Where It Went Wrong for Clayton Kershaw Last Time

Five years from now, when we think about Game One of the NLCS between the Dodgers and Brewers, I’m guessing we’ll probably think about the ninth inning: taut, suspenseful, and fundamentally baseball-y in the best way. If the Brewers go on to win the World Series, completing the job the 2008-11 versions of the club never could and exorcising some of the demons still haunting the area formerly occupied by County Stadium (which is actually just the parking lot right outside Miller Park), that ninth inning will be remembered as a key step along the way. I hope it is. The ninth inning was The One Where the Brewers Hung On. But I hope that fond memory is not eclipsed, at least today, by our shared memory of the third inning: The One Where Clayton Kershaw Couldn’t Hit His Target.

For the sake of narrative appeal, it would have been ideal for Kershaw to have entered the inning all youth and innocence, grown in stature by vanquishing a series of increasingly insalubrious foes, and then fallen to an antagonist at the dramatic climax of the tale.

That is not what happened, however. What happened instead is that Kershaw just began the inning by allowing a home run to Brandon Woodruff. Here is a picture of where Yasmani Grandal wanted the pitch that Woodruff ended up hitting out:

And here is a picture of where the ball ended up right before Woodruff blasted it into Toyota Territory™:

The camera angle distorts the true distance between glove and ball a little, but the pitch was ultimately about two feet away from where Kershaw wanted it.

What I’d imagine was especially galling about this sequence to Dodgers fans is that Woodruff had previously shown almost no inclination whatsoever to swing at anything Kershaw was offering. He knew, without needing to be told, that Brandon Woodruffs are not meant to hit home runs against Clayton Kershaws. So for almost the entirety of the sequence — fastball, fastball, fastball, curveball, running to a 2-2 count — he took Kershaw’s pitches without ever really showing an interest in swinging. But the fifth pitch bled out over the plate and Woodruff, fouling it off, showed himself more than ready to hit it. The next pitch, of course, resulted in the first home run by a pitcher off a lefty in postseason history.

Unfortunately for Kershaw and the Dodgers, the damage didn’t end there. If the cardinal sin against Woodruff was missing over the plate while trying to stay away, the problem against Christian Yelich, who came to the plate a batter later, was missing over the plate while trying to stay in. The first pitch to the likely MVP was a fastball that was meant to be at Yelich’s knees but instead ended up dead over the plate at the bottom of the zone. Perhaps spooked, Kershaw took something off the next pitch and missed low, but at least sufficiently out of the zone to avoid any possibility of damage. The third pitch, a slider which ended up in the left-handed batters’ box, prompted Grandal to make this face:

This went on for a while until Yelich drew a walk. Kershaw’s command against Ryan Braun wasn’t much better. His second pitch, in particular, was one Braun could have and perhaps should have crushed — and prompted Ryan Braun to curse out Ryan Braun just a little.

Ultimately, a foul-out on a two-strike curveball meant that it wasn’t until Grandal’s passed ball that Kershaw got himself in real trouble, trouble that led to a run and put the Brewers ahead for good. Again, the ninth inning felt important, but it was the third that generated the most critical plate appearances of the game — and which, of course, saw Milwaukee turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead against the best pitcher in the series.

Top-10 Plays by Leverage, Game One of NLCS
Inn Batter Pitcher Outs Bases Score LI
T9 J Turner C Knebel 2 __3 6-5 4.58
B3 H Perez C Kershaw 1 123 1-1 2.79
T8 Y Puig J Jeffress 2 1 6-4 2.77
B3 L Cain C Kershaw 1 12 1-1 2.16
B3 R Braun C Kershaw 0 12 1-1 2.04
B3 M Moustakas C Kershaw 2 _23 2-1 1.82
B3 J Aguilar C Kershaw 1 _23 1-1 1.69
B3 C Yelich C Kershaw 0 1 1-1 1.61
T8 M Kemp J Jeffress 2 12 6-3 1.53
T9 C Bellinger C Knebel 0 ___ 6-4 1.49

It’s hard to know what to make of Postseason Kershaw. I’m generally of the mind that there’s not much to the theory that Kershaw somehow can’t perform in the postseason — a few gems scattered here and there throughout his October record make clear that that’s simply not the case — but the fact is that we now have 133 innings’ worth of Kershaw performance in which he’s been 11% worse than the league average (as measured by ERA-) and just 7% better than the league as measured by FIP-. Neither number would be anything in particular to complain about except that Kershaw has of course put up figures of 62 and 67, respectively, in his regular-season career, and not once since his rookie season back in 2008 put up numbers anything close to that poor in any single campaign. We’re likely past the point where this is a weird luck thing. Something is up.

But I don’t have an answer for the macro problem. I don’t know why the results haven’t been there for Kershaw in October, in general. But I do know why they weren’t there for him Friday: he just simply could not hit his target, and the Brewers capitalized on it. Execution matters against big-league hitters. Leaving a fastball out over the plate will get you into trouble even if the opposing batter is Brandon Woodruff. Given how poorly Kershaw was executing in the third inning, it was actually a bit of a blessing for Los Angeles that they left the inning down just a run; lesser pitchers have been pulled from innings in which they looked better than Kershaw did there. Clayton Kershaw is still one of the best pitchers in the world. But in Game One, in the third inning against the Milwaukee Brewers, he just couldn’t hit his target.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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5 years ago

He lost command and couldn’t hit his target, and my thought is that he probably has to continue to reinvent himself and start throwing his curveball a lot more. His fastball and slider goes 87-91 and I think he threw only 4 curveballs in the last game. He doesn’t have to go Rich Hill or Lance McCullers with that curveball, but I’d think it would help to mix it up a bit more.