There are few things in this life that seem inevitable besides death and paying taxes. However, after he gave up back-to-back home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS, it seemed like we could add “Clayton Kershaw imploding in the playoffs” to that list, if it wasn’t already on there.
We all know how good Kershaw is. The three Cy Youngs, the MVP award, hell, Clayton Kershaw is the greatest player to ever wear Dodger blue according to the numbers. With all of those medals decorating his chest, it seems unbelievable that Kershaw can’t pitch to that level in October.
Instead, Kershaw pitches at the level of Detroit era Jordan Zimmermann once the calendar turns to October.
In his decorated career, Clayton Kershaw has posted some absolutely insane numbers. In his 12 year career, Kershaw posts a regular-season record of 169-74, good enough for a .695 win percentage, which leads all active players in the majors. Across those 12 years, the Dodgers franchise leader in WAR also owns a 2.44 ERA (active leader), a 1.008 WHIP (active leader), a 6.8 hits/9 (active leader), and a 0.7 HR/9 (active leader).
But in October… Jordan Zimmermann.
For the sake of comparison, here are Kershaw’s career numbers for the regular season and the postseason side-by-side.
- Record – Regular Season: 169-74, Postseason: 9-11
- Win Percentage – Regular Season: .695 , Postseason: .450
- ERA – Regular Season: 2.44, Postseason: 4.33
- WHIP – Regular Season: 1.008, Postseason: 1.110
- Hits Per 9 – Regular Season: 6.8, Postseason: 7.4
- Home Runs Per 9 – Regular Season: 0.7, Postseason: 1.4
If you can’t see the difference between these numbers, then congratulations on your on-going lawsuit, Angel Hernandez.
So what’s happened in October? Why does Clayton Kershaw turn into a pumpkin duing the postseason. To find out, let’s take a look at a few career-defining playoff series for Clayton. If you’re a Dodger fan, I suggest you get a glass of whatever dulls your senses… this one is not going to be pretty.
The 2014 NLDS – Kershaw vs. the St. Louis Cardinals
If Kershaw’s 2014 season were a painting it would be hung in the Louvre, behind bulletproof glass, while thousand of tourists clamored for a photo. It was as close to perfect as you could get. NL Cy Young, 21-3 record in 27 starts, 1.77 ERA, 0.857 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, and an ERA+ of 197, all of which led the Majors, and helped Kershaw become the NL MVP. It was a ridiculous season. The previous one was not.
The year prior in two NLCS starts, the Cardinals roughed up Kershaw for 7 earned runs in just 10 innings of work. So perhaps Kershaw can use that experience in 2013, to help him beat the Cards in 2014. I mean, he was coming off of an insane season. So that success would transition to the postseason, right?
Not so much. Kershaw took a 4-run lead into the 7th inning, taking the mound having thrown 81 pitches. All signs pointed to a normal 2014 Kershaw start, but then the wheels fell off. Kershaw allowed five singles, as two runs scored, when Matt Carpenter stepped up with the bases-loaded and two outs.
Matt Carpenter’s bases-clearing double put the Cardinals ahead for good. Kershaw’s final line was 6.2 innings pitched, 10 strikeouts, 8 hits, and 8 earned runs. The Dodgers would eventually lose, 10-9.
Kershaw would get another start in Game 4, as the Dodgers faced elimination. Once again, the 7th inning was a mess.
With two on, Matt Adams sends the second pitch he sees from Kershaw over the wall. 3-2 Cardinals. The Dodgers season is over. Kershaw leaves the game after 6 innings, with 9Ks, 4 hits, 3 earned runs.
Kershaw’s series stat line reads: 12.2 innings, 12 hits, 11 earned runs, 1.105 WHIP, 7.82 ERA, and a 2.1 HR/9.
A blemish on the masterpiece that was Kershaw’s 2014, forever marring the immaculate season of work that will go down as one of the best seasons ever pitched.
But the worst was yet to come.
The 2018 World Series – Kershaw vs. the Boston Red Sox
Kershaw pitched the first game of the 2018 World Series series, taking the loss after tossing 4 innings of 7 hit, 5 earned run baseball…. not great. The “Playoff Kershaw” narrative was in full swing. Surprisingly, most of the Red Sox damage was done without the long ball. Instead, the Sox relied on the “death by a thousand cuts” method, driving in runs with well-placed singles and doubles.
