Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw just became the highest paid pitcher of all-time and now holds the record for highest average annual value. He inked a seven year contract extension worth $210MM with the Dodgers, which carries with it an AAV of $30.7MM.
What exactly will the Dodgers get for their money though?
If recent history is any indicator, they are likely to continue to get one of the most dominant starting pitchers of the modern-era. What exactly defines the modern-era though? According to some, and even baseball, it’s the game as it has been played post-1900. That sort of line in the sand is a bit silly though and ESPN’s Jayson Stark makes a very good point about the modern-era in baseball truly beginning in 1969, so that’s what we’re going with here.
While I have no doubts about Kershaw living up to this type of contract, length and value, the only true comparison that can be brought up about his run of recent dominance when compared to any other starting pitcher during this era is Pedro Martinez.
Pedro had 10 straight 5+ WAR caliber seasons and eight of those 10 he posted ERAs under three. He also won the ERA title five different seasons, beat out the likes of Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, and Tim Hudson for his three Cy Young Awards, and also led the Boston Red Sox to a World Series Championship in 2004.
Could Kershaw manage to string together his own 10-year streak of dominance the way that Pedro did during his career?
So far Kershaw has put together three straight seasons of 5-WAR or better performance, has won three straight ERA titles, and has taken two of the last three National League Cy Young Awards. It’s important to mention that Kershaw is just the third pitcher in MLB history to lead the league in ERA for three straight seasons, with Greg Maddux and Lefty Grove being the others (they are now both in the Hall of Fame).
The only thing that’s really missing here on his quest to be considered the most dominant pitcher of the modern-era is a World Series Championship. Post-season play appears to be his one kryptonite though, as he sports a 4.23 career ERA in 38.1 innings over nine post-season games (six starts).
Pedro Martinez, too, had his fair share of struggles during the post-season throughout his career but he did manage to capture a World Series title and maintain a respectable 3.46 career post-season ERA over 96.1 innings of work and 16 games (14 starts).
Martinez truly peaked in 1996 at age 24, though his age 23 season was pretty damn impressive, and only got better while maintaining his dominance through 2005 at age 33. We already knew that Kershaw was something special when he was just 21 years old in 2010, making 30 starts and working 171 innings for the Dodgers to the tune of a 2.79 ERA. He’s only gotten better since then and it appears that the only thing that could derail his brilliant career so far is injury.
ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski wrote a piece detailing how it is that Kershaw could actually be worth more than $300MM and projected out his performance over the next 10-years using his ZIPS projection system:
ZiPS views Kershaw to be worth 50.9 WAR over the next 10 seasons, taking Kershaw even past the career mark estimated for future Hall of Famers.
At $5.45 million per WAR (ZiPS has revised this figure upward based on this winter's contracts) and 5 percent inflation, that comes out to a whopping $338 million valuation. Even knocking off $15 million to $20 million to account for the fact that the contract is likely to buy out one arbitration year, meaning Kershaw would not get full price, there's clearly an argument for him surpassing that $300 million line.
Ignoring the insane amount of money Dan is projecting Kershaw to be worth, it’s really the projected performance that should be dropping jaws.
Kershaw is already at 28.4 WAR for his career and adding 50.9 to that total puts him at 79.3 WAR, which would put him 22nd on the all-time career WAR list for pitchers and within striking distance of cracking the top-10 (Pete Alexander is currently 10th with 98.2 career WAR). He’s already clearing a path for himself directly into the Hall of Fame one day but it’s possible Kershaw could one day be considered one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all-time, if not the greatest pitcher of all-time.
All stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com