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This is the first in a long-running series of articles debating the overall ranking of some of the most fantasy-relevant players of the 2018 baseball season.

RotoBaller's expert writers have come up with our consensus rankings for mixed leagues, but that doesn't mean we agreed on everything. In this space, we'll hear from rankers with the biggest differences of opinion on a well-known player and have them defend their position against each other.

We start with the top SP on nearly everyone's draft board, Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw. Jeff Kahntroff will defend his position that Kershaw is still worth a top-three overall pick, while Pierre Camus debates whether Kershaw is worth selecting in the first round at all. Let's get ready to rumble!

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2018 Draft Rankings Debate - Clayton Kershaw

Rank Tier Player Position Kyle Nick Pierre Jeff Harris Bill
9 1 Clayton Kershaw SP 7 11 14 3 13 5

 

Jeff Kahntroff's Ranking: #3 overall

To determine where Clayton Kershaw should be ranked, there are two primary questions: (1) how does he compare to other starting pitchers, and (2) how do starting pitchers compare to position players?

How Does Clayton Kershaw Compare to Other Starting Pitchers?

Pierre ranks his top starting pitchers in one tier: Clayton Kershaw (14), Max Scherzer (15), Chris Sale (17) and Corey Kluber (18).  But why?  As shown by the table below, Kershaw has significantly outperformed the others:

Record/IP/ERA

WHIP/K:9

Year Kershaw Scherzer Sale Kluber
2013 16-9 / 236 / 1.83 0.92 / 8.8 21-3 / 214.1 / 2.90 0.97 / 10.1 11-14/214.1/3.07 1.07 / 9.5 11-5 / 147.1 / 3.85 1.26 / 8.3
2014 21-3 /198.1 / 1.77 0.86 / 10.8k 18-5 / 220.1 / 3.15 1.18 / 10.3 12-4 / 174 / 2.17 0.97 / 10.8 18-9 / 235.2 / 2.44 1.10 /10.3
2015 16-7 / 232.2 / 2.13 0.88 /11.6 14-12/ 228.2 / 2.79 0.92 / 10.9 13-11/208.2/3.41 1.09 / 11.8 9-16 / 222 / 3.49 1.05 / 9.9
2016 12-4 / 149 / 1.69 0.73 / 10.4 20-7 / 228.1 / 2.96 0.97 / 11.2 17-10/226.2/3.34 1.04 / 9.3 18-9 / 215 / 3.14 1.06 / 9.5
2017 18-4 / 175 / 2.31 0.95 / 10.4 16-6 / 200.2 / 2.51 0.90 / 12.0 17-8/ 214.1 / 2.90 0.97 / 12.9 18-4 / 203.2 / 2.25 0.87 / 11.7
Avg 17-5 / 198 / 1.95 0.87 / 10.4 18-7 / 218 / 2.87 0.99 / 10.9 14-9 / 208 / 3.01 1.03 / 10.8 15-9 / 205 / 2.98 1.06 / 10.0

In this stretch, Kershaw has the best ERA by almost a full point and the best WHIP by more than a tenth of a point.  Kershaw’s worst single season ERA was 2.31 and his worst WHIP 0.95.  The other three pitchers only had a better ERA than 2.31 twice in their fifteen combined seasons, and a WHIP better than 0.95 three times.  Thus, even when Kershaw is at his worst, he is almost always outperforming the others. Kluber did come on strong in 2017 and post a better season than Kershaw, but from 2013-2016 he had the worst numbers of the group.

The only argument that Clayton Kershaw is not significantly better than the other three pitchers would be that Kershaw is a greater health risk, but even if I bought this argument, the increased health risk would not be great enough to close the gap in performance.  In addition to all pitchers being health risks, this trio in particular has their own question marks.  Max Scherzer battled injuries down the stretch.  Corey Kluber spent time on the disabled list last year, which was his second straight year battling injuries.  Chris Sale has been projected by many to be one pitch away from a serious injury.  Until I see some hard proof that Kershaw is a significantly greater injury risk than the others, I think he belongs well above them.

How Do Starting Pitchers Compare to Position Players?

Having shown that Kershaw belongs in his own tier, the question is where the top starting pitcher belongs relative to hitters.  Many bemoan the variability of starting pitchers from year to year.  However, in standard 5x5 roto rankings, Kershaw has finished 9th, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, and 3rd the past five years. Kershaw is an exception to the rule. Even when he has been injured for part of the year, he has remained a top pitcher.

