‘This Is Who He Is’: A Reality Check for Clayton Kershaw and What to Expect for 2020
For the first seven innings of Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS, the Dodgers’ blueprint for reaching their fourth consecutive NLCS went according to plan.
Walker Buehler was exceptional through six shutout innings before wobbling slightly in the seventh, courtesy of a defensive miscue by Corey Seager. With two on, two out, and a career high in pitches for Buehler, Dave Roberts took the ball and tapped his left arm to summon Clayton Kershaw from the bullpen to protect a precarious 3-1 lead.
Kershaw took the mound facing raucous cheers from the Dodger Stadium crowd, and the electricity in the air was eerily reminiscent. Three years ago, in another Game 5 Division Series matchup against Washington, Roberts had brought in Kershaw to face Daniel Murphy with two on, one out, and everything on the line. At that point, Daniel Murphy was a playoff legend, with a .421 average and seven home runs in the previous year’s NL playoffs. However, Kershaw was Kershaw—indisputably the best pitcher in the world and still at the apex of his powers despite his second major back injury in three years.
As Kershaw began to reprise his 2016 magic in Game 5, the postseason electricity at Dodger Stadium surged to a crescendo as Kershaw effortlessly fanned Adam Eaton on three pitches, rescuing the Dodgers from the seventh-inning jam.
The next inning, however, was a painful reminder how far Kershaw had fallen since 2016. Anthony Rendon led off the frame and promptly golfed an 89 mph fastball below the zone to cut the Dodgers’ lead in half. On the very next pitch, Kershaw hung a flat slider high in the strike zone, and Juan Soto pulverized it for the longest home run of his fledgling career. As the ball rocketed over the wall in center field, Kershaw crouched on the mound in anguish, brought to his knees by the gravity of Father Time.
As recently as 18 months ago, Kershaw had a legitimate claim to being the best pitcher in the game. There were arguments for making Kershaw the first fantasy pitcher off the board (with Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber being the other contenders). Kershaw’s fall from majesty seemingly began at the outset of the 2018 campaign. In his Opening Day start against the Giants, Kershaw was effective if not dominant, yielding 1 run on 8 hits and 2 walks in 6 full frames, tallying 7 Ks. After averaging around 93-94 mph through the entirety of his career to that point, Kershaw failed to hit 93 with any of his fastballs. Analysts at the time preached patience, insisting that it was early and completely normal for starting pitchers to ramp up their velocity as they found their stride in the regular season.
But the resurgence never came. Kershaw’s fastball held at a consistent 89-92 mph, rendering it a significantly inferior weapon and changing the way Kershaw could attack opposing hitters. Although 2018 was still a highly effective season by any pitcher’s standards, Kershaw’s looming mortality was impossible to deny. He posted the lowest full-season strikeout rate of his career (8.6 per 9), his highest FIP (3.18), his fewest strikeouts (155), and his lowest fastball velocity (90.9 mph, down by almost two full ticks from the 92.7 he had averaged the year before). After a year in which Kershaw had battled through biceps tendinitis and a shoulder injury, Kershaw failed to place in the Cy Young voting for the first time in eight years.
As 2019 and his age-31 season approached, the narrative shifted to whether Kershaw could recapture the fastball velocity that had been the foundation of his career. Before 2018, Kershaw’s bread and butter had been bullying hitters with mid-90s fastballs on the inner half of the plate. The diminished velocity on Kershaw’s fastball in 2018 forced him to heavily utilize his breaking pitches, as he threw his fastball just 40.8 percent of the time, marking the ninth straight season his fastball usage had dropped (though some of that was by design, as he transitioned from being a two-pitch pitcher to refining the slider that elevated him to transcendence).
Kershaw expressed a desire to come back strong in 2019, communicating a belief that a run of extended health coupled with the right offseason conditioning could enable him to recapture his velocity. A shoulder injury early in spring training destroyed any hopes of a vintage Kershaw comeback, and when he took the mound for Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium, it became increasingly apparent that the Kershaw of 2018 was here to stay, as his fastball once again struggled to reach 92.
