Clayton Kershaw is a Dodgers icon and a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer. He is an MVP, a three-time Cy Young, and an eight-time all star. Yet he is seemingly an afterthought in the 2021 free agent market. There’s no question that Kershaw is no longer in his prime. But in this age where fans are always looking for the up and coming superstar, we may be overlooking how good Kershaw still is. While his fastball velocity and ERA declined in 2021, this is still one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Kershaw’s 2021: More Than Meets the Eye
Kershaw’s 3.55 ERA in 2021 was his highest since his rookie season, and his record of 10 and 8 was surprisingly pedestrian. It’s easy to look at these surface-level numbers and jump to conclusions about his decline. However, the underlying numbers paint a different, much more promising picture of Kershaw’s season.
Kershaw’s ERA in 2021 was inflated by a nightmare start against the Cubs in early May. In this start, he lasted a mere 1 inning and allowed 4 earned runs. Removing this abnormality, Kershaw’s ERA drops to a much more respectable 3.25. Obviously baseball is a game of averages and you can’t just eliminate bad games to prove a player is good. But this game’s influence on Kershaw’s season is exemplary of how his below-average season (by Kershaw standards) could be attributed more to bad luck than decline in ability.
There are two stats that do more to explain Kershaw’s 2021 season than any other; BABIP and LOB%. Kershaw’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) of .292 was the highest it has been since his rookie season. His LOB% (Left On Base Percentage) of 71.7 percent was the lowest of his entire career. This means that when Kershaw allowed contact, batters reached at a higher rate than normal. Once on base, runners also scored against Kershaw at a higher rate than normal. For comparison, Kershaw’s career BABIP is .274 and his career LOB% is 79.1 percent. These stats are more indicative of situational luck than talent. Had these numbers been more in-line with Kershaw’s career averages, his ERA would have been as well.
Kershaw’s Peripheral Stats Back This Up
The age of analytics has given us several stats that are designed to eliminate situational luck and measure true performance. They all indicate that 2021 was Kershaw’s best season since at least 2017.
FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) measures ERA but with “league average results on balls in play and league average timing.” xFIP does the same thing, but replaces the actual number of home runs given up with a statistical prediction based on league average Home Run to Fly Ball percentage. SIERA (Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average) is a form of ERA that factors in the value of each outcome.
If you glossed over the boring definitions, don’t gloss over this. Kershaw’s FIP of 3.00 in 2021 was his best since 2017 and the 10th best among pitchers to throw at least 120 innings. Kershaw’s xFIP of 2.87 was his best since 2017 and was the fourth best of pitchers who threw at least 120 innings. And Kershaw’s SIERA of 3.10 was his best since 2017 and the fifth best of all pitchers who threw at least 120 innings. All of these numbers indicate not only that Kershaw performed better in 2021 than his 3.55 ERA, but that he’s still one of the best pitchers in baseball.
As illustrated by Baseball Savant, Kershaw also remains elite at striking batters out and limiting free passes. His strikeouts per 9 innings in 2021 was his highest since 2015, and his BB% is unwaveringly dominant. All of these stats indicate that Kershaw is nearly as tough on hitters as he’s ever been. Hitters simply had better situational timing against Kershaw than they have had in the past.
The Injury Issue
Unfortunately, Kershaw has only qualified for the ERA title once since he last won the title in 2017. A season-ending arm injury joins a lingering back injury as potential issues for the star going forward. There’s no doubt that Kershaw is the wrong pitcher to sign for a team looking for a 200 inning per year horse. Any team that adds him to their rotation will want to have a serviceable sixth starter as insurance for the time he’ll miss.
Injuries have certainly put a damper on the Hall of Fame career, but they haven’t diminished the quality of the pitcher. When Kershaw toes the rubber, he remains one of the game’s top pitchers. Even as he enters the fifteenth year of his legendary career, he would undoubtedly improve any rotation lucky enough to have him.
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