Fantasy Baseball: Is Clayton Kershaw Still a Top-Tier Pitcher?
There is no debate about this. Everyone agrees. He has a career ERA of 2.37. His career FIP is 2.62. He's averaged 9.86 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) and struck out 27.9% of batters faced. He has a career WHIP of 1.00, and opponents have hit a collective .203 against him in 1,979 career innings. He's led the league in ERA five times, strikeouts three times, has three Cy Young Awards on his shelf, was runner-up two other times, and won the National League MVP award in 2014.
He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer if his career ended today. But at just 30 years old, Kershaw's career would seem to have a lot left in it. In fantasy, he came into the season as one of four pitchers in the top tier of starters, along with Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber.
But injuries the last few seasons have put some chinks in Kershaw's armor, knocking him out of action for significant periods the two seasons prior to 2018. Now, he's on the disabled list again, this time with bicep tendinitis. Kershaw did play catch Wednesday, and he may not be out for long.
But for someone who was the first pitcher taken off the board, according to average draft position (ADP) numbers from National Fantasy Baseball Championship, going seventh overall on average, this is concerning. On top of the ailments -- or perhaps because of them -- Kershaw's numbers have fallen a bit, from out of this world to still pretty darn good
All of this begs the question -- should Kershaw still be considered a member of the top tier of fantasy starters? And if he isn't, should Kershaw owners look to sell now and reap a huge reward for a pitcher whose age has started to show?
In his first seven starts this year (44.0 innings pitched), Kershaw had remained effective with a 2.86 ERA, 3.73 FIP, 2.99 xFIP and 0.7 fWAR. Not phenomenal numbers but still pretty good. However, the rest of his numbers across the board have not been encouraging.
Most concerning is the velocity on his fastball, which is averaging just 91.1 miles per hour, a career low. Last year it was 92.7 miles per hour and in 2016, it was 93.1. That drop in velocity has forced him to throw that pitch less than ever this year -- just 42.3% of the time, down from 72.0% in his first full season as a starter in 2009 and 47.1% last year. To compensate, he's throwing his slider more than he ever has, tossing it 38.8% of the time, way higher than his career average of 23.2%, while his curveball usage has remained about the same (17.8% in 2018).
It's fair to wonder if Kershaw's bicep tendinitis is the result of him throwing more breaking pitches or trying to throw harder, or if the bicep tendinitis is the reason for his decreased velocity. Regardless of the reason, the pain was enough for him to go on the shelf.
His strikeout-to-walk rate of 21.0% is down from last year's 25.3% clip and 2016's mark of 29.6%, but it is right in line with his career mark of 21.2%. However, his strikeout rate of 26.5% is down from an average that hovered around 30% every year since 2014. His opponents' batting average of .234 is still excellent, but it's about 30 percentage points higher than his career average (.203).
In that same vein, his 29.3% hard-hit rate allowed isn't bad, but it is on pace to be the worst mark of his career, and his 11.7% swinging-strike rate is his lowest since 2013.
A big problem has been home runs allowed as he's giving up 1.43 homers per nine innings this year, a clip that far exceeds last year's 1.18 mark. Take this moonshot, for example, off a pitch that was 88 miles per hour.
.@CWALK328 has some serious power!
This 114.4 mph, 479-foot 🚀 off Clayton Kershaw is the 2nd-longest HR the @Dbacks have hit since #Statcast began tracking in 2015. pic.twitter.com/Y0NwK0TJji
— #Statcast (@statcast) May 2, 2018
Homers were an issue for him last year, as well. He had a home-run-per-fly-ball rate of 15.9% in 2017, and it's risen to 19.4% this year -- both of which are miles more than his 8.1% career average.
In 2016 and 2017, Kershaw suffered back injuries that forced him out of action for extended periods of time. He made just 21 starts in 2016 because of those back problems, and last year, he missed a handful of starts because of a back strain.
The bicep tendinitis is the first arm injury of his career, and it's fair to wonder if the 2,101 innings he's thrown over an 11-year career has resulted in a breaking down of his body. Had Kershaw not had these previous injuries, it's likely this would be seen as nothing more than a minor problem, and to be fair, it could still be just that.
But Kershaw is an "old" 30, having started his big league career at just 20 years old, logging more than 200 innings in a season five times, not including postseason action. Wear and tear may be a way of life for the left-hander now.
Still Top Tier?
So does Kershaw deserve to stay in the top tier of starters in fantasy baseball? Or should he be moved down? And what should fantasy owners do with him, now that he's on the disabled list again?
According to our metrics, Kershaw has been the 39th-best starting pitcher in fantasy this season. Of course, it's a small sample size, but it's clear fantasy owners are not getting what they expected when they selected him with a first-round pick.
Meanwhile, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber -- the other three top-shelf fantasy hurlers -- have all managed to stay healthy and produce. Scherzer is the top rated fantasy starter by our metrics, with Kluber 5th and Sale 10th.
And aside from better on-field production this season, the biggest separator these three have from Kershaw is that none of them has missed significant time due to injury in the last few seasons. All are making regular starts for fantasy owners, while Kershaw has missed time in each of the last three years.
Now is the time to see what you can get for Kershaw. The second tier of starters coming into the season included names like Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, Jacob deGrom, Luis Severino, Carlos Carrasco and Justin Verlander. Similar to Kershaw, Syndergaard, Strasburg, deGrom and Carrasco have all had injury issues at some point in the last few years, while Verlander's and Severino's numbers were traditionally a bit below Kershaw's levels.
Kershaw is either now a member of this second tier of fantasy starters, or he's created his own tier in between the big three and the group mentioned above. But some owners may still value him as the best in baseball, so now is a solid selling opportunity for Kershaw owners unless we get some bad news regarding his current injury that scares everyone away.
Bear in mind, owners should not be looking to give away Kershaw at a big discount. There's a good chance he comes back healthy and is really good once again. But if you can send away Kershaw for one of the aforementioned second-tier arms plus another solid player, it's probably worth doing.
Kershaw is no longer a sure thing. He's a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and fantasy owners would be wise to extract maximum value for him now.