace with the group in W, given how dominant the Dodgers will be, how strong their Kenley Jansen-led bullpen is, and how well they historically play behind him (83-25 in games started by Kershaw since 2014, good for a .769 winning percentage)

3) Carries the greatest theoretical upside. It’s hard to realistically see any of Scherzer, Sale, or Kluber topping what each of them accomplished last season. Kershaw isn’t a great bet to reach his ceiling, but that ceiling could be one of the greatest seasons in baseball history (see 2016).

Kershaw: Drawbacks

1) Lacks the atomic K upside that Sale and Scherzer possess. Kershaw’s sitting around 10.39 K/9 the past two seasons, while Scherzer checks in at 11.6. Sale led the majors with 11.8 K/9 in 2015 and again last season with an unconscious 12.9 per nine mark.

2) Quantity is a significant and relevant issue. With only 324 innings the last two seasons, you can’t bank on 200-220 innings anymore. Anyone can hope for a return to health, but anyone who’s counting on it is setting themselves up for disappointment.

3) Far more susceptible to the HR last year (1.18 per 9, highest of the Big 4). Peripherals suggest it’s an aberration, but if it somehow continues, one of Kershaw’s primary advantages (ERA dominance) goes with it.

Scherzer: Benefits

1) Most reliable in terms of pure quantity. Any way you slice it, no one’s racked up the wins and Ks like Scherzer has the last three seasons. His 50 wins and 828 Ks from 2015-17 pace the quartet. Sale is right on his heels with 47 and 815, but that comes with an ERA almost half a run higher (3.21 vs. 2.76) and a significantly higher WHIP (1.03-0.93).

2) Has the benefit of pitching in an NL East without Stanton, compared to Kluber in the AL Central, Sale in the AL East, or even Kershaw in a division with Colorado, Arizona, and a no longer that embarrassing Giants lineup. Pitching half your games against Atlanta, Miami, New York, and Philly is about as ideal as it gets for a starting pitcher.

3) Probably the “safest” pitcher of the group, as he has the least extensive recent history of injuries and fatigue-related declines in performance.

Scherzer: Drawbacks

1) 80 HRA in past 3 years make him a great asset in WHIP, but diminishes his chances of seriously pushing Kershaw in ERA.

2) Although Washington’s bullpen is trending upwards, I don’t think Madson/Doolittle at the back end is on the same tier as the bullpens the Indians and Dodgers are accustomed to having.

3) Honestly, he’s not young anymore. He had a few minor injury speed bumps last year and missed a few starts. He also turns 34 on July 27. As a pitcher who derives a fair portion of his success from an overpowering fastball (averaging over 94 mph the past three seasons), an age-related decline in his number one could easily lead to a statistical downswing. His advancing age is a relevant factor that rarely comes up.

Sale: Benefits

1) Carries greatest K upside, notching 308 in ’17 despite a late-season fade. No other pitcher besides maybe Scherzer has a realistic chance at 300.

2) Even though he probably wasn’t really helping you win an H2H playoff, it’s hard to deny just how incredible he was last year. His 2.90 ERA with 308 K’s was already phenomenal, but the numbers under the hood suggest that his ERA should have been almost half a run lower (2.45 FIP). Sale might not be able to crack 300 K’s again, but it’s hard to deny just how incredible a pitcher he’s become and how lofty his ceiling really is.

3) Despite his late-season fades, he’s still been right there with Scherzer in terms of volume, with at least 208.2 IP in each of the last three years. The 47 wins and 815 Ks are incredible as well. People don’t always view Sale as reliable (partially due to his slim build), but the counting numbers don’t lie.

Sale: Drawbacks

1) Carries the greatest ERA/WHIP downside, as shown by his 3-year averages (3.21/1.03, still phenomenal). Pitching in the AL East is never easy, especially not when your arch-rivals add Giancarlo Stanton

2) Historically has fatigued down the stretch (lifetime 3.78 ERA/1.24 WHIP in Sept/Oct). Tough pill to swallow in any format, especially so in H2H when 1 and 2-week September samples make or break you.

Kluber: Benefits

1) Like Sale and Scherzer, Kluber carries the 200-inning reliability that Kershaw currently lacks

2) Cleveland bullpen is right there with the Dodgers’ bullpen as one of the most lockdown in the game, giving him a higher floor for wins

Kluber: Drawbacks

1) Has the lowest K/BB rate among the four across last 3 seasons

2) Lifetime 4.04 ERA in March/April, lifetime 3.66 ERA in May. He gets stronger as the year progresses, but realistically, you’re not getting a true ace in April and May.

3) Like Kershaw, missed time with a back injury. It’s been less chronic with Kluber, but Kluber is also a couple years older

4) The worst bet of the 4 to match, let alone exceed his 2017 performance. His 2.25 ERA is a huge outlier when juxtaposed with the 3.49 he had in ’15 and the 3.14 in ’16. His MLB-best 0.87 WHIP is also a steep departure from his previous career best (1.05).


Final Standings

1. Clayton Kershaw

2. Max Scherzer

3. Chris Sale

4. Corey Kluber

Ben Chang

Ben studied at UC Davis, where he wrote for The California Aggie. As a diehard Dodger fan, he's used to habitual heartbreak. All of his dreams will finally come true when Clayton Kershaw puts the team on his uninjured back with a Game 7 shutout in the 2018 World Series.

  • Steven says:

    Really well written. Great job Ben

  • Chris says:

    Great article, Ben!

  • nick g says:

    i started in a keeper league last year where we get 6 keepers (2 1-year contracts, 2 2-year contracts, 2 3-year contracts), so the question i keep coming back to is this: is kershaw, with his back problems and 3 more seasons added to his age, worth locking down in that 3 year spot? or do i risk keeping him in a 2 year spot and losing him after that, or try trading him for a sale or something like that who is younger?

    • Ben Chang says:

      Nick, I’d say it depends on what price you’d have to keep him at (and what you could get as a replacement if you threw him back). If you have specific dollar values or a round-based price tag, I could give you a more specific perspective.

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