Chaos and Clayton Deferred: Notes From Baseball’s Final Weekend

Like the majority of the people reading this, I spent my weekend doing little other than watching baseball. The possibilities for real chaos were endless, and while none of the various bingo balls fell our way for a meaningful game on Monday, the season still ended with plenty of drama and interesting tidbits.

Clayton Kershaw Walks Off The Mound

In the midst of the exciting games with all sorts of playoff implications, it was a jarring moment when Kershaw came out of Friday night’s start against Milwaukee with what is being described as forearm discomfort. Based on both his and Dave Roberts’ post-game comments, whatever is going on with one of the best left arms in the history of the game is not good, and his 2021 season is likely over. As far as his Dodgers career, that’s still to be determined; his contract expires after the final out of the World Series.

The No. 7 pick in the 2006 draft out of a high school in the northern suburbs of Dallas, Kershaw came onto my radar that summer, when a veteran scout told me that he was the best pitcher at the complex level he’d ever seen over decades of experience. My first in-person look came the following spring during his full-season debut with Low-A Great Lakes. He reached Double-A that year as a teenager, and even though he walked nearly five batters per nine innings, much of that was the fault of minor league umpires who had no idea how to call a pure 12-to-6 curveball with more downward action than they had likely ever seen.

The first time I watched Kershaw for professional purposes came in March 2014 in a spring training game against the Padres. He was horrible, allowing nine base runners in his three innings of work; it was early, and he hadn’t ramped up. I still remember my report: “Fringy command of fringy weapons. Likely Cy Young candidate.” He’d go on to win his third in four years that season.

Kershaw has made a number of adjustments in the latter part of career, leaning more on a slider of late and constantly improving his plus or better command, but he’s also been one of the most deceptive pitchers in the game. I’ve had a plethora of discussions over the last twenty years about what exactly deception is, but the best advice I got was from a scout who told me, “Watch the hitters. They’ll tell you who has deception.” I’ve always thought that the pop-up in Kershaw’s delivery, as well as the high-arm angle contributed to some of it, but that wasn’t the entire picture either. As an All-Star hitter told me, “I don’t know what it is, but the ball looks like it’s exploding out of his chest.”

This isn’t meant to be some sort of requiem for Kershaw. He’s only 33 years old, and even a worst-case diagnosis that requires some form of surgery doesn’t come close to ending his career. I’m sure milestones like 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts are important to him, and there’s no reason to think he won’t get there, but Friday’s events had me thinking for the first time about the end of this phase of overwhelming excellence.

The Mariners’ Offense Finally Catches Up To Them

Seattle had the fun differential during the final month of the season, but a crucial 2–1 loss on Friday night against the Angels was when the run differential reared its ugly head. Down by one in the bottom of the seventh, Luis Torrens led off with a triple. A walk and three strikeouts later, Seattle left with nothing. Kyle Seager started the bottom of the ninth with a double, but a groundout, pop-out and flyout meant another goose egg, sending the Mariners to a heartbreaking loss when they could least afford it. Basic run expectancy tables would predict two or three runs out of those prime scoring situations; they got zero, and that’s why they lost.

It’s not surprising either. Seattle finished the year with one of the worst offenses in the league, ranking in the bottom three of each of the triple-slash categories. Ty France is a nice hitter and a fantastic pickup by the front office, but when he’s your best hitter, you’re not a playoff team. The Mariners were baseball’s most fun squad in September, but that only gets you so far. Still, stay positive, Seattle: It was an ugly end to 2021, but things are starting to get interesting in the Pacific Northwest.

The Weirdest Thing That Never Happened Before

Pour one out for … the triple? For the first time in the history of baseball (not counting last season’s 60-game mess), nobody reached double digits in baseball’s most exciting play. No one got all that close, either; the year ended with David Peralta, Bryan Reynolds and Shohei Ohtani all tied with eight. We came awfully close to the same happening in 2019, when four batters tied for the MLB lead with ten, but it’s been only 14 years since each league had a hitter with 20-plus in Jimmy Rollins and Curtis Granderson.

While teams have gotten more aggressive in taking extra bases on a variety of plays, the pure speed plays of triples and stolen bases continue to go down. Trea Turner (32) and Whit Merrifield (40) combined for 72 swipes as the league leaders, the lowest total since 1958, when Willie Mays and Luis Aparicio stole 60 between them. I don’t think baseball is less exciting these days; I like to think of it as exciting for different reasons. But I do hope teams find a way to make speed more of a weapon again.

Chaos Loses, But Only Temporarily

When I worked for a team. Jay Jaffe’s daily updates on chaos and Team Entropy generated nothing but anxiety and stress for me. Now, as an observer of the sport as opposed to somebody with actual skin in the game, they bring me joy. Players and front offices like to secure their spot and seed in the postseason as soon as possible. With 162 games over six months, the chance for a break — both physical and mental — is something that drives teams in September. Some earn their spot with amazing late-season runs, and others finish the year in cruise control, but as Jay has shown, in terms of postseason predictiveness, it doesn’t matter how you get there.

Before Sunday afternoon, I heard or read countless takes about how nobody wants to play the Cardinals in the playoffs, or how the AL Wild Card Game winner is screwed since it has to play a well-rested Rays team, or how the White Sox need to find their winning edge again. None of it means a damn thing now. Think about it: We all know that a winner-take-all scenario, be it extra regular-season contests or wild-card games, is little more than a coin flip. Five- and seven-game series are better, but we just finished 162 games and needed every single one of them to figure out who belongs in playoffs. I’m sure somebody could do the math to figure out how long a series between two playoff-caliber teams would need to be in order to tell you who is better; my gut answer is at least 15, but it’s more likely closer to 30, and with fewer days off to force the usage of the deeper parts of a rotation.

Games 163 are a blast, and it’s a shame that we won’t have one this year after so many things were trending that way. And the playoffs themselves will be tremendous, as they always are. We’ve reached the point where there simply are no more favorites or underdogs or anything resembling a sure thing in either direction. It’s not the chaos you were rooting for on Sunday afternoon, but it’s chaos nonetheless, and it’s a month long, and it starts on Tuesday.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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11 months ago

This update is so sad.
1) No Clayton Kershaw
2) Few triples (my favorite hit in baseball)
3) No fun differential
4) Little chaos

Can you do, like, a happy article tomorrow?