Clayton Kershaw, man.
In six postseason starts since 2014, we have seen the emergence of a second Clayton Kershaw, a version far removed from the man on the mound from April through September of each year.
The Dodgers are 3-3 in playoff games started by Kershaw since 2014, and just 6-6 in his postseason career (not counting two relief appearances in 2008, and one in 2009, all for Dodgers losses). It’s not what you would expect from the generational talent, but even the win-loss record doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.
The narrative, should you choose to accept it, is that Clayton Kershaw is a liability on the mound after the sixth inning in the postseason. “Kershaw” and “liability” are not words I find joy in marrying in a sentence, but it’s best to be honest. Let’s let FS1 sum it up with this stat following Kershaw’s seventh-inning implosion against Washington in Game 4:
The sample size for the late innings is small, but it’d be larger without Kershaw’s multiple massive seventh-inning meltdowns that have forced Don Mattingly and now Dave Roberts to give him the hook.
The postseason trouble for Kershaw began in Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS against the Cardinals. Six days after pitching in a one-run loss (the run was unearned), Kershaw got blasted for seven earned runs in four innings before being yanked, and the Dodgers were eliminated, 9-0.
Kershaw was hammered again in the 2014 postseason. He got blown up in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the NLDS, again against the Cardinals. Kershaw allowed two runs through six, then was charged with six earned runs in the seventh. Kershaw was on the mound for Game 4, and again, after a three-run seventh, the Dodgers were eliminated.
When asked about his postseason struggles ahead of the 2015 NLDS, Kershaw said: “I definitely remember. But it’s a new team, new season and hopefully for me a new outcome.” Instead it ended up a repeat.
In the 2015 NLDS Game 1 against the Mets, Kershaw cruised through the first six innings giving up only one run and four hits. Kershaw was pulled after three walks in the seventh, and all would come around to score. Kershaw made it through seven in Game 4, allowing only a solo home run to postseason demon Daniel Murphy, and the Dodgers took home the win.
It couldn’t possibly carry over into 2016, could it? The Dodgers won Game 1 against the Nationals Friday, with Kershaw allowing only three runs, but eight hits, before being yanked after 101 pitches through five for Joe Blanton. The Dodgers’ offense and bullpen did their jobs, with the game ending 4-3.
And then, on short rest, Kershaw was blown up in the seventh inning again last night. Two runs through six, then Kershaw loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh. Pedro Baez came in with two outs, and hit Jayson Werth, walking in a run. Luis Avilan came in to face Daniel Murphy, and gave up a single that scored two runs—Kershaw’s two remaining runners on base. The Dodgers ultimately won it, but when he returned to the bench, Kershaw had a look on his face like someone had killed his dog.
Add it all up—Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS through Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS—and you get a 6.43 ERA. Kershaw’s overall postseason ERA now sits at 4.83. ERA is not a fully representative stat, but Kershaw’s regular season ERA across his nine year career is 2.37.
Kershaw’s seventh inning meltdowns don’t happen in the regular season. Kershaw pitched past six innings in 16 out of 21 starts this season (16 IP), allowing only two earned runs for a seventh-inning ERA of 1.12. In 2015, Kershaw made it to the seventh inning in 25 of his 33 starts (23.2 IP), allowing seven earned runs for a 2.66 seventh-inning ERA.
The biggest crime here might not be against Dodgers fans who had to grit their teeth through the possibility of yet another Dodgers NLDS elimination, but against Kershaw himself. Kershaw is too valuable to the sport, too brilliant to watch, and too, in a sense, deserving of all the highest accolades the sport has to offer, to be saddled with this derisive narrative.
What is going on? How does it seem there are two distinctly different pitchers on the mound in the sixth, and then seventh, innings of Dodgers postseason games? How do we, as baseball-loving nerds, reckon with the reality that the time for excuses may have passed? Kershaw’s seventh-inning collapses in the postseason are not immediately explainable—all pitchers do a little worse the third time through the order, though not like this—but they are no longer a fluke.
Kershaw and the Dodgers had the opportunity last night to rub dirt in the faces of those yelling “NARRATIVE, NARRATIVE,” about Kershaw in postseason games. And yet, here we are. The best pitcher in baseball sitting on the bench, head in hands. Again.