Arbitration Breakdown: Clayton Kershaw

Over the next few months, I will be discussing some of the higher profile upcoming arbitration cases. I will rely partly on my arbitration model developed exclusively for MLB Trade Rumors, but will also break out some interesting comparables and determine where the model might be wrong.

Until this past season, Greg Maddux and Lefty Grove were the only pitchers in major league history to lead the major leagues in ERA for three straight seasons. Clayton Kershaw completed that hat trick this year, and his timing is excellent to go to arbitration prior to his contract year. Kershaw signed a two-year deal in his first year of eligibility, which paid him $11.25MM for this past year. The model predicts that Kershaw would get a $19MM salary for 2014 given his 16-9 performance and 1.83 ERA in 236 innings, but this year we have introduced The Kimbrel Rule, which states that a pitcher cannot beat the previous record for his arbitration class by more than $1MM, so we have Kershaw down for $6.9MM raise to $18.15MM, edging out the $5.9MM raise that Carlos Zambrano got as an arbitration eligible pitcher with five-plus years of service time in 2007.

In my dataset that I use to develop the arbitration salary projections for MLB Trade Rumors, I have all players who reached arbitration eligibility during the previous seven years. In this dataset, there are three starting pitchers who have had the same number of wins as Kershaw, 16, but none of them had anywhere near as strong an ERA. Zambrano had a 16-7 record, but his ERA was 3.41 in his platform season. Phil Hughes got a $3.95MM raise after going 16-13 through arbitration last year, but his ERA (4.23) was more than twice as large as Kershaw’s. Jorge De La Rosa’s 4.38 ERA was even higher than that when he went 16-9 in 2009 and got a $3.6MM raise the following season.

Despite ERA’s importance in measuring pitcher performance, it is not actually as important in arbitration negotiations as wins or innings pitched. So, it is a strike against Kershaw that he did not get the run support to win more than 16 games. However, Kershaw was so good at getting hitters out that he was able to get 708 of them in 2013—which amounts to 236 innings pitched. There is nobody in my database with anywhere near that number of innings pitched, giving Kershaw a large leg up on the population and a very good chance to break Zambrano’s record for 5+ years of service time as a starting pitcher. The next most innings of anyone in my dataset was Roy Oswalt, who had 220 2/3 innings pitched back in 2006, but received a multi-year deal with just a $2MM raise built in for 2007 afterwards. Cole Hamels, Jason Vargas, and Tim Lincecum each had at least 216 innings, though. They got raises of $5.5MM, $4.25MM, and $3.65MM, respectively, though Lincecum’s raise was part of a two-year deal. Kershaw has as many wins as anyone in the database, but his innings clearly give him an advantage.

As I mentioned earlier, though, it is Kershaw’s ERA that is so mind-boggling. There were only three pitchers in my database who even had ERAs within a run of Kershaw’s 1.83 mark for 2013. Hamels had a 2.79 ERA, but just a 14-9 record and 216 innings back in 2011. Tim Lincecum had a 2.74 ERA, but a 13-14 record in 217 innings. And Ryan Vogelsong, who got a $2.59MM raise in 2012, was coming off a 13-7 performance with a 2.70 ERA, though he only had 179 2/3 innings pitched. Overall, Kershaw now has a second important stat (in addition to innings pitched) where he laps the comparables against which he will be judged.

Kershaw also laps the competition in a third important statistic that is used frequently in arbitration negotiations: strikeouts. His 232 strikeouts are more than anyone else in my database among his comparable group of pitchers. The previous record of strikeouts going into the third year of eligibility belonged to Erik Bedard who had 221 strikeouts in 2007, but had just a 13-5 record with a 3.16 ERA and only had 182 innings pitched. His $3.575MM raise is far short of where Kershaw will land. The next most belonged to Lincecum, who had 220 on the way to his $4.25MM raise.

Both Kershaw and Max Scherzer are in the same arbitration class and will be coming up for arbitration at the same time. Both of them seem very likely to break Zambrano’s $5.9MM record raise handily. Since you can use players who sign earlier in the offseason as comparables in arbitration negotiations, these two guys will probably be eager to hear what the other signs for. Scherzer had a 21-3 record this past season, but had 2.90 ERA. He at least had more wins than Kershaw, though obviously his ERA is far worse, and he also had fewer innings (214 1/3) and a similar number of strikeouts (240). This does make him probably the best comparable for Kershaw. At the same time, Scherzer’s team may hope that Kershaw agrees to a deal first so that they can use him as a comparable in their negotiations.

It seems quite possible that Kershaw will just sign a long-term extension instead, especially given the rumors of a gigantic offer during the season by the Dodgers. However, if not, look for Kershaw to handily break the record of what a third-time eligible starting pitcher earns.

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