The Dodgers were down 3 games to 1 heading into Game 5. It was Kershaw’s job to stop the bleeding and hold the Red Sox from scoring, keeping them from hoisting the World Series trophy at Dodger Stadium.
Shake it off, Clayton. David Freese hits a homer off David Price and it’s a one-run game. Kershaw manages to right the ship, until the sixth inning when he gives up a solo shot to his soon-to-be teammate, Mookie Betts. All three runs of the Red Sox runs have come off the long ball. But they weren’t done yet.
In the 7th inning, J.D. Martinez took Kershaw deep, and the game was essentially over, as was another Dodgers heartbreaking season. This was the second straight postseason where Kershaw gave up 3 or more home runs in a game.
While this series wasn’t lost solely by Kershaw, it certainly feels that way on the surface. When your ace cannot be your ace, your team loses an edge. It’s just ten times worse when it’s in the World Series, the game’s biggest stage.
Kershaw’s Final Series Line: 0-2, 11 innings, 7.36 ERA, 1.545 WHIP, 9 earned runs, 10 Ks, 11.5 H/9, 2.5 HR/9, 8.2 K/9.
The 2016 NLCS – Kershaw vs. the Chicago Cubs
While the 2016 NLDS against the Washington Nationals saw more struggles, it’s the NLCS that really highlights the juxtaposition of Kershaw’s Jekyll and Hyde in October.
In Game 2 of the series, Kershaw pitched an absolute gem, holding the Cubs to two hits over seven innings, striking out six. The Dodgers would go on to win that game 1-0, as Kyle Hendricks showed up and helped keep the Dodger bats to just the single run on three hits.
So with the series on the line, and the Dodgers looking to force a Game 7, Kershaw got the ball again, with the Cubs countering with Hendricks.
So, Kershaw could repeat his Game 2 performance, right? Sure, he struggled against Washington, but his regular-season numbers against teams over .500 were solid. Over 10 starts against teams with winning records, Kershaw was 5-1, with a 1.63 ERA and a 0.684 WHIP. With a solid outing in this series already, Kershaw took the hill with the chance to push the series to seven games.
Kershaw got into trouble from the jump as Dexter Fowler hit a leadoff ground-rule double. A Kris Bryant single would bring him in, and an error on a line drive from Anthony Rizzo would push the runners to second and third. A sacrifice fly later, the Cubs were on the board with a 2-0 lead.
The second inning was the same, as Addison Russell led off with a double. Dexter Fowler would later single, allowing Russell to score, pushing the Cubs lead to 3-0. Kershaw would get out of the 3rd relatively unscathed despite a Rizzo double.
However, the fourth would break the game wide open.
On the second pitch in the bottom of the fourth, Wilson Contrerras took Kershaw deep, effectively putting the Cubs over the top.
In the following inning, Anthony Rizzo would park one to give the Cubs a 5-0 lead that would put them through to the World Series, and eventually their first ring since 1908.
Kershaw was a victim of the longball for sure, but the Dodgers were the victims of a Kyle Hendricks outing for the ages. Game 6 didn’t just give us another Kersahw collapse, it gave us all a direct, side-by-side comparison between him and Hendricks. The Cubs starter went 7.2 innings, giving up two hits, striking out six, and keeping the Dodgers scoreless on their way to a 5-0 victory.
Kyle Hendricks was almost perfect twice in the same series, and Kershaw couldn’t close the door by doing the same. If there was a moment that Kershaw cemented his “un-clutch” status, it was 2016. It also didn’t help that Hendricks was able to do exactly what Kershaw needed to do: produce two lights out performances. Hendricks just happened to pitch his two gems against Kershaw, forcing the stark comparison.
Kershaw’s 2016 NLDS Stat Line: 1-1, 2 starts, 3.00 ERA, 0,833 WHIP, 9 hits, 4 earned runs, 10 Ks, 7.5 K/9, 6.8 H/9, and 1.5 HR/9.
The 2017 World Series – Kershaw vs. the Houston Astros
Yes, this the most controversial, but I think it’s the perfect example of the potential Kershaw has in the postseason, not just his shortcomings.
Kershaw got the ball for Game 1 and the Dodgers jumped out early thanks to a Chris Taylor leadoff home run on the very first pitch he saw. That lead would hold until Alex Bregman‘s fourth-inning solo shot landed in the outfield seats, tying the game 1-1.
From there, Kershaw wouldn’t let up, setting down the next nine Astros in a row after Bregman’s round-tripper. In the remaining 3.2 innings of work in his Game 1 start, Kershaw would only let one Astro on-base. A Justin Turner 2-run shot would give the Dodgers a 3-1 lead, giving them the Game 1 win.
