Congratulations to the Houston Astros! After distinguishing themselves as one of the best teams in the regular season, they managed to survive the giant Plinko board that is the postseason. Truly a worthy champion.
There will certainly be much attention paid to the World Series winner in the wake of their victory. For the moment, however, I’d like to consider the team that fell just short — and, specifically, to examine their much-maligned ace, Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw stepped onto the mound in Game 7, his team needing him to hold the wall in the worst way. The Dodgers were already down five runs when Kershaw entered, their win probability reduced to just 10%. It was pretty dire.
Kershaw responded, throwing four innings of shutout ball, striking out four, unintentionally walking none, and limiting hard contact along the way. He looked like the guy who’s established himself as the best pitcher of this generation. As the game unfolded Wednesday night, the fans who joined the Game 7 live blog grasped three central points of Kershaw’s performance in very short order, as illustrated by the following excerpt from that chat:
These six comments are representative of observations made by other readers, observations which fell into the three following categories:
- That Kershaw pitched effectively.
- That naysayers would comment about the low leverage of the moment.
- That, however well Kershaw fared, it wouldn’t alter The Narrative.
I’d like to address those points in a moment. However, before we descend (as Jonathan Yardley would put it) “into the Void,” let’s take a quick step back and appreciate Clayton Kershaw’s performance on Wednesday, in what will likely be a lost chord in his playoff opus.
The Kershaw playoff narrative appeared in a few forms this postseason. As we all know, he entered the League Division Series as a pariah, with an oft-quoted 4-7 record and an ERA north of 4.00. After middling performances to open the LDS versus the Diamondbacks and the League Championship Series against the Cubs, the narrative shifted slightly. Kershaw wasn’t quite himself in the postseason, but still very good, a pitcher who could post acceptable playoff numbers.
A one-sided clinching victory over the Cubs, in which Kershaw delivered a strong performance, earned him a bit more goodwill. He could lead a postseason staff, even if he lacked that clutch ability to rise at the biggest stages. Game 1 of the World Series laid the postseason pariah narrative to rest, but it returned en force after Game 5. After a hectic four weeks, we were seemingly back where we started, conventional wisdom suggesting that Kershaw was the greatest regular-season pitcher in baseball but hamstrung somehow in the postseason.
An unshakable narrative and a 5-0 deficit served as the backdrop to Kershaw’s outing when he entered in the third inning of Game 7. He quickly dispatched of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa on routine fly outs and froze Yulieski Gurriel on a low 3-2 fastball.
An inning later, Brian McCann went down on a half-hearted attempt at a Kershaw slider.
And in the fifth, Kershaw got Alex Bregman, who had taken him deep in Game 1, to look absolutely silly on a devastating curve in the dirt.
The one moment of trouble came in the sixth, when a weak but well-placed grounder saw Carlos Correa reach first. It was followed by infield ground outs that moved Correa over to third. Rather than face Marwin Gonzalez or pinch-hitter Evan Gattis, Kershaw walked them and decided to pick on Cameron Maybin, who’d recorded only seven plate appearances over the last month. After taking a 93 mph fastball at the thighs, Maybin decided it was better to surrender quickly and weakly popped out to third.
Kershaw’s pitches were crisp, on the whole. His four-seam fastball rode in around 93-94, with plenty of vertical movment (14 inches’ worth); his curveball was a bit faster than usual at 74.3 mph, leading to a little less drop; and his slider picked up a few extra inches of vertical movement (8 inches on 15 pitches). In terms of results, Kershaw generated four swinging strikes (three on strikeout pitches), 11 called strikes, and 11 foul balls in his 43 pitches. Of the 10 balls in play, the hardest hit was a 100.3 mph grounder that went for a single. Otherwise, there were two infield popups, and the average hit probability, according to Baseball Savant, was just 13%. (This only accounts for seven of the balls in play.) Everything, from pitches to results, pointed to a dominant Kershaw performance at the highest stage.
Those who will continue to perpetuate the playoff-failure narrative for Kershaw will point to the fact that the Dodgers never led in Game 7 and that, therefore, Kershaw wasn’t forced to contend with real pressure. Those innings are viewed by some as virtually meaningless; they featured, in sabermetric parlance, a low leverage. This is undeniably true: Kershaw’s average leverage index for the game was just 0.2. Average is 1.0. The highest leverage index he faced was 0.39 (bases loaded in the 6th inning with two outs), but even that was inflated somewhat by Kershaw’s back-to-back intentional walks. Indeed, Kershaw didn’t face a situation that was critical to the outcome of the game.
However, every pitch Kershaw threw was ultimately critical to keeping the Dodgers’ season alive. If he’d imploded at any point — allowing a hit to Maybin, for example, or serving up a homer to Altuve, or getting nickled-and-dimed to death by singles and walks — the Dodgers’ season would essentially have been over. Even in those low-leverage innings, Kershaw managed to add 0.038 win probability to his team, the best performance on the year by a reliever in similar circumstances (down five-plus runs, less than 10% chance of winning) on the year. Kershaw’s back was against the wall on every pitch, keeping the Dodgers’ hopes alive, even if the outcome of the game had already been long trending towards an Astros win.
Kershaw was great Wednesday night. Kershaw has been great before. He’ll likely continue to be great going forward. Ultimately, this performance is likely to be forgotten — both in both baseball history and in Kershaw’s own personal playoff narrative — but it shouldn’t be. He didn’t start the game, and the fact that pieces are being written on the topic should indicate how impressive his performance was and how he would be trusted by many on big stages. There was a lack of crucial moments while Kershaw was on the mound, leaving nothing necessarily memorable to place in Kershaw’s postseason file. The Dodgers didn’t win on Wednesday, and as Winston Churchill reminded us, history is written by (and about) the victors. Finally, this performance doesn’t fit the narrative that people have come to believe about Kershaw. As such, it’s convenient to ignore — ignore, that is, unless Kershaw dominates the playoffs going forward, at which point this game will become the one where Kershaw turned it all around.
Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.