Clayton Kershaw is not alone in his postseason struggles

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Over the past decade Clayton Kershaw has built a reputation as (a) the greatest starting pitcher of his generation; and (b) a guy who simply doesn’t get it done in the postseason. He provided even more of a basis for (b) last night when he entered the eighth inning with a two-run lead, allowed home runs on consecutive pitches to tie the game and then watched the Nationals win it in extra innings.

Even before last night’s disaster there was truth to both parts of that reputation, of course. The numbers are plain. In the regular season he has done everything one can do, has multiple Cy Young Awards and an MVP trophy to his name and has built a resume that, even if he were he to get hit by a bus today, would put him in the Hall of Fame.

In the postseason, however, he’s been a remarkably ordinary pitcher:

  • Regular Season: 169 wins, 74 losses, 2.44 ERA, 157 ERA+, 4.61 K/BB ratio, 6.8 H/9, 0.7 HR/9, 2.74 FIP, 1.008 WHIP
  • Postseason: 9 wins, 11 losses, 4.33 ERA, 3.78 K/BB ratio, 7.4 H/9, 1.4 HR/9, 1.105 WHIP

Obviously there are some caveats here. In the postseason you face much stiffer competition. The sample size in the postseason is smaller. Kershaw has been used as a reliever seven times as well, and that’s not his usual role. If you gave him 2,274.2 postseason innings, which he has in the regular season, rather than the 158 postseason innings he has, and if you used him as a starter, on regular rest, all that time, his numbers would, quite obviously, be much better, even against the tougher competition. That’s because he’s simply a phenomenal pitcher and always has been.

Yet, that’s not where we are. Where we are is in a place where, once again, Clayton Kershaw was called on in the postseason and did not deliver. No matter how flukey or caveat-filled those numbers are, he hasn’t always gotten it done when it has mattered most. That’s simply an objective fact.

Here is where the arguments start.

There is a certain camp of folks — I’d say most folks, actually — who read something into those postseason failures and draw certain conclusions about Kershaw’s psychological makeup or his nerve or his overall quality as a pitcher. The people who might characterize him as a choker as a matter of inherent personal trait as opposed to someone who, again objectively, has performed in a sub-optimal way.

I don’t really give much weight to such arguments, partially because I don’t think fans or baseball writers are qualified to be psychiatrists and cannot be taken seriously when they do such armchair head-shrinking. We can talk about what has and has not happened, but the “why” of it is way harder and, I’d argue, impossible when it comes to matters of a professional athlete’s psyche. We all have opinions but we’re all just guessing. Hell, most of us don’t even know why we do some of the dumb or destructive things we do, what makes us think we know what makes Clayton Kershaw tick? Or not tick?

I mostly don’t give great weight to such arguments, though, because of those statistical caveats I mentioned above, most prominently the one about Kershaw’s managers’ abnormal usage of him in postseason games.

Whether it was Joe Torre, Don Mattingly or Dave Roberts, Kershaw’s managers have never served him well in October. He’s a great pitcher but, even if he’s had a couple of good relief outings, he’s not a relief pitcher. He’s also been stretched for an extra inning or two far more often than he should’ve been. We can say “hey, that’s what an ace does,” — and Kershaw would probably be the first to say that he’s supposed to be that horse his team can ride — but it’s a manager’s job to monitor a pitcher’s usage and stamina and Kershaw’s managers have often failed in that regard. This is not a matter of hindsight, mind you. Almost every Clayton Kershaw postseason failure has come with fans and analysts questioning the manager’s decision to start him on short rest, keep him in an extra inning or call him out of the pen in real time. He’s great, but he’s simply not the guy they’ve tried to make him be. I’d argue that Dave Roberts, once again, made that mistake last night.

Above all else, though, I’m simply aware that Kershaw is not really alone in being a great pitcher who has been less-than-great in the postseason, either overall or in a singularly bad performance or three. Just off the top of my head:

  • Greg Maddux: 11-14 in 35 games (30 starts) with a much worse K/BB ratio in the postseason. Until Kershaw came along he wore the mantle of “postseason choker” more prominently than most great pitchers, I think. That was based mostly on a handful of less-than-stellar appearances than overall futility. Actually he wasn’t terrible. Just not typical Greg Maddux;
  • Roger Clemens: He certainly had some big moments in the postseason, but he had a lot of ups and downs. In 35 postseason games he had a 3.75 ERA which was worse than his overall performance;
  • Doc Gooden: He was considered the best pitcher on Planet Earth when he went 0-2 with a 8.00 ERA in the 1986 World Series. Though, to be fair, a good bit of that can probably be blamed on the Colombian Marching Powder as opposed to him freezing up in the postseason;
  • Andy Pettitte: He’s actually, rightfully, got a reputation as a great postseason pitcher. But even the great postseason pitchers have their bad moments. Anyone remember his first World Series appearance? It came in 1996 against the Braves in Game 1. His line:  2.1 IP, 6 H, 7 ER and the loss. The Yankees survived that series. Pettitte’s postseason reputation survived that train wreck of a night;
  • David Price: Maybe the best sign of hope for Kershaw’s reputation. Before last year, Price was thought of as one of the bigger postseason busts ever. Heading into last October he had a 5.03 postseason ERA with no wins in nine starts. In the ALDS the Yankees scored three runs in an inning and two-thirds and in his first ALCS appearance he gave up four runs and did not last five innings against the Astros. The armchair analyzing got even worse. Then all he did was t oss six shutout innings against Houston in Game 5, earning the pennant-clinching win for Boston, six more innings of two-run ball in Game 2 of the World Series to give the Sox a 2-0 lead over the Dodgers, make a relief appearance in the marathon Game 3 and then come back i Game 5, allow one run over seven, get the win and clinch the World Series for Boston. Suddenly, the postseason bust label was gone.   

Did those guys — and the many, many other otherwise great pitchers who laid eggs in postseason play — all freeze up mentally or suddenly forget how to pitch? Of course not. Stuff can happen in baseball and stuff has happened to a lot of great pitchers in the past century and change of Octobers.

The same goes for Clayton Kershaw. He’s a great pitcher. He has, on some occasions, pitched great in the postseason. He has, on more occasions, not pitched so great. It’s not a record that, on the objective merits of it, he or anyone can run away from or deny. But it’s not a character indictment. It’s not psychological issue, I don’t think (and can’t possibly know). It’s just stuff happening. As it has happened before to others and will happen again to others.

But man, he really could use a better October at some point, eh?