Kershaw’s Final Game 1 Line: 7 innings, 3 hits, 1 earned run, and 11 Ks.
But, here’s where things get interesting. Kershaw gets the start in Game 5, with the series tied 2-2. The Dodgers jump out to an early 3-run lead, giving Kershaw room to work with.
Once again, in the fourth inning, Playoff Kershaw showed his face.
With two men on, a run already in and no outs, Yuli Gurriel drills a 3-run homer, giving the Astros a 4-3 lead. The very next inning, Cody Bellinger answers with a 3-run dinger of his own, putting the Dodgers up 7-4.
Kershaw now has another 3-run lead. After getting the first two outs in the 5th, walks the next two hitters after taking both counts to full. After 94 pitches, Dave Roberts pulls Kershaw in favor of Kenta Maeda, leaving him responsible for the two men on, as José Altuve steps into the box.
José Altuve is 2-for-6 against Kershaw in this series, with both of his hits being singles. Against Maeda, Altuve is 0-for-2.
After this at-bat, Altuve would be 1-for-3 against Maeda, as his 3-run home run brings the Astros even at 7-7. The Dodgers 82% win probability prior to the at-bat would drop to 49% as Altuve touches home.
Kershaw’s Game 5 Final Line: 4.2 innings pitched, 6 earned runs on 4 hits, over 3 walks with 4 strike outs.
But that’s not the last time we’d see Kershaw in this series. After Yu Darvish gets absolutely clobbered in the early innings of Game 7, it’s Clayton Kershaw’s job to go as long as he can and minimize the damage.
It’s Clayton Kershaw that Dave Roberts taps to hold the Astros to just five runs. And you know what happened? Over four innings of work, Kershaw kept Houston off the scoreboard, allowing only two hits before being taken out.
Kershaw’s Final Series Line: 1-0, 2 starts, 3 appearances, 15.2 innings pitched, 9 hits, 7 earned runs, 4.02 ERA, 0.984 WHIP, 9.8 K/9.
Why does this series hold so much weight? A few reasons.
This was the first time Kershaw had been on the big stage, the one where his performance can be directly compared to that of Koufax and other greats. This is the place where legends are made, where you separate the myths from the men.
In Game 1, Kershaw showed up in exactly the way we all thought he would. That first game is classic Clayton Kershaw. That’s the mythic lefty with all the awards.
In Game 5, that’s the man, the flawed individual who cannot fight off their destiny.
And then there’s Game 7, where he somehow is both. In a game where the only thing Kershaw could do wass pitch his best for as long as he can, he does exactly that.
And yet, after the Astros Sign Stealing Scandal, this series looks completely different. Game 5, where Kershaw was lit up for 6 of the 7 runs he surrendered in that series, was played in Houston. There’s now some skepticism about games played in Houston that series and the whistling that came during offspeed pitches.
Clayton Kershaw faced two teams that were punished for stealing signs in back-to-back World Series. Both of those teams knew what was coming and Clayton Kershaw still struck out one in every four hitters.
Kershaw’s World Series Stat Line: 1-2. 4 starts, 5 appearances, 26.2 innings, 5.40 ERA, 1.163 WHIP, 1.7 HR/9, 7.8 H/9, and a K/9 of 9.7.
Is Playoff Kershaw real? Yes, absolutely, but there are two definitions.
There’s Playoff Kershaw that gives up twice as many home runs in his starts. The same one who gives up more hits, but somehow strikes out more batters.
And then there’s the other Playoff Kershaw. It’s the guy who has this monkey on his back that he cannot shake, the narrative already against him, as he carries the weight on his team and of his legacy at the same time.
And now, in 2020, after the uncovering of the Astros and Red Sox transgressions, Clayton Kershaw fhas another chance to get the World Series ring that has eluded him for 12 seasons.
The thing we all fail to acknowledge about Kershaw is that from March to September, he’s still arguably the best in the game. That means whoever steps in the box against him, becomes the David to his Goliath. Whether it’s a tough Cardinals team, a young Chicago starter in Kyle Hendricks, or the Red Sox and Astros teams that had to cheat to win, Clayton Kershaw has always been Goliath.
And yet he’s also David up against the monstrosity that is his playoff failures.
If you had the deck stacked against you and the world waiting for you to crumble, how would you feel when the pressure is taken off?
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