Clayton Kershaw and the Unfairness of Narratives

I still remember where I was the first time Playoff Kershaw became a thing. It was 2013, and the Dodgers were a juggernaut. They’d steamrolled through the second half of the regular season behind an exuberant Yasiel Puig and a dominant Clayton Kershaw, and they manhandled the Braves in the NLDS behind two triumphant starts from their ace; 13 innings, a solitary earned run, and 18 strikeouts.

He pitched well against the Cardinals in his first start of the NLCS, a 1-0 loss, which brings us to my memory. Game 6, an elimination game for Los Angeles, wasn’t going to be easy for me to watch. My girlfriend and I were in a remote town in Argentinian Patagonia, and the satellite signal came in intermittently between cloudbursts. On a grainy, 18-inch TV, we sat down to watch the broadcast in Spanish.

Kershaw imploded. Michael Wacha dominated. The announcers screamed with joy at every run, exulted in rich and varied pronunciations of “Kershaw” and “Wacha,” and generally had a great time. I drank it in right along with them, marveling at the good fortune that led the Cardinals past such a formidable opponent with a rookie starter on the mound. I couldn’t have known it was the start of something bigger.

I remember where I was the first time I started to wonder about Playoff Kershaw. It was a year later, and here were the Cardinals again, this time in the NLDS. My girlfriend and I were on vacation with my mom, and we were watching the game from an old TV in our hotel room by the beach. The Cardinals coughed up six early runs, and I was just not in the mood to watch anymore. It was a five run deficit, and it was freaking Clayton Kershaw on the mound; the best pitcher in baseball, maybe the best pitcher of the 21st century.

We left, went to get pizza. It was a lovely little restaurant, and hey, it was just the first game of the NLDS. There was always tomorrow. Then the texts started coming in, and the phone alerts, and the call from my dad. Kershaw was out for the seventh inning, and the Cardinals were getting to him. Three singles, four singles, five singles, a bases-clearing double given up to a lefty — it boggled the mind.

He pitched again in that series; on short rest, as he so often seems to, back against the wall, and this time I was glued to the TV for the entire game. He was magnificent through six innings; one hit, nine strikeouts, no hope for the Cardinals. But as he came out for the seventh inning, the crowd had inexplicable life. Kershaw had imploded last seventh inning; why couldn’t he do it again?

And naturally, it happened. He gave up two singles, and then a home run, to Matt Adams of all people, and that was it. 3-2 Cardinals, game effectively over. As I sat there watching it, I was happy– who wouldn’t want another shot at those darn even-year Giants? At the same time though, I couldn’t shake a sense of unfairness, a sense that Kershaw didn’t deserve this.

There he was in the dugout, slumped in despair and shock, and it just sucked. My disbelief mirrored his. This wasn’t supposed to be how it worked for Clayton Kershaw. The 1-0 losses, 3-2 losses, sure, that’s baseball. Three straight baserunners to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, after such a dominant performance? It couldn’t be.

I remember where I was the first time I felt truly sad on Playoff Kershaw’s behalf. It was 2016, and it looked like Kershaw’s demons had finally been slain. He’d been shaky against the Nationals; eight earned runs over two starts, the second on short rest as the Dodgers faced elimination. The team won both games, but they still needed to pull out a deciding Game 5. And Kershaw came in, for two glorious outs of relief, a dramatic feat on one day of rest that felt like it might right the narrative once and for all.

And there I was, at a bar in downtown Manhattan, to watch Kershaw continue to rewrite his own narrative. He’d mowed the Cubs down in the second game of the series, seven innings of two-hit ball, and with another great performance this night, yet another elimination game, he might erase the past. My girlfriend and I were rooting, if not for the Dodgers, then for Kersh; for the scales of luck to finally even out.

But of course, things didn’t even out. The Cubs jumped on him for two runs in the first, and they kept scraping away; an RBI single here, a solo home run or two there, and before you knew it the score was 5-0 and Kershaw was back to the dugout, sitting by himself in a warmup jacket looking miserable.

I watched, and sympathized, and even empathized. Who among us hasn’t had a high-pressure situation, one where we need to do a task we’re experts at, and had it completely blow up in our faces? Who hasn’t tripped over their own feet, or forgotten their pitch mid-meeting, or played the wrong note at the concert after nailing the song in practice?

Of course, for Kershaw, it wasn’t a meeting or a seventh-grade piano recital. It was the playoffs, and everyone was watching. And it wasn’t just one time. The game of baseball played Lucy to his Charlie Brown, over and over again, and only when the largest possible audience was paying attention.

To be honest with you, I don’t remember where I was when I watched Kershaw in the 2017 and 2018 playoffs. He was slowing already, his effectiveness sapped by a balky back and the march of time. He still had his moments; four dazzling innings of relief in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, a triumphant save to close out the 2018 NLCS.

