I’ve been on the Clayton Kershaw-in-the-postseason beat since 2013. My analysis has been consistent, and it goes like this: He’s deserved better. His manager used to be a dingus who couldn’t tell when he’s tired. When he was tired, c’mon, give him a break, you dumb manager. When Kershaw dominated, this analysis switched to, “Hell, yes, he dominated. He’s an inner-circle Hall of Famer before turning 30. Of course he dominated.”
There is a common thread to this belief system. It’s not only the knowledge that Kershaw is a generational talent, but it’s also a belief that the postseason is a hideous small-sample goblin that will bite your nose off. These are both verifiable facts.
Add these two facts together, and you have [waves arms wildly] whatever in the hell Kershaw’s October career has been. The postseason, man. It’ll get you. It doesn’t have to mean anything, of course. This can all still be noise.
Except we’re here now in 2018, and Postseason Clayton Kershaw is still a thing. Game 1 of the 2018 NLDS was the shortest start of his postseason career, and we need to talk about it.
He might be bad in October, everyone.
But, before reaching this conclusion, remember that he’s cursed. Absolutely cursed. Consider the home run he allowed in Game 1:
It came against a reliever. Not only that, but it came against a reliever batting for himself in the third inning. This was a bloody, brutal statement from the warlords of bullpenning. This was a head on a pike. The bullpenning strategy isn’t going away soon, and here’s a left-handed reliever hitting a bomb to prove the point.
(You can listen to my reaction to the home run as it happened, by the way. I have never laughed like that before, and I will never laugh like that again.)
That reliever was Brandon Woodruff, who had done this ...
- 19 times for Mississippi State (2 hits)
- 24 times for the Biloxi Shuckers (7 hits!)
- 29 times for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox (5 hits)
- 18 times for the Milwaukee Brewers (4 hits, 1 home run!).
... over his professional career. As far as pitchers go, he wasn’t entirely helpless, based on those stats. Just mostly helpless. As someone with fewer than 75 professional plate appearances since being drafted in 2014, he should have been entirely helpless against Kershaw.
Here, look at a list of ALL of the left-handed hitters who have ever hit home runs against Clayton Kershaw. There are almost no drifters. They’re all engorged dinger lads, more or less. Adam Dunn! Jay Bruce! Christian Yelich! Joey Votto! Of the 26 lefties to hit a homer off Kershaw, 17 of them were All-Stars at one point. The ones who weren’t still had lengthy major league careers as power hitters.
Except here’s a left-handed reliever hitting a long home run against Kershaw. Can you blame him for that? Really, I’m not sure if you can ever blame a starter for allowing a homer on a 92-mph fastball to a reliever. Try to backwards-engineer it: At what point should a Hall of Famer nibble in a two-strike count against a reliever? He shouldn’t nibble. Ever. Never ever ever. Don’t walk the reliever. Challenge, challenge, challenge.
I guarantee you that if the Brewers’ batting-practice pitcher wheeled a little screen out to the mound, put the little ramp up to simulate the mound, and tried his very, very best to let Woodruff hit a home run during every BP session, he might get it done once every day. Maybe. That’s just an educated guess. It’s possible that Woodruff hits several bombs every BP.
It’s also extremely likely that Woodruff doesn’t take BP at all.
You can’t assign blame to a pitcher for allowing a homer to a reliever. It is someone taking the thimble, smashing it down on the Monopoly board over the top hat, and screaming “CHECKMATE.”
You can’t expect Kyle Lohse — literally Kyle Lohse today, right now, roused out of bed in the middle of the night — to allow a home run to Brandon Woodruff. This is true even if you expressly give him a task of allowing a home run to Brandon Woodruff. That’s the most important thing you can remember about Game 1. One of our best living pitchers allowed something that a batting-practice pitcher or retired innings-eater couldn’t have allowed if they wanted to.
Then you have the weirdness behind the plate. Yasmani Grandal is approximately 4 for 489 in his postseason career, so the last thing he needs to do is screw up defensively. And yet, that’s what he did, committing passed balls and errors at exactly the wrong time. Balls behind the plate, balls in front of the plate, none of it worked. None of it helped.
None of it was fair to Kershaw. And yet, you have this:
All those turquoise squares in the middle are when Kershaw screwed up and was punished for it. Those are bad screw-ups, and there was no mercy. You can also notice a paucity of yellow squares, which are the swinging strikes. It wasn’t pretty.
It can all be true, then.
Yes, Kershaw is a different pitcher. Even if he’s as well-rested as he’s ever been entering an NLCS, he’s still jogging up an incline that wasn’t there before. If he opts out of his contract, there’s eventually going to be a nasty surprise waiting for the team giving him six figures.
But Kershaw is also a pitcher who was given his powers through a monkey paw. He wanted to be the best pitcher ever, and a finger curled. Now he’s here, completely unfulfilled and with a knapsack filled with regrets and pitches he wishes he hadn’t thrown. There was nothing about this game that was normal. Catchers are supposed to catch. Relievers aren’t supposed to hit. NOTHING HERE WAS ACCORDING TO THE RULES.
The ending was familiar, though. Kershaw has appeared in 26 postseason games for the Dodgers, and they’ve won 13 of those games. He’s an ace in the regular season and a temp sent from the corporate office in the postseason. That seems harsh, especially when you remember there are at least a half-dozen completely brilliant October Kershaw starts out there, but how long are we supposed to overlook the weirdness and point to the larger body of work in the regular season?
Probably a little bit longer. It’s exhausting — utterly exhausting — but I’m still not ready to stamp a “postseason dud” label on his forehead in red ink. If the Dodgers are lucky, there will be more chances to let Kershaw absolve himself.
Until then, has there ever been a pitcher like this? Get out of here with your David Price comparisons. Not the same in the regular season, not nearly the breadth of experience in the postseason. This is a pitcher who has excelled at making the worst pitch at the worst time, unless he makes the best pitch at the best time and something weird happens, unless there’s just always a bunch of weird shit happening all around him. Unless it’s all of the above in the same inning, which is usually the case.
I’ve spent the last half-decade explaining why postseason Kershaw wasn’t a real phenomenon. Now that he’s declining in very obvious and measurable ways, the lines are getting blurred and it’s all a mess. He still allowed a homer to a reliever, which isn’t anybody’s fault, and his defense still screwed up all over the place. But he’s still not the same pitcher he was in recent years.
Except in recent years, he was most definitely the kind of pitcher who would have a bunch of fluky, freaky stuff happen to him in the postseason. Maybe this is his truest form.
Whatever it is, it’s weird as hell. For the 1,493rd time in the last five years, it feels like, Kershaw is trying to figure out what happened.
So are we, buddy. So are we.