The History of Clayton Kershaw’s Postseason Bullpens

Clayton Kershaw looked on from the dugout while the inning he started lived on. It was the seventh inning of Tuesday night’s Game 4 of the NLDS between the Dodgers and the Nationals in Los Angeles, and Kershaw was responsible for all three of the men on base in a three-run game. Pedro Baez took the mound in an attempt to preserve the lead. Baez threw one pitch, it hit Jayson Werth’s elbow, a run scored, and out went Baez. Kershaw might not have flashbacks, but he’s seen this situation before. The camera panned to the dugout.

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In came Luis Avilan. He threw two pitches, the latter of which hit Daniel Murphy’s bat, landed in the outfield grass, and two runs scored. Game tied. The camera panned to the dugout.

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The Dodgers went on to win the game, 6-5, forcing a Game 5, so in hindsight, what happened in this inning doesn’t much matter. But Kershaw’s pitching line won’t change: 6.2 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 11 K, 0 HR. I’m not alone in saying Kershaw pitched much better than that line might indicate. In fact, all things considered — pitching on three days rest, throwing a 27-pitch first inning, being asked to throw 110 pitches and face Bryce Harper three times, despite those two preceding points — I’m guessing I wouldn’t be alone in saying Kershaw pitched brilliantly. And yet, he’s been charged with five earned runs. His ERA for the day was 6.75.

Kershaw’s ERA for his entire postseason career is now 4.83 in 76.1 innings. The narrative lives on. The world’s best pitcher somehow crumbles in October, the naysayers claim. But is it really Kershaw who’s crumbled, or has it been his bullpen?

It started back in 2008, when a 20-year-old Kershaw came out of the Dodgers bullpen in the sixth inning of Game 4 of the NLCS against the Phillies, relieving Derek Lowe. Kershaw put Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell on with a walk and a single before Shane Victorino bunted them over and Kershaw was pulled. In came Chan Ho Park, who retired the first batter he faced, then threw a wild pitch that allowed Howard, Kershaw’s runner, to score.

Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS against the Cardinals. Ronald Belisario allows Kershaw’s runner, Matt Adams, to score when the opposing pitcher, Michael Wacha, puts the ball in play on what led to a fielder’s choice. The next year, Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cardinals, Baez’s home run to Matt Holliday blows the game open and brings in the only runner Kershaw left for Baez.

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The first game of last year’s NLDS against the Mets, Kershaw again hands the ball to Baez, this time with the bases loaded, and Baez promptly allows a single to David Wright, bringing in two Kershaw runners.

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Accounting for Baez and Avilan’s joint efforts to bring in all of Kershaw’s runners last night, that’s 15 base-runners Kershaw has handed over to his relievers in 15 postseason outings, eight of which those relievers have allowed to score. That’s 53% of the base-runners over which Kershaw no longer had control that have been tacked onto his ledger. The Dodgers bullpen, during the years in which Kershaw has pitched in the postseason, has allowed 28% of its inherited runners to score. He’s now been charged with having allowed 41 earned runs in his postseason career. Kershaw was sitting in the dugout when 20% of his postseason runs have scored.

The Inherited Runners of Clayton Kershaw’s Playoff Relievers
Date Game Runners On Runners Scored IR%
10/10/2008 NLCS G2 @ PHI 1* 0 0%
10/13/2008 NLCS G4 vs. PHI 2* 1 50%
10/8/2009 NLDS G2 vs. STL 2 0 0%
10/15/2009 NLCS G1 vs. PHI 1 0 0%
10/18/2013 NLCS G6 @ STL 2 1 50%
10/3/2014 NLDS G1 vs. STL 1 1 100%
10/9/2015 NLDS G1 vs. NYM 3 2 67%
10/11/2016 NLDS G4 vs. WAS 3 3 100%
15 8 53%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
*Appeared as reliever

And that just isn’t fair to Kershaw. His postseason Fielding (and, apparently, Bullpen) Independent Pitching mark in 10 starts since 2014 is an elite 2.25, yet his ERA is 4.57. He has, of course, pitched far better than his surface-level postseason numbers might indicate, and this is a perfect example of why ERA — particularly in small sample sizes — can sometimes be a misleading measure of pitcher performance.

