By Richard Cuicchi | January 19, 2014 at 09:29 PM EST | 1 comment
It was somewhat ironic that within a week of each other we saw Major League Baseball drop the hammer on Alex Rodriguez and Clayton Kershaw rewarded with the richest contract in history for a Major League pitcher. They are both products of record-breaking financial deals for their superior baseball talents, but they are polar opposites in terms of personal makeup and character. A-Rod’s career is all but done, but have we seen the best of Kershaw yet?
Kershaw’s new seven-year, $215 million dollar contract at age 26 is certainly reminiscent of A-Rod’s contract in 2000, when at age 25 Rodriguez inked a ten-year, $252 million dollar contract. By age 20, they were both regulars in the big leagues with huge upsides. In the last three seasons, Kershaw has pitched like a grizzled veteran with the Los Angeles Dodgers—he’s won two Cy Young Awards (oh, by the way, was runner-up for the third year), three consecutive ERA titles, two strikeout titles, and three WHIP titles. Only a few Major League pitchers have come anywhere close to those accomplishments in their entire 15 to 18-year careers!
This offseason has seen several large deals where players are thought to have been overpaid by team owners in order to attract the talent to rejuvenate their franchises. Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann are a few examples. Is Kershaw just another in this era of deep pockets? Perhaps.
However, consider that the Los Angeles Dodgers did with Kershaw what the St. Louis Cardinals (with Albert Pujols) and the New York Yankees (with Cano) would not—the Dodgers demonstrated a long-term commitment to their best player and their franchise. Entering the prime years of his career, Kershaw will be the anchor of the Dodgers’ rotation for years to come. Furthermore, in his short tenure, he has earned the honor of “face of the franchise” for the Dodgers. Unlike a lot of superstars, he’s overly accessible to the media and fans; hence, his popularity is off the charts. Sure, the new ownership of the Dodgers has supplanted the Yankees’ as having the deepest pockets in baseball and can afford to overpay, but I believe they made a good business decision, as well as a good baseball decision. The Dodgers are seeking an immediate return to prominence in baseball, and they see Kershaw’s signing as key factor in getting there.
Of course, Kershaw’s early career has drawn a comparison to former Dodger pitching great, Sandy Koufax. Koufax debuted in the majors at age 19, but it took him until age 25 before he started putting up “Hall of Fame” credentials. Starting in 1961, his seventh season in the big leagues, he proceeded to post three Cy Young Award titles, four strikeout titles, and five consecutive ERA titles over six seasons—likely the best stretch of pitching performance in baseball history. However, by age 30, Koufax’s career was over; his arm was worn out.
You don’t hear much rumbling from baseball players, executives, the media, or the fans about Kershaw getting too much money from this latest contract. It’s a testament to his perceived value on the field to the Dodgers, as well as the personal respect he gets from his peers.
Part of that respect garnered by Kershaw comes from his personal traits. I saw an interview with him where he said it was disrespectful of Sandy Koufax for sports writers and baseball analysts to put him in the same category as the legendary Koufax. Kershaw comes across as having a deep respect for the game. Some of his peers would be well-served to demonstrate that kind of humility. Certainly, Rodriguez could have used a few doses of humility, versus PEDs, during his career.
In a similar vein, Kershaw has been acknowledged for his volunteer and philanthropic activities. He established an organization, Kershaw’s Challenge, whose slogans include “using whatever you have been blessed with—talent, passion, or purpose—to give back to others.” He and his wife have been the sponsors for building and maintaining an orphanage in East Africa. In fact, one of his remarks upon signing this latest lucrative contract was that they would now have significant additional resources to apply to his “Challenge” causes. In 2012, he received the Roberto Clemente Award, which is given to the Major League player “who demonstrates the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”
Can Kershaw avoid the same flameout as Koufax at age 30? Kershaw’s devastating fastball and curveball have been likened to Koufax’s. While Kershaw has already pitched 1,180 innings in five seasons, his workload has not been in the same realm as Koufax’s days when 300+ innings per season for a starter were not uncommon. In today’s game, 220 innings pitched during the regular season are pretty much the norm for a front-line starter, especially when considering the use of five-man rotations and today’s heavy reliance on middle relief pitchers.
Kershaw has demonstrated a high level of consistency in his performance over his past three seasons. One would like to think he can maintain his current domination during most of the seven years of this new contract, which will encompass the usual peak years (age 26 to 30) of a big league pitcher. But then we are reminded of hurlers like Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito whose arms didn’t last after meteoric starts to their careers. However, if Kershaw leads the Dodgers to a couple of World Series titles during this timeframe, his own legendary status will be cemented.
In a time when Alex Rodriguez’s character reflects poorly on the game of baseball, it is refreshing to have players like Clayton Kershaw come along; even if you don’t think he’s worth $30M a year or you don’t pull for the Dodgers.