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Best- and worst-case scenarios for Kershaw

October 30, 2018

Where does Clayton Kershaw go from here?That question no longer applies to the left-hander's choice of teams. While Kershaw originally had until the clock struck midnight on Halloween to exercise an opt-out clause in his contract, he and the Dodgers extended the deadline further and on Friday the Dodgers and

Where does Clayton Kershaw go from here?
That question no longer applies to the left-hander's choice of teams. While Kershaw originally had until the clock struck midnight on Halloween to exercise an opt-out clause in his contract, he and the Dodgers extended the deadline further and on Friday the Dodgers and Kershaw agreed on a three-year, $93 million contract.

But the question of where Kershaw goes also applies to his career trajectory, even as he committed to remaining in Dodger Blue in 2019 and beyond.
The three-time National League Cy Young Award winner still posted a 2.73 ERA in 2018 and authored a couple of superb postseason outings. He also endured multiple stints on the disabled list, spending time there for the fourth year out of five, as back issues continued to plague him. His velocity and strikeout rate both dropped.
When Kershaw struggled a few times in the postseason -- he allowed nine runs over two World Series losses -- it didn't have the same feel as some of his earlier October disappointments. This didn't seem as much like an elite pitcher suffering an uncharacteristic performance at the worst time. This seemed more like a pitcher who simply was no longer at his best unable to tame a strong lineup.
Kershaw, who will turn 31 in March, may already be a lock for the Hall of Fame 11 seasons into a career that already includes more than 60 wins above replacement (WAR), according to both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. But what does his more immediate future have in store?
Here is a look at the range of possible outcomes:
Best-case scenario
It's clear that Kershaw needs to make a significant adjustment in order to recapture his peak performance -- or something close to it. So it's certainly a positive that he is renowned for his intense work ethic. It's also notable that Kershaw has adjusted before, beginning his career with a fastball-dominant repertoire, introducing a slider that became a key to his success, and ultimately coming to lean on his breaking stuff more than almost any starter in the Majors.
It's not clear what exactly Kershaw can or should do next. Finding a way to regain some fastball velocity is an obvious goal after the heater lost 2 mph (down to 90.8 mph) from 2017 to '18, but that might be unrealistic, given the toll of age and injury. There are other ways, though.
Maybe Kershaw could take a page out of teammate Rich Hill's playbook and put more emphasis on his famous curveball (In 2018, Hill ranked third among starters in curveball usage, at 35.8 percent; Kershaw was 36th, at 16.4 percent). Maybe he might tweak the slider, as that pitch's 88-mph average velocity has been converging with that of his fastball. Or perhaps Kershaw could finally master the elusive changeup, or find a different fourth pitch to keep opponents off-balance.

None of this is easy, but the great ones sometimes find a way.
Only a few years ago, there was talk that Justin Verlander's days as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher were over. In 2014, he allowed the most earned runs in the American League. The next year, time on the DL limited Verlander to 20 starts. His velocity sagged. But since '16, Verlander's 19.9 WAR, per Baseball-Reference, ranks second to Max Scherzer among MLB pitchers. Verlander's performance rose to another level after last August's trade exposed him to Houston's more data-driven approach.
A couple of decades earlier, Roger Clemens lost some of his two-time Cy Young Award-winning luster over his up-and-down final four seasons in Boston. Then, at age 34, he moved to Toronto, and with the help of a blossoming splitter, produced two of the finest seasons of his career, both of which resulted in more hardware.
Worst-case scenario
Sometimes, the body simply doesn't cooperate. That's the scary reality facing Kershaw going forward. While the star southpaw remained highly effective in 2018, his chronic back issues and the obvious decline in his stuff could foreshadow a steeper drop-off that no amount of training or tinkering can prevent.
In some cases, the physical challenges are so great that they simply stop a career in its tracks. The pitcher to whom Kershaw is most often compared, Sandy Koufax, retired at the same age Kershaw is now due to arm trouble. A far more recent example is another accomplished lefty, Johan Santana, a two-time Cy Young Award winner who made just 21 starts after age 31 as his career succumbed to a barrage of injuries.

Other times, the pitcher remains on the mound, but as a shadow of his former self. Mariners fans have endured the gradual decline of Felix Hernandez, a franchise cornerstone whose ERA has, since 2014, ballooned as follows: 2.14, 3.53, 3.82, 4.36 and 5.55. This past season, at age 32, King Felix's fastball velocity dipped close to 89 mph, and he was briefly demoted to the bullpen.
What to expect
Time is undefeated, and at some point, Kershaw's days of effectiveness will come to an end. It's premature to say that point is now, coming off a season in which Kershaw's 142 ERA+ tied him for 11th out of 78 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings. A couple of subpar games against a 108-win Red Sox club that stampeded through the postseason doesn't make this a dire situation just yet.
There certainly is cause for concern moving forward, but Kershaw is no doubt aware of this. In the current baseball landscape, the Dodgers and most other teams have an astonishing amount of technology and brainpower at their disposal, all of which can help players unlock another level of performance. Combine that with Kershaw's own work habits, and significant remaining talent, and the ingredients are there.
Realistically, the peak Kershaw of 2013-15 likely is gone, and the back issues figure to remain a factor. With that said, it should be no surprise if he maintains his recent production over the next few seasons, or even finds a way to recapture some of his lost glory.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.