But it didn’t feel like it was enough, didn’t feel like it could ever be enough, to outrun the mythology that surrounded him. Those performances could only beat back the darkness for a fleeting second; then he’d allow six runs to a stacked Astros team, or struggle in an elimination game against the Red Sox, and it was the same old Playoff Kershaw again.

I remember where I was two nights ago, when I felt the Playoff Kershaw narrative solidify to an unchangeable epitaph. I was sitting at home, waiting for my wife to get back from the airport and join me on the couch to watch some thrilling baseball. I didn’t have a horse in the race, not particularly; my Cardinals fandom has waned over the years as I’ve spent more time analyzing baseball, and neither team seemed like a particularly appealing opponent for St. Louis anyway.

The Nationals had their own tragic past, too: they’d never won a series, depending on your view of the Wild Card game, and they’d lost to the Dodgers in heartbreaking fashion in that 2016 series, blowing a 2-1 lead and having to watch Kershaw himself finish them off. And so when Kershaw came in to wriggle out of a jam of Walker Buehler’s making, in that accursed seventh inning, it felt like the story might change for the better again.

But even then, there were warning signs. His fastball had lost its zip; his first pitch to Adam Eaton clocked in at 90.6 mph. His secondary stuff wasn’t as sharp it normally is. When he came out for the eighth inning, to face two of the best hitters on the planet, it came apart quickly.

His second pitch to Anthony Rendon, an 89.4 mph fastball (yikes), ended up over the left field fence. His third, an 89.3 mph slider (this seems bad!) that backed up and hung over the plate, was absolutely obliterated; Juan Soto hit it 449 feet to center, and the game was tied.

And for Kershaw, that’s all there was. He was back in the dugout, hunched over, staring at his hands. It couldn’t happen again, and yet it did. The Nationals won, because of course they did; that’s just how life works sometimes.

At this point in the article, I’m supposed to assure you that this is all a fluke, and so I will. In his regular season career, Kershaw has struck out 27.5% of the batters he’s faced and walked 6.4%. In the playoffs, those numbers stand at 26.4% and 7%. In the regular season, he’s allowed a .270 BABIP; it’s .264 in the playoffs. He’s allowed slightly fewer line drives and gotten more infield pop-ups.

But the home runs; the back-breaking, poorly-timed home runs. 15.2% of the fly balls he’s allowed in the playoffs have left the yard, much higher than his 9% regular season rate. He’s allowed 24 home runs in only 158.1 innings pitched. His LOB%, 79.4% in the regular season, is a dismal 66% in the postseason (league average is 72.3%, and better pitchers tend to have higher LOB%), in large part due to home runs clearing those baserunners.

That’s the math of the situation; it can’t change the feeling, though, the little voice in the back of your head that says “Hey, are you ready for this?” every time Kershaw pitches in October. And if the voice is in your head, you can be sure it’s in Kershaw’s too, every time he gives up a home run or a chain of singles. Is this all luck? Could it possibly be luck? How can it keep happening to me? Am I tipping my pitches? Pressing too hard? Not pressing hard enough?

It’s enough to make me sad, enough to make me want to hug Kershaw and tell him it will be okay. Except of course I don’t know Clayton Kershaw, will never talk to him in my life; he probably doesn’t care what I think anyway, probably doesn’t want my hug. It just stings, feels bad for me and surely way worse for him, and there’s nothing I can do about that.

This alter-ego, Playoff Kershaw, will always be a part of his story. He’s not the same pitcher he was five years ago, a world-dominating colossus putting up season after season of 2-ish ERA’s. He’s a good pitcher still, an excellent one even, but you could make a persuasive argument that he’s not even one of the best two Dodgers starters. The Kershaw that could have changed this narrative, could have pitched so excellently that we forgot the previous struggles, isn’t here anymore.

In some ways, that doesn’t matter. Clayton Kershaw is rich, and he’s accomplished, and by all accounts he’s a great person. When his career is over, we’ll remember all those things. We’ll remember him as one of the greatest pitchers ever. But we’ll remember the postseason failure too, and likely just as much as we’ll remember the regular season success.

They’ll surely stick with him; when he’s 45 and thinking about his career, he might wonder if he should have thrown Matt Adams a slider there instead of a curve, or started Soto off with a fastball inside. Baseball isn’t fair, of course, and in a zero-sum game there’s a goat for every hero, a “Why did you throw that pitch?” for every pivotal home run. It just feels, to me, deeply unfair that so much of the sorrow has been heaped on one player. Clayton Kershaw deserves better, and it saddens me that he won’t get it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 years ago

This is a great article, but I kept reading partially to make sure that you kept the girlfriend.

4 years ago
Reply to  bensnider94

Hey, is it the SAME girlfriend? Maybe there were 2-3 different ones.

4 years ago
Reply to  Ben Clemens

Yeah but she does because I guess you are as good as the regular season Kershaw. Nice article, thanks.

Dag Gummit
4 years ago
Reply to  bensnider94

I’ve gotta praise how sly it was when he just casually changed “girlfriend” to “wife” on the fourth mention.