Clayton Kershaw lost, but don’t call him an October failure

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Clayton Kershaw came into this World Series with the reputation of a guy who simply couldn’t get it done in October. That was not completely fair — he has had both successes and failures in October — but it was the label that stuck. After his loss in Game 5 there will be many who will continue to say that Kershaw is an October choker. They will question his fortitude and everything that goes along with it. That will be completely unfair, because to say that is to simply ignore both who Kershaw is as a pitcher at this moment and what he was facing on this night.

As was made clear in our main game story, the 2018 Boston Red Sox were simply an overwhelming force of nature. Even with half of their lineup slumping for long stretches in this Series, there was never a time when it felt like they were, or could be, truly contained. We saw that in Game 4 when they exploded in the late innings and we saw it again tonight when they went deep four times. Whatever trouble they had hitting the ball in the wee hours of Saturday morning’s Game 3 they were, ultimately, exactly who we thought they were all season long: the best, most balanced and deepest lineup in baseball, capable of taking control of any game. To expect any pitcher to rein them in seems silly.

But it wasn’t silly to think that Clayton Kershaw — the best pitcher on planet Earth for he past several seasons — could do it, right?

Nah. Mostly because the Clayton Kershaw we all watched this postseason is not the same pitcher he used to be.

Kershaw still carries himself like an ace, but he has taken a clear step back. Whether it’s because of mileage or, more likely, because of various injuries he’s suffered over the past few years, his fastball velocity has diminished considerably and, with it, his ability to induce swings and misses and, in turn, his strikeout rate. He has continued to put up numbers that are good for most pitchers because he’s smart, tough and is working on becoming wily, but his wily qualities are not quite fully developed yet. Where that leaves him is throwing a fastball that is no longer several miles per hour above his once-deadly slider — indeed those pitches have basically converged — and when you can’t change speeds you can’t fool hitters.

Where did that leave him tonight? His max fastball was 91.6 m.p.h., which is the slowest he has been all season. Without any explosiveness, Boston batters could anticipate most of his pitches coming in at the same rate and could sit on them, waiting to see if they were sliders or fastballs, willing to risk that they would not get fooled by Kershaw’s famous curve. It was like a third of his arsenal was gone. It was like taking away Larry Holmes’ jab.

Still, Kershaw gutted it out. He made it through seven innings, throwing 92 pitches, knowing damn well that there was no effective Dodger bullpen to bail him out. The results weren’t great — he allowed three homers and never seemed to be fully in control — but he gave it his all, his compromised repertoire notwithstanding.

As I said before, a whole lot of people are going to use Clayton Kershaw’s loss in Game 5 as more evidence that he is an October failure. That he lacks the ability to come through in big games because he is, somehow, lacking in some essential way. You can look at it that way if you want. I choose to look at him differently.

I choose to look at him as a future Hall of Fame pitcher who, rather suddenly, has found himself in a mid-career crisis and who did the very best he could under the circumstances, trying to become a different pitcher than he has always been on the fly against the best team in baseball. There’s something admirable in that, even if it came in a losing effort.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today

ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.