clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Clayton Kershaw vs. the postseason, explained

New, comments

The Dodgers’ ace lost both of his World Series starts in 2018, adding to his mixed bag of postseason results.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Clayton Kershaw is widely considered the best starting pitcher of his generation in Major League Baseball, but his collective performance in the postseason hasn’t measured up with his regular-season work. For the second October in a row Kershaw is on the losing end of the World Series.

The Los Angeles Dodgers ace has Hall of Fame credentials even if he doesn’t throw another pitch. He is one of only 10 pitchers to win three Cy Young Awards, and finished in the top five in four other seasons. He won an MVP. His career ERA is 2.39, which is better than any other starter in the live ball era (1920-present), and almost a third of a run better than the next best in the last century of baseball.

In the postseason, Kershaw has a 4.32 ERA in 152 innings, the most postseason innings pitched by anyone who hasn’t won a World Series. That covers 24 starts and six relief appearances. Three of those bullpen outings came in his first two seasons, in 2008-09, when he wasn’t fully Clayton Kershaw yet.

That difference in performance between the regular season and October is the entire thrust of the Kershaw postseason narrative. But there is a little more to it than that.

The drought

Kershaw has reached the playoffs in eight of his 11 seasons, including six straight National League West division titles, one of the most successful stretches of success in Dodgers franchise history. But they haven’t won a World Series since 1988.

“With each postseason and not winning a World Series, I think you tack on a little bit more pressure, a little bit more urgency to win, especially when you’re in the market that we’re in, when you’re with the team that we are,” Kershaw said this October. “There becomes a little bit more pressure, for sure, just because we’ve had such a great team. And it’s been a long time since we’ve won one.”

A mixed bag

Kershaw since 2013 — the start of this six-divisional title run for the Dodgers — has nine different postseason starts of at least six innings and one or zero earned runs allowed. That’s the most in baseball during that span.

Kershaw has also allowed five or more runs eight times in his playoff career, the most ever.

He’s one of only two pitchers to allow seven or more runs in consecutive postseason starts, joining Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown from the 1910 World Series. Kershaw, who has all five digits on his left hand, allowed seven runs in Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS, then eight in Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS. Both to the Cardinals.

The second of those games was a brutal defeat, with Kershaw and the Dodgers cruising into the seventh inning with a 6-1 lead, only to see an agonizing seven-run rally in the sweltering heat.

This October we have seen both extremes. In Game 2 of the NLDS against the Braves, Kershaw allowed only a pair of singles in eight scoreless innings, his longest postseason outing ever. Six days later he couldn’t get out of the fourth inning in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Brewers, his shortest playoff start.

He struck out nine in seven strong innings a pivotal Game 5 start against Milwaukee that helped the Dodgers advance to the World Series for a second year in a row, but then Kershaw allowed nine runs in 11 innings in his two Fall Classic starts against the Red Sox, both losses.

Relievers haven’t helped

Nine times in his 24 postseason starts, Kershaw was removed in the middle of an inning with runners on base. A total of 16 runners were left on by Kershaw in those situations, and 13 scored, or 81.3 percent. To put that in perspective, 30 percent of all inherited runners have scored from 2009-18, which covers all of Kershaw’s postseason starts.

But it’s not as simple as looking at the total of bequeathed runners and those who have or haven’t scored. Every situation is different; based loaded and nobody out is a much more precarious situation than a runner on first with two outs.

In Game 1 of the NLCS Kershaw exited in the fourth inning with a runner on first base and nobody out. The handy-dandy run expectancy chart at Baseball Prospectus tells us that in 2018 the average number of runs scored in an inning after this situation is 0.8721 runs. Ryan Madson relieved Kershaw in that game, and ultimately allowed the inherited runner to score. We can’t assign portions of runs to pitchers, so the full run was charged to Kershaw’s ledger.

This is a trend.

In the last seven times Kershaw left a postseason start with runners on base, dating back to 2013, relievers have allowed more runs to score than the base-out situation dictated.

