Article Written By: Jacob U.
Without any home runs thus far in his young career and amid a 3-2 count against Tim “The Freak” Lincecum, the average spectator would assume that rookie Tony Sanchez was far more prone to striking out than he was to hitting a home run on Aug. 24, 2013.. After all, just over a month earlier Lincecum had flaunted his inner-Nolan Ryan as he threw his first no-hitter. Sanchez, however, took the high fastball deep over the outfield fence for his first career home run.
Of course, allowing one home run is about as telling about a pitcher as one interception is as telling about an NFL quarterback; however, the amount of home runs Lincecum surrendered last season was far from insignificant. Lincecum’s 21 home runs allowed last season was more than double his total from just four seasons prior (Lincecum also threw substantially more innings in 2009). Tim Lincecum, now 29 years old, was once one of the most feared pitchers in baseball; and albeit an improvement over his abysmal 2012 performance, Lincecum’s 2013 era of 4.37 was a far cry from the 2.48 ERA he posted in 2009, and undoubtedly a disappointment for a player commanding a $22 million salary.
Lincecum is not the only high profile pitcher to undergo a setback after an otherwise superb beginning to his career; once widely considered the most reliable pitcher in baseball, CC Sabathia allowed a career-worst 28 home runs last season while also finishing with a career-worst 4.78 ERA.
Now, it would be silly to expect declination to mediocrity from Kershaw — Sabathia is 33 and Lincecum is 29, whereas Kershaw is just 25 years old. As manifested by his Christy Mathewson-esque 2013 ERA of 1.83, Kershaw’s stats have cultivated each year. Unless Revere’s message is in reference to the Lakers, there really is no reason to send Paul Revere running through Los Angeles yelling that a decline is coming, because there isn’t.
However, just as it would be silly to conclude that Kershaw’s performance would hinder because of the recent decline of players such as the aforementioned Lincecum and Sabathia, it would be equally as foolish to disregard the lingering potential of a fallout. Pitchers, especially those that throw a larger amount of innings, are incredibly vulnerable to injury; and when one is vulnerable to injury, one is vulnerable to having a potential Waterloo. In an age where Tommy John is as recognized a name in baseball loving households as Derek Jeter is, things could go south at any given instant for a pitcher.
That said, determining whether or not the Kershaw signing was an intelligent investment all hinges on the previously detailed necessity of his ability to stay healthy. And — to put to rest the fear that I may have imbued in Dodgers fans by bringing up the case of Tim Lincecum — Clayton Kershaw has not shown anything to suggest that he may be subject to injury: Kershaw has pitched in 33 regular season games in each of the past three seasons, improved statistically each year, and even led the NL in strikeouts last season. Although, that isn’t to say that he is the only pitcher without an Achilles Heel. The axiom of all pitchers that are subject to large workloads are also subject to a greater risk of injury is one of the most highly regarded beliefs in all of baseball, and Kershaw does indeed have a large workload.
While Kershaw has led the MLB in ERA for three straight seasons, one has to assess the risk when granting a pitcher with $215 million over seven years and decide if it is a worthy investment. Depending on how Tanaka performs in the MLB, there is not a better bargain available in baseball. Kershaw is indisputably one of the three best pitchers in baseball (and certainly the best in the National League), and for a big market team he was well worth the risk. The best part of this deal is that the Dodgers were able to keep it at just seven years (Kershaw would be 32 in the contract’s final year) because signing a player for anything more than that (although seven years may even be a stretch) can be detrimental to a team’s future success. Kershaw’s deal makes sense because he is the most valuable pitcher with many bright years ahead of him, and the Dodgers can only hope that he maintains his level of success.
For other teams, though, signing even All-Star pitchers to this large of a deal is a risk of epic proportions, because no pitchers — except for maybe Jose Fernandez or Yu Darvish — paraded the type of ability that would warrant such a contract. Simply put, a player that is more prone to injury and only plays once every fifth day should not be granted the same contracts as position players. This isn’t a knock against the value of pitchers; it is a testament to the great endurance and physical ability it takes to sustain success as a starting pitcher.
Pitchers are not necessarily less valuable than position players, either. But they should not be signed to as long of contracts; for a 25-year-old Kershaw, seven years makes sense, and the amount of money also makes sense because there is no better player available (presuming Tanaka doesn’t post a sub-2.00 ERA). It would be foolish, however, if other teams make this a habit and start rewarding veteran pitchers with seven/eight/nine/ten year deals. For example, if a 29-year-old pitcher signs a seven year deal then does his production at 36/35 or even 33 really worth over $20 million? Unless that pitcher is the first in a line of super-breeds, the answer is no.
If other teams follow the path that the Dodgers took with this deal, when will contracts stop growing? Kershaw appears to be well worth the money, but even Albert Pujols fell victim to injury and decline after his big contract. Vernon Wells was one of the highest paid players last season, and Seattle, once considered a small-market team, just gave Robinson Cano a 10 year deal. One can only imagine that this will hurt baseball in the long run as teams start to have all their money tied up in one or two players and may be unable to pay other players to fill up a line-up. How long is it until one pitcher gets a Kershaw deal and then pulls the basketball equivalent of Derrick Rose, leaving a team without much chance to compete?
Ultimately it is impossible to ignore the cases of Lincecum and Sabathia because declines like that can happen to any pitcher, and the list of pitchers that missed significant time due to injury would rival the length of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar acceptance speech. But while the risk needs to be calculated, Kershaw’s contract fits him — but only him. Baseball fans can only hope that it will be given only to Kershaw.