By any standard, however, Kershaw’s 2019 season was still a highly effective one. Over 28 injury-free starts, he accumulated 16 wins with 189 strikeouts, a 3.03 ERA, and a 1.04 WHIP, finishing 11th among all starting pitchers on ESPN’s Player Rater. During the preseason, FantasyPros had him at 15th in ADP among starting pitchers, making Kershaw’s 2019 a quality return on draft investment.
Within the success of his 2019 regular season, however, there were a few sad reminders of how Kershaw’s star was continuing to fall:
- Before his start against Arizona on August 31, Kershaw had never lost a game in which the Dodgers had scored at least four runs for him, accumulating an astonishing 116-0 record in those situations. After a start in which he surrendered back-to-back home runs to Christian Walker and Wilmer Flores, however, Kershaw’s run of perfection had ended.
- Three weeks later, on September 20, Kershaw once again surrendered multiple home runs in a home start against Colorado. Before the 2019 season began, Kershaw had allowed multiple home runs in just 13 games. However, Kershaw’s lackluster Colorado start marked the eighth time in 2019 that Kershaw had surrendered multiple long balls. To put everything into proper perspective, Justin Verlander has allowed multiple home runs 23 times since the start of 2017 alone (and 67 times in his career).
- Kershaw’s fastball velocity dropped for the fourth consecutive season (down half a tick from the previous season, from 90.9 to 90.4 mph)
- For the first full season in his major league career, Kershaw failed to record an ERA under 3.00, with a final mark of 3.03. His FIP, however, was an alarming 3.88, thanks to the 28 home runs he allowed.
- On a different note, Kershaw was initially slated as the assumed Game 3 starter in the Division Series, with Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu projected as the initial starters at Dodger Stadium. Though it can be argued that it’s splitting hairs to analyze the order of three aces in the same rotation, it provided a sobering reminder that Kershaw is no longer head and shoulders above the rest.
After Kershaw was capable yet uninspiring in his a Game 2 loss to Washington (6 IP, 7 baserunners, 3 ER, 4 Ks), The Athletic’s Pedro Moura defended Kershaw’s performance by contending that Kershaw’s start had been adequate enough to keep the Dodgers in the game, writing, “This is who he is now.”
So let’s take that at face value and see what that means.
‘This Is Who He Is Now’
2018-2019: Post-Peak Kershaw/CurrentShaw (statistics cited exclude any relief appearances)
With CurrentShaw, we have a six-inning pitcher with solidly above-average ratios, an above-average if not scintillating strikeout rate, and a favorable situation for accumulating wins. In rotisserie leagues, you only really care about the season stat line, but in H2H leagues, the nature and timing of his contributions matter more.
The bad news is that you basically never got an electrifying start out of Kershaw if you owned him in 2019. He reached double-digit strikeouts just three times, with only four scoreless outings and no starts exceeding seven innings in length. If memory serves, Kershaw never earned a Gallows Pole, as his season high in swinging strikes was 18, a total that Verlander exceeded 11 times.
The good news, though, is that you got a bastion of consistency. For 23 straight starts, Kershaw pitched at least six innings every time he took the hill. He earned absolutely no HAISFMFWTs, recording at least six strikeouts in 17 of those games. Kershaw never single-handedly won you a week, but across five months, he was a reliably plus asset in a notoriously shaky SP landscape. In literally any context, he was a set-and-forget starter and even in his worst month (May), he still gave you a 4-0 record with a palatable ERA and WHIP.
The Outlook for Next Year
- For better or worse, the past two seasons, in isolation, provide a clear baseline for what we can reasonably expect from Kershaw. His effectiveness at limiting baserunners was a mirror image from one season to the next (1.041 in 2018, 1.043 this past season).
