Clayton Kershaw Gets his 30 Million AAV, And it Might Be Worth It

It is my fervent hope that Part 3 of the WAR study will be up at some point tonight. First, though, and briefly: we all kind of knew this was going to happen. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball right now, and it isn’t particularly close. The 25 year-old 2-time Cy Young winner has led the National League in ERA each of the last 3 years while averaging over 230 innings pitched, was best in strikeouts in 2011 and 2013 (having finished 2nd in 2012 by one K), and in both 2012 and 2013 led the league in pitcher Wins Above Replacement and adjusted ERA+.

For a couple of years, baseball has speculated that Kershaw would be the first 30 million dollar man, and today it happened. Shortly after filing for arbitration, Kersh and the Dodgers got to work on what would be a 7-year, $215 million dollar contract extension with a player opt-out after five years. The deal is surprisingly reasonable in length given Kershaw’s stature and youth – He’ll only be 32 (the same age Adam Wainwright is today!) when his seven years are up.

Assuming a player “win” is worth about $6 million now, with a probability of increasing incrementally over the life of the deal (see Dave Cameron’s excellent piece from today over at Fangraphs*), Kershaw projects – conservatively – to be worth over $240 million dollars from 2014-2020. Cameron’s analysis assumes Kershaw, a 6.5 fWAR player in 2013, to have already peaked in value, and allows for regression from 5.5 wins in 2014 to just 4.5 in the final year of the deal. Given the Dodgers’ giant budget and $8+ billion TV deal, and the affable Kershaw’s likely ascendancy to Dodger icon and future Hall of Famer, the price, while enormous, may not be unreasonable.

What if Kershaw loses a year to injury? He’s only 25, has not had major surgery up to this point, and is known for a strange delivery that has already contributed to early-career hip problems. Using Cameron’s estimate of performance and win dollar value, let’s take a quick look at how much Kershaw would have to compensate in order to justify the $215 million dollar deal if he were injured for the entirety of, say, 2016:

Year                                WAR           Value (in millions)

2014                                6.2              $37.2

2015                                5.8              $36.54

2016                                   0                       0

2017                                4.5              $31.05

2018                                5.0              $36.5

2019                                4.8              $36.96

2020                                4.5              $36.2

If Kershaw regresses a full half-win in 2014** in what should still be a pre-regression season (age 26), continues to decline in 2015, misses all of 2016, has a 2017 a half-win worse than what Cameron projects, and then undergoes a reasonable regression for the rest of his deal, he will still be worth what the Dodgers paid him, not even considering jersey sales, postseason revenue, and the like.

Assuming Kershaw doesn’t go the way of fellow California Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and forget how to pitch at 27, baseball’s highest AAV contract may end up looking positively team-friendly when all is said and done. Still, holy shit. We have a 30 million dollar a year player. Hurray for capitalism.

* A tremendous deal of credit goes to Dave Cameron, without whose work I would not have been able to throw up numbers and hypothetical projections so quickly. If you came to this site, you likely read Fangraphs every day. If you don’t, you should.

**Notably, Baseball-Reference and its accompanying calculation rWAR like Kershaw quite a bit better than does Fangraphs. In 2013, Kershaw’s rWAR was an astronomical 7.9 (compared to “only” 6.5 fWAR). The player would have to regress substantially to get down to the 6.2 I’ve hypothesized or the 5.5 allowed by Cameron for 2014. Had I used rWAR to predict Kershaw’s value in dollars over the life of the deal, the surprising reasonableness of the contract for the Dodgers would be even more apparent.

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