Kershaw’s Forgotten Chapter

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:

  1. That Kershaw pitched effectively.
  2. That naysayers would comment about the low leverage of the moment.
  3. 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.

We hoped you liked reading Kershaw’s Forgotten Chapter by Stephen Loftus!

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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.

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tb.25
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tb.25

“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)“

so, essentially… “he’s the best regular season and down 5 runs reliever!”

all jokes aside, i believe there is something to his inability to shut the batters down when doing so provides his team a win. i forget the article, but when the Giants won in 2014, a sports psychologist wrote about bumgarner’s fuild motion as a potential reflection of his mind, and likewise kershaw’s jerky motion, and the potential to be thrown off with the slightest discomfort. i don’t know how true that is, but it’d be a topic i think is worth investigating, if it was in my field i’d try.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Check out Kershaw’s season before he went on the DL for a sound counter-argument to his inability to shut down batters when doing so provides a win.

Michael Augustine
Member
Michael Augustine

How often did your assessment happen in the playoffs? No one is doubting his regular season dominance.
Consider- His career post-season ERA is 4.35; 4.18 in the division series, 4.75 in the NLCS.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

What? I don’t see the connection between my post and your question. Perhaps you replied to the wrong post? I am clearly not talking about the playoffs.

Kyle Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil
Member
Kyle Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

Look at how Peyton Manning or Lebron James’ “can’t win the big one” narratives panned out. Heck, look at the same stuff during Verlander’s early post season starts.

Betting against generation-level players seldom pays off in the long run.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

I agree with your statement. I don’t think it is even that complicated though. Even if a guy never wins a championship, it doesn’t make him any less great. Is Mike Trout any less great because of what he hasn’t won? I don’t think post-season success really matters much at all.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

Disagree with you. Postseason success is a separator when you’re talking about the top talent. In Football- Brady is viewed a lot better than Manning- and all of that is due to the Super Bowl gap. And Marino isn’t viewed as highly as either of them. Jordan viewed as higher than Lebron due to winning 6 NBA titles to only 3 for Lebron.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Just because people hold that opinion, doesn’t mean anything conclusive. Brady is not viewed as a superior player to Manning by me and I am not alone. I don’t think anyone can legitimately say that Brady was “much better than Manning”. Manning is the only QB to lead two separate teams to a SB win – that is a separator for me. Teams win SBs, not players. Brady played for better teams. Brady also played for much, much better coaches. Bill Belichick is the best coach of all-time, I will say that. Brady has never won a single SB without Belicheck. The team wins when he is out hurt as well – they always have. I know this is an argument that I will not win. I am OK with other people holding differing opinions. Jordan was better than Lebron… he just was and it’s not because of the titles. This type of analysis is very superficial and convenient for those that don’t follow sports. I don’t know if you do or don’t follow sports closely, but there are a lot of people that use simple metrics because that is all they know about – rings are the simplest of all metrics – they are even independent of player performance.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

but you look at Dan Marino and he isn’t viewed anywhere near as the same level as a guy like a Joe Montana- even though stats wise Marino blows the door off of Marino. Postseason success matters. It can elevate guys to another level, or it can differentiate guys at the extreme top..

2015- HOF voting…
Mussina had by BR 83.0 WAR and 44.5 WAR7. 63.8 JAWS 82.2 fWAR.
Smoltz had by BR 69.5 WAR and 38.8 WAR7. 54.2 JAWS. 79.6 fWAR.

Smoltz got into the HOF with 82.9% of the vote
Mussina didn’t get in- he got 24.6% of the vote and just last year got up to 51% of the vote.

why?
post season history:
Smoltz 15-4 2.67 ERA 3.18 FIP
Mussina 7-8 3.42 ERA 3.54 FIP

Smoltz is viewed a lot better because of all his post season success.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Smoltz is not a lot better, despite the declaration. I don’t think Smoltz is much better than Mussina. I don’t think the two should be compared as Smoltz has a lot of value from the RP part of his career. Most voters probably shouldn’t be voters – I think that is pretty well-established.

If people think that Smoltz is better because of the post-season, then that is a mistake. If playing with HOF caliber players, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff and top tier closers makes him great, then I guess he is great!

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

And Mussina didn’t play with HOF caliber players? Cal Ripken, Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens, and a closer named Mariano Rivera…. Postseason play matters.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

I’m not saying that Kershaw isn’t great but it isn’t the same thing. Trout has never really had a chance to win a championship. Kershaw has.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

I don’t see how that is much different. Its all the same story – teams win championships, not players. So if Trout had a few playoff performances, then he would be a lesser player?

If NYY could have closed out HOU in the ALCS, George Springer isn’t a WS hero. This stuff is just SSS headlines…

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

Kershaw has disappointed in the postseason. Trout hasn’t.

juddfranklin
Member
juddfranklin

Even Bumgarner’s snot rockets are fluid!