Where should Clayton Kershaw go in next year’s drafts?

Clayton Kershaw has been the consensus top pitcher in our fantasy leagues since his 2011 breakout season, though the gap between him and the next three pitchers narrowed considerably heading into this season. Kershaw’s ADP in 34 15-team NFBC Main Event leagues this year was 5.62, with an early pick of second overall and the latest pick being 11th overall. He hasn’t gone outside of the first round since he hurt his back pitching the 2014 season opener in Australia, which took place before the rest of the league started and before many Main Event drafts went off. He typically dropped to the second round that year out of fear of a lengthy absence (he actually missed the month of April that year). Of course, all he did in 2014 was go 21-3 with 239 strikeouts, a 1.77 ERA and 0.86 WHIP, and fantasy owners learned to look the other way whenever any aches and pains popped up with him going forward.

But those injuries have become more frequent and persistent with Kershaw, and with that it’s finally started to hurt his performance. Kershaw was limited to 149 innings in 2016, 175 innings last year and has only thrown 81.2 innings so far this year. His velocity is down for the third year in a row, with a much bigger drop this year. Any first-round selection next year will be a leap of faith, even if he’s utterly dominant the final two months of the season and in the playoffs. But much like talking about a breakout player regressing, the details matter.

Kershaw hasn’t been the top SP earner the last two years due to his lack of innings, though it’s remarkable that he’s been close given how much time he missed. According to our Earned Auction Values tool, he earned $25 in 2016, $30 in 2017, but so far only $5 in 2018. His two-year total from 2016 and 2017 trails that earned by Max Scherzer ($32, $35), Corey Kluber ($23, $39) and Chris Sale ($23, $35). Clearly, he’s going to fall well short of those three starters this year.

Kershaw’s ratios are pretty good still – 2.64 ERA, 1.09 WHIP – off of his usual standard, but still very good. However I think that they are the start of a downward trend, though I hope I’m wrong.

Let’s start off with the obvious health angle. This is the fourth time in five years that he’s missed at least a month of action, and in this case he has had two DL trips. Making matters worse, he’s had a recurrence of the back injury on multiple occasions, and it doesn’t seem likely that it’s fully going away, absent a major surgical procedure. That alone is enough for me to discount him significantly in next year’s drafts – at least by a round, and maybe by two-to-three rounds.

But it doesn’t stop there. In an era where strikeouts are up across baseball, Kershaw’s strikeout rate has dropped this year from 10.39 K/9 all the way down to 9.15 (or, for those who prefer K%, from 29.8% down to 25.1%). Again, in a vacuum that’s not a bad rate, but the trends are troubling. Over the last couple of years, his velocity had been dipping on a gentle decline – starting in 2015, his average fastball has gone from 93.6 mph, to 93.1 in 2016, and 92.7 mph last season. But this year it’s dropped considerably – all the way down to 90.9 mph. Even worse, his velocity in his most recent start (according to Brooks Baseball) was at its lowest since his token outing in between his two DL stints, and second lowest on the season.

Kershaw’s pitch selection has changed this year as well. Kershaw’s four-seamer used to be his overwhelmingly dominant pitch, both in volume and in the results. That’s no longer the case. It’s still his most frequent pitch, but he now throws his slider almost as often, and he’s getting significantly worse results from the four-seamer as that velocity has declined. That pitch selection is really arresting in graphical form, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

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And the results on that four-seamer are particularly disturbing. From a 2015 peak of a 23.4% strikeout rate on four-seamers, Kershaw this year is only getting strikeouts at a 13.3% rate on that pitch. Opposing batters are now slugging .509 on that pitch against him, compared to .321 back in 2015. The trends on this pitch – his most used pitch, are just so bad:

Year K% SLG% wOBA
2015 23.4 .321 .276
2016 21.8 .374 .277
2017 20.1 .434 .302
2018 13.3 .509 .361

Kershaw is getting better results with his secondary pitches, notably his slider (which is up to nearly 40% usage) and curve, though it’s interesting to note that there are diminishing returns with those two pitches over the last four years as well.

This reminds me so much of the path taken by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez and, as Chris Liss suggested on our XM show the other day, CC Sabathia. All four of these pitchers had a dramatic drop in velocity with a corresponding jump in ERA, and none of those pitchers fully recovered. Lee is a bit of an exception as he got hurt and shut it down, but the other three starters had to try to reinvent themselves, with varying degrees of success. Sabathia was the most successful of the group so far, but he’s clearly a different pitcher without dominant stuff or results.

Kershaw is starting from a superior point, so it might mask his decline, but make no mistake, he is in a decline phase. I think that the best path to arresting that decline is if he can somehow find a way to permanently fix his back. Otherwise, the velocity is going to continue to drop, he’s going to get worse results with his fastball and throw it even less. Maybe loading up on his slider can work for him, a la Patrick Corbin, and maybe he’s past the arm injury nexus where relying upon the slider and curve so often won’t affect his health. There are those that argue that the fastball causes more damage to the pitching arm, anyhow. But I’m afraid that the decline continues in 2019.

But as my buddy always says about regression, that’s not the finishing point of the argument. In this case, we need to ask, “decline to what?” Right now his ERA sits at 2.61, with a 3.26 FIP. What if that rises to 3.50 next year, and the strikeout rate continues to drop? Where are you taking him then? Keep in mind that you’re probably also not getting 200 innings of that rate, but somewhere between 125 and 175 innings. That’s not an SP1, let alone a first-rounder. That’s probably not even an SP2 – perhaps at the bottom range of SP2’s. In the 15-team Main Event, I’m guessing that’s somewhere between a sixth and eighth round pick. Granted, that’s estimating right now in July, without two-plus months of baseball to go, plus the playoffs. Kershaw could very well regain velocity as he gets farther removed from his DL stint. He could get better results with that fastball over that span. Or … he could get hurt again.

I still think that in keeper leagues there’s a pretty decent selling opportunity with Kershaw. He’s 30 years old still, and as alluded earlier, still has generally good ratios. Teams looking to make a push right now will find him appealing to go after, especially with him pitching for a surging Dodgers team that just added Manny Machado. He is signed through the 2020 season, but can opt out after this year. However, his recent health track record might encourage him to stick with his current deal, which will pay him $32M next year and $33M in 2020. You as a fantasy owner want him to stick with the Dodgers – great ballpark, strong team with a lot of buying power. Unless you need him to contend this year, I’d recommend following up on that opportunity to trade him, and don’t treat him as your ace in 2019.