"Highest-paid pitcher in MLB history."
Now there's a title we've seen change hands quite a bit in recent years, going from CC Sabathia to Felix Hernandez to, most recently, Justin Verlander.
It's going to change hands again pretty soon, and likely not again for a long time. Not if Clayton Kershaw keeps this up, anyway.
If you missed Thursday night's game, you didn't get to see Kershaw in his usual routine. In a 6-1 Los Angeles Dodgers victory in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, the ace southpaw went seven innings against the Atlanta Braves and allowed only one earned run on three hits and three walks.
Frankly, Kershaw had neither his best command nor his best stuff for most of the night. But since he is who he is, that didn't stop him from befuddling Braves hitters. He struck out 12, including six in a row at one point, and the last three batters he faced in the seventh inning.
In doing so, Kershaw pretty well answered the question I found myself asking after his final start of the regular season: Was October domination to come? After compiling a microscopic 1.83 ERA in the regular season, was there anything left in Kershaw's tank?
The answer then and now: Seems like it, yeah.
There aren't any more reasons to doubt Kershaw at this point. The regular season he had is a fitting testament to the kind of talent he has. That he went out and dominated in a postseason start on the road and without his best stuff says a lot about his work ethic.
And so, there Kershaw stands as the single most dangerous weapon in this year's postseason. Given that the whole thing consists of short series in which each individual game is of utmost importance, there should be no debate about that.
The Dodgers team around Kershaw is hardly flawless, mind you, but it's going to be a shocker if he isn't seen again this October and doesn't dominate again. The odds of him authoring a terrific postseason after authoring an epic regular season are quite good.
And no matter how it ends—be it with a championship or heartbreak—inevitably. it will be time for the Dodgers to pony up with a proper reward for their young ace.
Heck, they know that. In fact, team boss Magic Johnson made a note of it to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times before Kershaw was ready to take the hill at Turner Field:
According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, Kershaw and the Dodgers nearly had a deal in place months ago that would have paid the lefty as much as $210 million over seven years. For whatever reason, the Dodgers "backed off."
Johnson's latest remark about the Kershaw situation is obviously cryptic, but there are logical deductions to be made about what "We know where we have to be" means.
As we head into an obligatory discussion about what Kershaw already has working for him, where the Dodgers have to be is pretty clearly back over that $200 million threshold they were already showing a willingness to cross.
There is a big thing in Kershaw's favor, which is that he's only 25 years old. Sabathia was off his age-28 season when he signed his initial $161 million contract with the New York Yankees. King Felix was just about to embark on his own age-27 season when he inked his $175 million extension with the Seattle Mariners. Verlander was heading into his age-30 season when he signed his $180 million extension with the Detroit Tigers.
Compared to these guys, Kershaw is a pup. And there's another thing he has going for them compared to these guys: He's better.
But then again, you can say that about just about any pitcher in relation to Kershaw. Not just in recent history either.
Behold Thing No. 2.
What Kershaw has achieved through the age of 25 is downright historical, particularly if the scope is limited to baseball's Integration Era (since 1947). Using Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index, here's a look at where Kershaw ranks among all Integration Era pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched by the age of 25.
Kershaw is keeping some pretty good company in terms of these rankings. He's there with guys like Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Tom Seaver, Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer.
Good company indeed, but if Kershaw wants to sit down at the negotiating table and say that he's the most talented young pitcher to come along in the last 60-odd years, well, he can do so with a straight face.
Oh, and he might also want to mention Thing No. 3: He's durable.
In the last four seasons, only three pitchers have made more starts than Kershaw. Just three others have pitched more innings. His next trip to the disabled list will be his first. In fact, he hasn't had any trouble with his arm or shoulder since late in the 2009 season, when Baseball Prospectus' records say he dealt with a shoulder issue that sidelined him for two weeks.
If you want my opinion on the matter, it's probably the same as yours. Even if Kershaw wasn't in a position right now to add to his resume with a dominant postseason, there would still be enough on it for him to sign the richest contract in pitching history this winter.
If anything, the postseason could have hurt Kershaw. Maybe there's an alternate world out there in which he gets rocked by the Braves in Game 1, and in that reality, the Dodgers go on to get swept and Kershaw is left with one less leg to stand on in contract negotiations.
"Sure you're talented," the Dodgers brass is saying in that alternate reality, "but you haven't proven to us that you can win the big games we need you to win."
Instead, Kershaw is already doing better than the last two guys who went into the postseason after posting a sub-2.00 ERA in the regular season. In 1995, Greg Maddux's first postseason start saw him give up nine hits, a pair of walks and a homer. In 2005, Roger Clemens did even worse: five earned runs in five innings.
If he keeps this up, it's not going to be a question of how likely it is that Kershaw will get a $200 million deal over the winter that would make him the richest pitcher in history. At least $200 million will become a given, and the real question will become something else:
How much more than $200 million?
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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