Clayton Kershaw had a rough outing last night. He allowed three earned runs in seven innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Terrible. Kershaw’s start was so terrible that it pushed the ERA of the two-time reigning National League Cy Young over his past 14 starts from 0.98 to 1.17. Since the end of May, Kershaw has a 1.44 ERA. If not for some bad luck that drove his ERA close to 4.00 for the first two months of the season, Kershaw would have his third consecutive sub-2.00 ERA season and third consecutive Cy Young. With even a modicum of good luck in April and May, it would be Kershaw’s historic season garnering the awards at the end of the season, not teammate Zack Greinke.
In the eyes of many, however, none of the matters when it comes to analyzing Kershaw. It’s all about the postseason. Specifically the 5.12 ERA that Kershaw has posted in 51.0 career postseason innings. Kershaw is 1-5 in the postseason, and has lost his last four starts. In those four starts, Kershaw has allowed 18 earned runs in 22.2 innings, good for a 7.15 ERA. He has allowed more than a hit per inning, but has also struck out more than a batter per inning.
Kershaw was rung up for eight earned runs in 6.2 innings in Game One of the NLDS last year against the St. Louis Cardinals, with the Red Birds hanging an eight-spot on the Dodgers in the seventh inning. Prior to the seventh inning, Kershaw had allowed only two hits the entire game. Then the floodgates opened. The Cardinals reeled off five singles in a span of six batters. Kershaw nearly escaped with a 6-3 lead, but Matt Carpenter clubbed a three-run double. Another run was charged to Kershaw after Pedro Baez came in and served up a three-run home run. The Dodgers’ ace left the game after 6.2 innings, 10 strikeouts, and 110 pitches.
Kershaw had been absolutely lights out before the seventh inning. Giving up four singles in a row to start the inning is the definition of cluster luck. Go ask Casey Janssen about the Cardinals’ uncanny ability to string together consecutive base hits. Even the best pitcher on the planet does not have total control of the ball’s path once it leaves the bat. If even one or two of those singles was struck at a slightly different spot on the bat or came off at a different trajectory, we could be talking about a complete game two-hitter for Kershaw.
Kershaw was even more brilliant for the first six innings in his Game Four start against the Cardinals. He had allowed only one hit to go along with nine punchouts. Then St. Louis got to work doing St. Louis things. Consecutive singles just trickled through the Dodger infield, barely out of the reach of Dee Gordon and Hanley Ramirez. Matt Adams homers, and the narrative is written. Clayton Kershaw cannot pitch in the postseason.
Kershaw did not make great pitches to Adams or Carpenter as they delivered the decisive blows, but take those two bad pitches away, and Kershaw and the Dodgers likely win both games. Leading up to the knockout blasts, Kershaw was nothing short of dominant. He was done in by bad luck; the same type of bad luck that ran his ERA up to 4.00 for two months this season. The postseason is the ultimate small sample size. Very rarely will you see a pitcher of Kershaw’s caliber give up that many singles in a row, but it does happen in very isolated instances.
If anything, Kershaw was hurt by his own dominance last Fall. Minus the outbursts in the seventh inning, Kershaw struck out 17 batters in 12 innings while allowing only three hits. Reaching eight and nine strikeouts before the seventh inning runs up the pitch count. Approaching 100 pitches, even the best see a decline in the crispness and finish on their pitches. Maybe Kershaw would have been a little sharper in the seventh inning with a few more first pitch outs in the prior six innings. Shave ten pitches off his line before the crucial seventh innings, and the entire outcome could have been different. We will never know.
Today’s athletes are defined by their postseason performances. Peyton Manning’s legacy cannot be discussed without including his Super Bowl failures. LeBron James’ shortcomings in the NBA Finals will outweigh his four MVP awards. Clayton Kershaw could win three more Cy Youngs and 300 career games, but what will his legacy look like if he never pitches in a World Series or finishes his career with a losing playoff record?
Clayton Kershaw has accomplished more in eight seasons than most pitchers could dream of accomplishing in their entire careers. Pitching well in the playoffs is a defining part of a Hall of Fame legacy, but it is not the only part. The playoffs are a crapshoot, especially for starting pitchers. On the surface, it appears Kershaw was burned by two bad pitches against the Cardinals, but looking big picture shows that he was still the same old dominant ace who suffered a little bit of ill fortune.