That being said, I don’t think we can use these repeated bullpen meltdowns to bail out Kershaw completely. Even if his bullpen stranded all eight of those inherited runners who came around to score, Kershaw’s postseason ERA would be 3.89, which is be perfectly fine figure, but also significantly worse than what we’d expect from a pitcher of Kershaw’s caliber. And taking all eight runs off his ledger is disingenuous anyway; we should expect about 30% of inherited runners to score. That would put Kershaw’s postseason ERA at 4.31.

In that 2008 relief appearance, Kershaw left two men in scoring position for Park after recording only a single out on a sac bunt. The only reason Park’s wild pitch scored a run is because Kershaw set it up that way. The only reason Wacha’s ground ball brought Kershaw’s runner in is because he gave up three consecutive hits to start the inning. The Dodgers were already trailing 5-0 in the fifth when Kershaw left that game. He’d allowed six hits in the seventh inning of the first Baez meltdown and had already blown a 6-2 lead. Three walks loaded the bases and set up the second Baez meltdown the following year. The bullpen didn’t put those guys on base. The bullpen just also didn’t leave any of them there. Regardless of the shape in which Kershaw has left his games, there’s no denying that his bullpen has still allowed nearly twice the expected number of inherited runners to score, which has nothing to do with Kershaw himself, yet reflects negatively on his track record.

It’s also worth considering just how much the Dodgers have asked of Kershaw. It’s sort of a catch-22 of him being the best pitcher on the planet, in that he’s been asked to pitch on three days rest more often than most teams in the postseason since he’s entered the league — and even then, he’s been given an exceptionally long leash. Kershaw’s only been pulled from a game after he’s been stretched to the absolute maximum limit of his capabilities, and so when he hands the ball over to his bullpen with two or three guys on, it is, in a sense, a testament to his ability in the first place. Most starters get pulled several batters before Kershaw, or maybe don’t even start that final inning.

It’s tough. Because when the Dodgers have left Kershaw in for that final inning, it’s because they believe he can get the job done. And there’s no denying the fact that he, himself, and no one else, has had some brutal final innings, even before a reliever takes over. Whether you want to put the blame on the Dodgers or not for routinely stretching Kershaw so far, it’s still Kershaw out on the mound, and he’s still put his bullpen in some sticky situations. The bullpens have then turned the sticky situations into downright disasters, which, unfairly, reflects entirely on Kershaw in the statline. This isn’t meant to be a handwaving excuse that absolves Kershaw of all his postseason runs. He’s still his own man. It’s just that one man can’t do it all.

We hoped you liked reading The History of Clayton Kershaw’s Postseason Bullpens by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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johansantana17
Member
johansantana17

Kershaw struck out Harper twice in the 7th inning last night on perfectly located fastballs low and away. He finished the 7th giving up 0 runs. Tom Hallion blew the lead for the Dodgers, not Kershaw, Roberts, or the bullpen.

John Autin
Member
John Autin

I just watched the Harper at-bat looking for what you claim. The 1-2 pitch was close — looked low to me, and Grandal pulled it up trying to get the call. No other pitch was even close to a strike 3. The 2-2 was a curve that missed inside. Then two fouls, and ball 4 clearly outside and low.
http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/94951848/v1205637083/wshlad-gm4-harper-grinds-out-eightpitch-walk/?game_pk=487615

phpope
Member
phpope

I thought the 1-2 pitch was close – to me it looked like it caught the bottom of the zone given Harper’s stance. But watching that at-bat, I have to give Harper tons of credit for holding off the curve at 2-2. That was a nasty pitch and Harper juuust managed to hold off it. Was a great match-up between the two all night.

ChippersJonesing
Member
ChippersJonesing