Perception vs. Reality vs. Clayton Kershaw

AP Photo

Clayton Kershaw is the best starting pitcher on the planet. Some may argue that he isn’t, and those people would be wrong.

The reason they would argue against him, or try anyway, has to do with his career in the postseason, of which he is a lifetime 3-6 in 15 games (12 starts) with a 4.83 ERA.

Now, okay. From a distance a 4.83 ERA isn’t good. For Clayton Kershaw it’s extra not-good, because after all he is the best pitcher on the planet. We as a collective tend to hold #1 starting pitchers to a different standard when the postseason rolls around, because why wouldn’t we? It’s the curse of high expectations.

However, in the entirety of Kershaw’s playoff career — which dates all the way back to 2008 when he was a 20 year-old — he has thrown a grand total of 76.1 innings. That’s roughly 35% of a regular season workload. Or in other words: an extremely small sample size.

If you know me or my blog or both (which is highly unlikely), you know that small sample sizes mean very little, even if we are being generous. But as every inning and every pitch is magnified when the lights shine bright in October, the mass of reactionary baseball fandom reaches its peak. The less informed the fan is, the more reactionary they generally are. And the reactionary fans have already won the debate, at least in the court of public opinion, of whether or not Kershaw is a “clutch” postseason pitcher.

This afternoon, pitching on short rest, Clayton Kershaw pitched a masterpiece. He left the game with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the 7th, with a 5-2 lead, having struck out 11 Nationals hitters.

The first reliever the Dodgers used threw one pitch, hitting Jayson Werth and forcing in a run. The score became 5-3.

Manager Dave Roberts went back to the bullpen, opting to use a lefty to face the left-handed hitting Daniel Murphy, who promptly deposited a fastball into left-center for a single, evening the game at 5-5.

Kershaw was responsible for all the runners on base, so he was charged with 5 runs instead of the 2 he himself surrendered. Which really muddies his overall line from the game.

Casual observers should have recognized that Kershaw — again I’ll say pitching on short rest, because that’s important — pitched a gem. 2 runs in 6.2 IP with 11 punch outs on short rest in an elimination game is nothing to sneeze at. But I guess the narrative that he isn’t a big-game pitcher is more important than the facts:

Hey, you’re dumb.

I had absolutely nothing better to do tonight, so I combed through each of Kershaw’s 10 playoff starts since 2013. The results will be listed in terms of innings pitched, runs allowed (earned runs allowed), hits, strikeouts and walks, beginning with the most recent (today):

6.2/5/7/11/2 (No Decision, Dodgers win 6-5)
5.0/3/8/7/1 (Win, Dodgers win 4-3)

6.2/3/4/11/4 (Loss, Dodgers lose 3-1)
7.0/1/3/8/1 (Win, Dodgers win 3-1)

6.2/8/8/10/0 (Loss, Dodgers lose 10-9)
6.0/3/4/9/2 (Loss, Dodgers lose 3-2)

7.0/1/3/12/3 (Win, Dodgers win 3-1)
6.0/2 (0)/3/6/1 (No Decision, Dodgers win 4-3)
6.0/1 (0)/2/5/1 (Loss, Dodgers lose 1-0)
4.0/7/10/5/2 (Loss, Dodgers lose 9-0)

I know that probably just looks like a bunch of random fucking numbers, and I get that. In my head it seemed like a good idea, and I’ve come too far to take it down now.

What’s important here is Kershaw’s run support, or I guess lack of run support. Aside a 10-9 loss in 2014, the Dodgers produced more than 3 runs just three times — in his only two appearances this postseason and once in 2013. In that 2013 start he left with the game tied 2-2 in the 7th; today he exited with a 5-2 lead that the bullpen couldn’t hold.

But this is 10 starts — a small sample size, of course — and the Dodgers generated a total of 35 runs. My quick math tells me that’s 3.5 runs per game of support. If we throw out the 10-9 loss in 2014, it comes out to 2.9 runs per game of support… which isn’t good.

But it is largely what his playoff reputation is staked on. A lack of run support. Above he is credited with 3 wins, 5 losses and 2 NDs, though in only two of the starts did his pitching qualify as sub-par: The 10-9 loss in 2014 (where the Cardinals scored 8 runs in the 7th inning) and the 9-0 loss in 2013 (where he went only 4 IP and Michael Wacha threw a shutout). Those were deserved losses.

In the 8 other starts Kershaw has combined to go 50.1 IP/16 ER/40 hits/69 Ks/15 BBs. That’s good for a 2.86 ERA and a K:BB ratio of almost 5:1, which are both strong.

The feeling here is, had the Dodgers averaged even a half-run per game of run support better than they have, then a few of Clayton Kershaw’s losses would have been turned into No Decision’s or Wins, and the noise surrounding his futile playoff track record wouldn’t be so loud.

Because for some reason it’s 2016 and people still pay more attention to pitcher Win-Loss records than the actual details.

I grant you that Clayton Kershaw is not a perfect pitcher. But he is the closest thing Major League Baseball has to offer. If the survival of human civilization was on the line and there was one game to win, Kershaw would be mankind’s Guy and there wouldn’t be any debate about it.

Contrary to the story-driven media, there is still no evidence that clutch exists. There is no evidence that people who perform well during the playoffs have something in their genes that those who play poorly do not. Things happen during a short playoff series, and that’s it.

The problem I have with those who piss on Clayton Kershaw’s playoff numbers is that, mainly, they aren’t even that bad. I could see if he was absolutely terrible, and I would likely have a harder time explaining my case if that were true. But at worst he’s been average in run prevention, while still being exceptional in the strikeout-to-walk department.

Until Kershaw pitches one of his gems in a NLCS, or a World Series, the narrative that he isn’t as good during the postseason will continue to be a theme. But when he does and the media flips in the opposite direction, opining that Kershaw got over his demons or some such bullshit, the simple truth will be that he has been that pitcher all along.