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Predicting the future of Clayton Kershaw

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Clayton Kershaw’s name has been in recent news with new reports of his throwing program being put on hold. With that news being paired with the fact that he’s currently thirty years old may be a sign of possible regression. Clayton Kershaw has been one of the best pitchers in the game in recent history and it may be a time for the tides to change. His career has been stacked with accolades so far racking up seven all-star selections, five ERA titles, three Cy Young awards, and a MVP award. His case for the hall of fame is set but how much longer that he can sustain this greatness is yet to be determined. The age of thirty can be one that many consider to be past the time of a peak for most athletes but how hard they regress can vary. The 2019 season will definitely answer questions about Clayton Kershaw, maybe even after the first month of the season.

The podcast Effectively Wild first brought this topic up as the hosts were discussing about their reactions to the news of Kershaw’s throwing program being put on hold. I would like to expand on their discussion and evaluate data from recent years to predict what the future holds for Clayton Kershaw.

Image via Pitcher List

The past three years each show a slight sign of regression in performance. During this time period he has still been one of the best pitches in the game but compared to his past performances, he is showing signs of decline. Many wouldn’t consider a season with a 2.73 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP to be a down year and I’m not saying that it is. It’s just not as good as he has been in years past but that’s only because he was so great in years past. I predict that Kershaw will continue to regress but only at a slow pace. I don’t think we are going to see any form of a drop off that would resemble falling off a metaphorical cliff. Let’s take a look as to what the data shows for what the future holds for Clayton Kershaw.

I included Kershaw’s career statistics below so that you can take a closer look at his past three seasons. Make sure to also take notice how his innings totals have been lower the past three years than in the past. Back problems has been one of the biggest causes behind his limited innings but he is still providing the Dodgers with a lot of work. Remember, I’m not saying that Kershaw’s past three years have been bad, they are just not as good as past seasons.

Data via Baseball Savant

I took a look at some of Kershaw’s charts of Statcast data and they all seemed to show some form of regression the past three years. Included in that group is swing and miss%, chase%, xwOBA, and K% just to name a few. This is clearly a sign of a trend and one that is most likely to continue. However, I don’t believe that this trend is going to be permanent. In my last article I wrote about the remaking of CC Sabathia and how he changed himself as a pitcher to improve his performance. As it turns out, Kershaw is doing the exact same thing. Kershaw is loosing velocity so he is compensating for that loss by increasing his spin rate. This increase is caused by using pitches like fastballs less often and more pitches like sliders or other breaking balls. If you take a look below, I have attached Kershaw’s average pitch velocity by season as well as his average spin rate% by season.

Data via Baseball Savant
Data via Baseball Savant

You can see that his average pitch velocity has been decreasing for quite some time while taking a steep drop in the past three seasons. On the opposition, Kershaw’s average spin rate has only been climbing since it has been measured. It’s clear that Kershaw is implementing the same tactics that Sabathia did when he began to see a decline in performance. Unlike Sabathia, Kershaw implemented these strategies before seeing a large decrease in performance. If not, Kershaw would have fell off a metaphorical cliff years ago. Instead he compensates for his lost velocity with breaking pitches, increasing his average spin rate. I believe that it is this change that will allow Kershaw to prolong his dominance.

This season may still be the “changing of the guard” for the Dodgers as it seems as if Walker Buehler may be the best pitcher on the team and maybe even one of the best in the league. That’s just it though, Buehler is one of the best pitchers in the league and so is Clayton Kershaw. Buehler may be better than Kershaw but so was Chris Sale last season. You can’t think that Kershaw is steeply regressing just because he isn’t the ace of his staff anymore. If the Dodgers acquired Chris Sale, which won’t happen this is just a metaphor, he would become the ace of the staff. You wouldn’t say that Kershaw isn’t an elite pitcher anymore just because he’s not the ace on his team. So, make sure to not let Walker Buehler’s performance impact your opinion on Clayton Kershaw.

Clayton Kershaw will continue to be the Clayton Kershaw that we have come accustomed to in the past. He’s just going to start regressing a little bit each year with a few years where he records his usual elite numbers in between. His innings will continue to stay down because of injury and age but the Dodgers will still get a lot of work out of him. So if you fear that Kershaw may be coming down in performance, you may be right, but it won’t be a significant decline at all.

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