Fantasy Baseball: Where Should Clayton Kershaw Be Drafted in 2017?
The idea of selecting a pitcher in the first round of fantasy baseball drafts was unfathomable for many years. It just didn't make sense due to the opportunity cost of so many elite hitters available, and it was compounded by the fact that there wasn't a clear-cut stud that stood out from others on the mound.
Then, this little lefty from Dallas, Texas came along and completely flipped the script.
Clayton Kershaw is about to embark on his 10th MLB season -- his age-29 campaign -- and has pretty much been brilliant since the day he debuted for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He's a six-time All-Star, three-time NL Cy Young Award winner and even has one NL MVP to his name.
As good as he's been in his first nine seasons, he ratcheted up the heat even more between 2013-16.
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What does stick out is that he's suffered injuries in two of the last three seasons. He missed time in 2014 due to a back injury, and that pesky back forced him to the disabled list for three months last year.
The Case for Kershaw in the First Round
If you're drafting in the middle of the first round and nab a healthy Kershaw, the upside is obvious.
Steamer projections from FanGraphs provides a consistent baseline to measure what we think Kershaw will do in 2017. Here are the top five starting pitchers from FantasyPros, all slated to go in the first two rounds.
While this is a group of great hurlers, Kershaw's excellence stands out. He is the best in nearly every category (except for K/9). His projected ERA is nearly a full run below his closest competition, and that projected WHIP is also nothing to scoff at. Only two starters recorded a sub-1.00 WHIP last year (Max Scherzer and Kyle Hendricks), a mark Kershaw has recorded in each of the last four seasons.
While it's not shown, an overlooked aspect of a healthy Kershaw is his innings count, especially for Rotisserie leagues. The southpaw throws a pile of innings -- he's finished with at least 200-plus frames five times since 2010 -- so those crazy numbers he produces have an even larger impact on your pitching staff.
The Case Against Kershaw in the First Round
There are two large areas of concern in taking the Dodgers ace with such an early pick, and the first is related to injury.
Kershaw has now been sidelined by a back injury twice in the last three years -- and while the injury may be a thing of the past, a repeated issue always raises a red flag. It's cost him around 18 starts of insane goodness over the 2014 and 2016 seasons. He obviously holds a ton of value when on the mound, and even having Kershaw for part of a year is rather valuable.
However, getting him for only 21 starts like in 2016 costs too much.
It's tough to pass him up if he falls to you in the first round, but the other red flag is the opportunity cost surrendered on the offensive side of the ball.
Let's assume a scenario where a draft happens according to FantasyPros' consensus rankings and you've got the seventh overall pick in a 12-team mixed league. Using Steamer projections, here's what your first three picks would look like with Kershaw taken in the first round.
Here's what the first three picks would look like when he isn't.
The pitching edge from Kershaw to Madison Bumgarner is obvious, but Bumgarner is clearly a worthy pick to anchor your staff.
We've selected Edwin Encarnacion in both scenarios, so really, it's analyzing the difference between Carlos Correa to Manny Machado, and it's a big one. Across the board, the Bumgarner-led team will be significantly better in average, runs, homers, and has a large gap in runs batted in.
Correa does provide a slight bump in OBP and stolen bases, and while Machado didn't swipe a single bag last season, he ripped off 20 in 2015. So, there could be an even larger gap in offensive production between the two by the time it's all said and done.
Make no mistake about it -- when Kershaw is healthy and taking the ball 33 times a season, he is an absolute beast and perhaps the greatest pitcher of this generation. If there was a guarantee of 30-plus starts, it seems that the value he provides to a pitching staff is completely worth it, even while downgrading your offense slightly in the early rounds.
Injuries can strike in any sport, but it hits pitchers the hardest. Per Kitman Labs, almost $420 million (58.59%) of the total injury pool was spent on hurlers who hit the disabled list in 2015. Kershaw may never miss another start in his life, but the back troubles he's experienced do raise concerns that can't be ignored.
When considering the significant potential downgrade in offensive prowess, it becomes a matter of how risk-averse you want to be as a fantasy baseball owner.
Hit on Kershaw and you can build a pitching staff around the game's best hurler. But if he gets hurt again, both your pitching staff and your offense will feel the impact, making that league crown a mere pipe dream.