- The spike in his FIP (3.18 last year, up to 3.86 this year) is pretty significant, and I wouldn’t be doing due diligence if I didn’t address that. A small part of Kershaw’s inflated FIP stems from an increase in his walk rate, as he walked 41 batters in 178.1 frames this year, up from 29 in 161.1 innings last year. That’s not irrelevant, but a 2.1 BB/9 is still elite, ranking 11th among all NL starters.
- The bigger culprit, by far, lies in Kershaw’s giving up 11 more home runs in just 17 more innings. On a per-inning basis, Kershaw gave up long balls 51 percent more frequently, which is an alarming trend that would impair his status as a top-shelf ERA asset. Let’s dive deeper into that.
- Adjustment for League Context: Across both leagues, batters hit 6,776 home runs, which was 1,191 more than the previous season (good for a 21.3 percent increase). The juiced ball doesn’t fully negate Kershaw’s home run spike, but it definitely helps. I’d consider it reasonable to look at Kershaw’s stat line with a normalized home run rate (under the assumption that this happens leaguewide). Even if we do nothing else to adjust Kershaw’s stat line, normalizing Kershaw’s home run rate to 2018 levels reduces his HR total to a more manageable 24.
Analyzing Contact Trends/Behavior of Opposing Hitters
It’s easy and logical to buy into the narrative that Kershaw’s performance is degrading as he continues to age. The plate-discipline numbers, however, tell a different story.
2018-2019 Opposing Hitter Plate Discipline
|O-Swing %||Z-Swing %||Swing %||O-Contact %||Z-Contact %||Contact %||Zone %||F-Strike %||SwStr%|
Looking into the plate-discipline numbers provides some interesting insight. The rise in Kershaw’s walk rate (from 1.5 batters per nine up to 2.1) can be visibly linked to the slight drop in Kershaw’s first-pitch strike percentage (down 3.2 percentage points from 2018 to 2019), as well as the overall percentage of pitches Kershaw threw in the strike zone (42.7, down from 46.3). The trade-off, however, is that Kershaw was tougher to hit, with a marginal drop in the frequency of contact hitters made against pitches in the strike zone and a fairly substantial improvement in his ability to coax swings and misses on pitches outside the zone (55.7 percent, down over 6 percentage points from 2018).
All in all, Kershaw’s contact percentage (74.6) and swinging-strike rate (12.9 percent) were both the fifth-best full-season marks of his career. After a rough adjustment to pitching with a diminished fastball, Kershaw has made the conscious adjustment to lean on breaking pitches outside the zone more, trading some control to sustain excellence in missing bats. Although this does hurt his floor as a WHIP asset, a 1.04 mark over the past two seasons is still elite, and the silver lining of his decline is that we’ve already got substantial data indicating that he can continue to be great even with diminished weapons.
Despite the supposed degradation of his arsenal, Kershaw is finding different ways to make meaningful improvements even within a diminished skill set.
Batted Balls and Pitch Values (2018-2019)
To take the analysis to the next level, the outcome of the plate appearances hitters accumulated against Kershaw tells us a few mildly encouraging things:
|LD%||GB%||FB%||HR/FB||Soft Contact %||Medium Contact %||Hard Contact %|
The distribution in Kershaw’s soft/medium/hard contact presented nothing alarming. His soft-contact percentage remained exactly the same, and he essentially traded a few percentage points of medium contact for hard contact. When the differential is that small, it’d be easy enough to attribute that to the juiced ball and the 22 percent home run spike leaguewide. Kershaw’s elevated home run rate is significant, but the data indicates that he both gave up more fly balls and had significantly more of those fly balls leave the yard. Despite the rise in his hard-contact percentage, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to say Kershaw was at least somewhat held back by a lively baseball, with the metrics painting a misleading picture. To further support that point, Kershaw’s line-drive percentage was actually down 3.5 percentage points (19.0 last year vs. 22.5 the year before), and that 19.0 percent is about as good as we’ve ever seen from Kershaw, even during his peak seasons.
