The one stain on Clayton Kershaw’s illustrious career has been October. Five straight postseason trips from 2013-2017, and all five disappointing results. How can the greatest pitcher of this generation not have a World Series ring?
Well, for starters, he has been on some very flawed teams that have lacked starting pitching depth, a good defense, or have had bullpen dumpster fires. Or he’s simply been mismanaged by Don Mattingly. The teams as a whole have not been able to pull through, but it’s fair to say that Clayton Kershaw has not helped his case either.
After Wednesday’s masterpiece against the Milwaukee Brewers, Clayton Kershaw now has a 4.11 postseason ERA, which is a far cry from his 2.39 career ERA in the regular season. Because of it, he has been pegged a “choker” or “Chokesaw” because of his inability to handle the pressure of the fall.
However, this perception could not be further from the truth. It’s been an up-and-down playoff career, highly inconsistent more than anything. Anyone who tells you that “Clayton Kershaw can’t pitch in the postseason” doesn’t know what they are talking about. At least half his starts have been terrific, but his bad ones outweigh them because people like to nitpick.
Clayton Kershaw's start today went from red to yellow to orange to green, as in great. In a polarizing postseason career, this was Kershaw's 11th career start allowing two runs or fewer. #Dodgers #NLCS #MLB pic.twitter.com/6pWAd255Pa
— Jon Weisman (@jonweisman) October 18, 2018
How many times does he have to perform to rid himself of the “choker” label? He’s been “Clayton Kershaw” in October a lot of times, but because the playoffs are such a crapshoot and small sample size, any missteps are magnified.
First off, it’s an entirely different animal when you are viewed as arguably the “best” pitcher ever and have been your respective franchise’s main hope at ending a long title drought. That’s more pressure than most athletes ever have to handle and having all that weight on your shoulders for so long will take a toll.
After that, he has not had the support system required to be successful, and because of it, his playoff narrative has been misunderstood. No, his numbers are not the same as the regular season, but there has been a multitude of reasons for that.
The number that stands out the most is ten. Ten of the 12 inherited runners his bullpen has allowed to come home in the playoffs. Nine of those runners scored with two outs, and eight of those two-out runs scored with runners on first and/or second base.
This includes Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS against the Wahington Nationals when Kershaw was pitching on three days of rest and was through 6.2 innings with two earned runs and 11 strikeouts. It was a herculean effort to help his team fight stave off elimination.
He was up against Bryce Harper, who was likely his last pitcher of the game and was one strike away from getting through seven masterful innings on short rest. However, Kershaw was squeezed on a 1-2 count on a fastball down and away, and instead of strike three it was ball two, and it was evident that Kershaw was out of gas.
He then walks Harper and leaves the game with the bases loaded. Pedro Baez comes in and hits the next batter to score the third run which then brings up left-hander Daniel Murphy, so the Dodgers bring in lefty Luis Avilan to counter. He proceeds to hang a breaking ball down the middle to the game’s best hitter (arguably) at the time, and score the last two of Kershaw’s runners. Just like that, he is credited for five runs instead of two.
But stuff like that does not show up in the box score, so the fault can quickly be put upon the Dodgers’ ace if you did not watch the games. But at the same time, narratives like these should not blindly be made up without context.
Clayton Kershaw has not been magnificent in the postseason, but neither has he been a choker. He’s had a few horrid starts that have skewed his overall numbers, but a lot more good-to-tremendous moments.
The truth is, Kershaw has been inconsistent as a postseason pitcher, and nothing more. In an interview with Ken Rosenthal, ahead of Game 5, the 30-year-old addressed his playoff body of work.
I mean, inconsistent, I guess would be the best way to describe it. I just try to remember the good ones and then don’t think about the bad ones.
But most fans do the opposite. He deals in the postseason, but because of our expectations of him, it doesn’t stand out as much. We love to bring out the flaws of stars instead of appreciating greatness.
The fact that he has had two completely different starts during this NLCS is the epitome of his October performances. He has continuously had us shift our opinion of him as a postseason pitcher after each outing. We get a different guy each time out, and with that, we keep changing our perception of him; it doesn’t get any clearer than that.
And with all his “struggles,” the lefty has quietly done something that no other pitcher has done in the history of the game.
Clayton Kershaw: 8th postseason start allowing 1 run or fewer and 3 hits or fewer.
No one else in MLB history has more than 5 such starts.
— Katie Sharp (@ktsharp) October 18, 2018
In all these starts, the lefty went at least six innings in each. And during his last 16 playoff appearances (14 starts), Kershaw has a 3.54 ERA with a sub-1.00 WHIP. In this stretch are a couple of clunkers and a handful of masterpieces, but that is just him. He’s been hit-or-miss, but that does not make him a choker.
A choker is someone who consistently cannot deliver when it matters. If you take a deeper dive into his games, he’s pretty much had one horrid start, one so-so, and two great ones for every four postseason starts. That’s better than having four below-average and mediocre ones because that would be the definition of “choking.”
No, he has not been Madison Bumgarner, but he has not been a dumpster fire. And unlike Bumgarner, Kershaw has been able to help lead his team to the playoffs, which in of itself is an accomplishment. He is getting closer and closer to finding that consistency we expect from him, and once he does, his legacy will be sealed.