Clayton Kershaw’s postseason bequeathed runners

Series Game Inning Bequeathed Scored Situation Expected runs Difference
Series Game Inning Bequeathed Scored Situation Expected runs Difference
2009 NLDS 2 7 1 0 1--, 2 out 0.2290 -0.2290
2009 NLCS 1 5 1 0 -2-, 2 out 0.3253 -0.3253
2013 NLCS 6 5 2 2 -23, 0 out 0.5663 1.4337
2014 NLDS 1 7 1 1 -2-, 2 out 0.2901 0.7099
2015 NLDS 1 7 3 2 123, 2 out 0.6971 1.3029
2016 NLDS 4 7 3 3 123, 2 out 0.6955 2.3045
2017 World Series 5 5 2 2 12-, 2 out 0.4553 1.5447
2018 NLCS 1 4 1 1 1--, 0 out 0.8721 0.1279
2018 World Series 1 5 2 2 12-, 0 out 1.4525 0.5475
Totals 16 13 5.5832 7.4168

Given the situations that Kershaw left his relievers, about 5.6 more runs would have been expected to score after he left. Instead, 13 scored.

That’s bad for Kershaw, but here is the thing: even if we remove those nearly eight extra runs from his record, his ERA in postseason starts only goes down from 4.43 to 3.96. The collective ERA from all MLB postseason starts dating back to 2009 — 678 games in all — is 3.90.

So even if we give Kershaw the benefit of the doubt with respect to his bullpens not doing him any favors, he’s still been a major league average starter in the postseason. But he’s Clayton Kershaw, and we rightfully expect more.

A new era

For years a lot of Kershaw’s problems was that the Dodgers relied on him too hard. His supporting cast wasn’t as strong as it is now, and Kershaw was either left in too long — for lack of better options in the bullpen — or required to start more often than anyone else.

In the first five innings of Kershaw’s playoff starts, his ERA is 3.82. Afterward it is 7.00.

Kershaw made starts on three days rest in four consecutive years in the NLDS, and acquitted himself very well, with a 2.10 ERA, 34 strikeouts, and six walks in 25⅔ innings. Since 2013 the only other major league starters with more than one start on three days rest after another start are Corey Kluber (3) and Trevor Bauer (2).

In the last two seasons Kershaw has been surrounded by a better group and hasn’t been relied on as much. He has missed time on the disabled list with a back injury in each of the last three seasons, and in 2018 is down about 2 MPH on his four-seam fastball from last year.

“With Clayton, he expects himself to execute. And when you’re sequencing the right way and when you’re executing there’s punchouts in there but probably not as much as there has been in the past,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Then there’s soft contact. And those are outs, typically. So when he’s right, he’s still going to log out. And that’s the number one goal that I know that he wants, to get outs, and I still think he can be efficient doing that.”

Divisional Round - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two
Clayton Kershaw pitched eight scoreless innings in this year’s NLDS, the longest postseason start of his career.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Dodgers have been cautious this year with Kershaw, giving him extra rest whenever possible, including in 14 of his last 17 starts. With five or more days rest this year Kershaw has a 2.55 ERA in 19 starts, compared to 3.21 in his nine starts on regular, four-days rest.

Looming decision

Kershaw took the loss in Game 5 of the World Series, with the possibility that it was be his final start with the Dodgers.

There are two years and $65 million remaining on Kershaw’s contract, a seven-year pact he signed before the 2014 season. He can opt out of that contract into free agency, a decision that must be made three days after the World Series ends. In other words, by Wednesday.

“I haven’t made the decision yet,” Kershaw said. “We have three days to talk, between us and the Dodgers, see what happens, and we’ll go from there.”

A World Series is something he must win to fully remove the October monkey off his back. It would go a long way in erasing the pain of Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, when Kershaw had a 4-0 lead in Game 5 in Houston, looking to take a 3-2 series lead back to Los Angeles. He gave up that lead, then when the Dodgers staked him to another advantage, he couldn’t complete the fifth inning. The Dodgers lost a wild one, 13-12, in 10 innings.

Kershaw’s World Series ERA is 5.40, in four starts and a relief appearance in 2017-18.

Highlights of last year’s Game 5 don’t play at Dodger Stadium these days, but there sure are videos and tributes galore to the 1988 World Series, the last one the Dodgers won. The 30-year wait not only weighs on the fans in Los Angeles, but on the current players, too.

“No disrespect to 1988, we hear about that a lot. And I’ve said it before, but we are sick of it,” Kershaw said. “It’s up to us to do something about it, obviously. We need to create some of our own history, for sure.”