Clayton Kershaw will go down as one of the greatest pitchers of his time and is practically a lock to make the Hall of Fame. He’s been so good for so long that it feels like he should be older than he is, but he is indeed only entering his age 34 season in 2022. Even at this age and with nearly 2500 major league innings logged in his career, Kershaw has still been quite an effective pitcher recently, doesn’t have the qualifying offer attached, and probably won’t realistically get a massive long contract, so he could be a very interesting target for Alex Anthopoulos and the Braves.
The contract projections have actually been pretty interesting to me. MLB Trade Rumors projected Kershaw to get one-year, $20 million , while Ben Clemens of Fangraphs projected him to get one-year, $18 million in their respective top 50 free agent projections. If Kershaw is indeed willing to sign a one-year deal in the $18-25 million range, I would wager that the Braves are quite interested in trying to sign him at that number, and I would be too. They would also have the opportunity to offer him the qualifying offer next offseason (if that mechanic remains similar in the new CBA) if he does well in 2022, which the team would likely be happy to see him accept and come back or leave and earn them draft pick compensation.
The average Fangraphs crowdsource was roughly three-years, $60 million, however. Steamer projects Kershaw to be worth 3.1 fWAR in 2022. Regressing Kershaw for age from that 3.1 number, it’s not hard to see a three-year $60-65 million contract as a perfectly reasonable contract for Kershaw. Three-years $65 million would be my upper bound for what I would offer Kershaw.
With his xERA, FIP, and xFIP all within the 2.87-3.17 range in 2021, Kershaw showed that he is still a very good pitcher when he’s healthy. His velocity is diminished from his early career mid-90s to now just above 90 MPH, but he still finds ways to pitch at an extremely high level, using his slider/cutter more than he used to. His fastball also has a 95th percentile spin rate, which does help to make up for what he lacks in velocity. He also still his his signature curveball as a great pitch in his arsenal. The legendary lefty had an 85th percentile K%, 97th percentile BB%, 94th percentile whiff %, and 90th percentile chase % in 2021, which all help to explain and illustrate his continued success
As can be seen in this pitch usage chart from Baseball Savant, Kershaw has consistently used his slider/cutter more as his career has gone on, at the expense of his four-seamer usage. His slider/cutter actually became his primary pitch in 2021, surpassing his four-seamer usage for the first time in his career. He still uses his signature curveball just under 20% of the time.
The xwOBA for these pitches are about what you would expect. The four-seamer is not particularly effective, although not entirely disastrous, while the slider/cutter is quite effective and the curveball remains great. The changeup was legitimately disastrous for Kershaw in 2021, but he almost never throws it, so that’s not extremely important.
Aside from all of his tangible qualities that he can bring on the field, it’s also not hard to imagine how Kershaw could help out some of the younger pitchers on the Braves staff. Now veteran Max Fried is a lefty with a similar pitch mix to Kershaw (except for fastball spin rates on opposite ends of the spectrum), and he in particular comes to mind as someone who might benefit from Kershaw’s presence, but a pitcher of Kershaw’s pedigree would likely be a positive presence on Ian Anderson and any other young pitchers the Braves might have with the major league staff
The biggest problem for him of late has simply been injuries. Kershaw has seemed to have some form of injury pop up in the last number of seasons, which limits how much he can play. In 2021, this meant he wasn’t available to pitch in the postseason. He might not be up for a Gerrit Cole or Max Scherzer type contract, but he will still cost enough and likely be good enough that any team signing him will really want him to be available to pitch in the postseason. This will require either health luck or some serious management of his usage to keep his innings down some and keep him healthy for the all-important Autumn games.
Kershaw is a player that I would really like to see the Braves bring in from this free agency class. If Kershaw is open to a one year deal I would predict and propose that the Braves take a long hard look at bringing him in on a deal in the $18-$25 million range. I would still be comfortable with going to a second or third year at $20-22 million AAV for Kershaw, but I’m less sure that the Braves would be interested in that number. Regardless, it will be fascinating to see how Kershaw’s market develops whenever free agency resumes.