Further, this past year, all four of the pitchers listed above finished in the top nine. All of these points combined show that the top pitcher is certainly more than the 14th best fantasy asset. Because Kershaw is the best of the bunch, and starting pitchers have immense value, I rightfully ranked him third and in a tier by himself.

 

Pierre Camus' Ranking: #14 overall

First of all, I know I've already lost at least half of you with this ranking. If you ever owned Kershaw before 2016 then you have fond memories of locking down nearly every roto pitching category (other than saves), regardless of how questionable the rest of your rotation may have been. There's also something to be said for securing an ace who is far and away the best pitcher in baseball.

I'm not arguing that Kershaw isn't that caliber of pitcher any longer. In fact, just last year I had him as my fifth-ranked player overall and in a tier by himself, much like my counterpart Mr. Kahntroff does for 2018. This year, I'm changing my tune...

Injuries Happen, Even to the Best of Them

Sure, we can just say that injuries can happen to anyone at any time. That doesn't mean certain players aren't more susceptible to recurring injuries.

If you could look me in the eye and tell me right now that Kershaw is guaranteed to make 30 starts, maybe even 27 again, then I'd have no problem putting him in the top five overall players. There are no guarantees, of course, as Noah Syndergaard owners can tell you.

A study done by BP's Russell Carleton (slightly dated, but valid nonetheless) shows that pitchers who sustain an injury had a 73% correlation rate with an injury the previous year. While thankfully not a shoulder problem, Kershaw has now had back-to-back seasons missing extended time with a back injury. First it was a herniated disc, then a lower back strain. Back injuries tend to lead to extended absences and the fact that the same area continues to give him trouble also gives me pause when drafting the supposed anchor of my fantasy team in the first round.

Kershaw will turn 30 before Opening Day and is set to reach 2,000 IP on his pitching odometer before the All-Star break. No, this doesn't mean he will literally fall apart at the seams, but it does make me think that he's likely to fail to reach 200 innings, just as he has three of the last four seasons. If you're in a points league, be it cumulative or head-to-head weekly, this is a huge point of contention when adjusting your rankings. It doesn't help that he also pitched into November, tacking another 33 innings onto his resume.

Cracks in the Foundation?

Speaking of the playoffs, is this a good time to bring up the fact that he gave up EIGHT HOME RUNS in six postseason games just a couple of months ago? His 23 HR allowed in 27 regular season starts could be a blip, or it could show an increasing proclivity to give up the long ball, which is not something you want in an SP1, much less a first-rounder. His 15.9% HR/FB may be dismissed as unlucky by some, but his fly ball rate has risen the past two seasons and is regressing back to his early-career numbers. Slight drops in his chase rate (down 4.2% since 2014) and whiff rate (down 1.8% since 2015) haven't proven to be difference-makers yet, but if those trends continue, it could level out the playing field between him and the rest of the top two SP tiers. To be clear, Kershaw could still finish as the top overall starter in 2018, but the gap between him and other studs like Scherzer and Sale is narrowing.

Totals > Talent

Kershaw may still outperform the other aces in terms of ratios, but he has provided a return of 172 and 202 strikeouts the last two seasons. This doesn't count as "elite" production even in rotisserie leagues, where he ranked 16th and 29th in 2017 and 2016 respectively. Yes, this is only because of his stints on the disabled list. In the end, does it really matter? No. In the fantasy realm, numbers are all that matter.

In terms of points leagues, Kershaw finished fourth among all SP in 2017, behind Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, and Max Scherzer. If you can take a top slugger with your first pick and wait a round to get the exact same production (if not better), then it doesn't make a lot of sense to hitch your wagon on Kershaw in hopes that he returns to the form he showed two years ago.

My argument for ranking Kershaw just outside a first round ADP isn't that he stopped being the best pitcher in the game. The fact is I'm not 100% sold on the fact he'll produce like a first-rounder when it's all said and done and I'm not willing to pony up a top-10 pick to find out. As you can see above, half of our rankers have Kershaw outside that range as well. While Jeff brings up valid points regarding Kershaw's value, we have to keep in mind that savvy fantasy managers don't overpay for past performance, no matter how great a player he's been.

 

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