- In 2018, Kershaw’s fastball was a below-average pitch for the first full season of his entire career (3.4 runs below average). Although it still wasn’t quite as dominant a weapon as it was in his absolute prime (149.1 runs above average from 2011-2016, 24.85 runs above average per season), it was still a plus pitch (9.1 runs above average) and actually returned more value than it did in 2017 (8.3 runs above average), when Kershaw was still largely considered Kershaw. Despite his failure to regain his once-premier velocity, Kershaw’s intelligence as a pitcher is enabling him to find moderate success with the fastball he now has.
- On another encouraging note, there appears to be no noteworthy decline in the effectiveness of Kershaw’s slider. As with many of his other metrics, the effectiveness of his slider mirrored his 2018 campaign, as his slider was 16.2 runs above average in both seasons.
With all of that in mind, I’d have to agree with the assessment that Kershaw is what he is at this stage. The narrative of his being in continuous decline is only going to gain traction thanks to the stigma of his Game 5 performance in the playoffs, but all of the data indicates Kershaw has plateaued over the past two seasons. He is not the old Kershaw and never will be again. He is an older Kershaw, diminished yet still dominant.
If he suffers another velocity drop, it could be concerning, but given that he’ll only be 32 next season and has already made the conscious and tangible adjustments to pitching with subpar velocity while leaning on his breaking pitches, the imminent downside really isn’t there. His health remains a concern, but the amount of time Kershaw has missed has also been fairly consistent, as he’s made 27, 26, and 28 starts over the last three seasons. Given that 27 starts is the exact average over his past three seasons, this seems like a reasonable projection for next season. In terms of his performance across those 27 starts, I’d expect more of the same, with a potential drop in home runs pushing his ERA back below 3.00.
If we aggregate his 2018-2019 performance, we have:
Taking the exact two-year average of that, we get a 2020 projection that looks like this: 27 starts, 13 wins, 2.90 ERA, 172 strikeouts, 169.2 IP, 1.045 WHIP, 9.12 K/9, 4.90 K/BB
Despite being a lifelong Kershaw fan, I’d actually have him somewhat lower than most. I have no doubt that Kershaw is still an ace-caliber pitcher during the regular season, but the fact that you pretty much have to expect him to miss four to six starts per season because of injury and the Dodgers’ designs on keeping him fresh for October severely limit his upside and volume (just under 170 innings per season from 2018 to 2019). You realistically can’t hope for much better than he’s given you over each of the past two seasons, unless he somehow rediscovers an extra couple of ticks on his fastball. Last season, Kershaw bucked the odds by staying completely healthy after missing the first three weeks, but you can also expect the Dodgers to err on the side of caution to fantasy owners’ detriment.
Nick Pollack’s Way-Too-Early Top 100 Starting Pitcher Rankings for 2020 has him at No. 12, sandwiched between Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg, with Jack Flaherty and Luis Severino rounding out the Top 15. I’d definitely draft Corbin, Strasburg, and Flaherty ahead of Kershaw, as all of those arms stand a realistic chance of being in the same ballpark as Kershaw in ratios while being good bets to challenge or eclipse 200 innings and 200 strikeouts. Putting Kershaw at No. 14, just ahead of Severino, feels like a logical place to rank him, as I’d expect Severino to be handled carefully after missing most of last season with a series of arm injuries.
Kershaw’s ADP last season was as the 15th pitcher off the board (55.4 overall). That feels like exactly the right spot to rank him, as he’s lost some of his theoretical upside from a potential velocity bump, but solidified consumer confidence that he can pitch at a high level with diminished stuff while also reasserting his stability in an SP landscape where there are endless question marks. I’d feel great about drafting Kershaw as my No. 2 pitcher with a stable, reliable No. 3 to back him up. If you’re confident in your ability to stream pitchers and/or trade midseason, you could also feasibly take him as a low-end SP1. It’s not the most exciting take, and it’s a far cry from the hopes people had for Kershaw as recently as last offseason. At this point in Kershaw’s career though, he is who he is.
A Closing Tribute to a Generational Great
(Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire)