Clayton Kershaw looked on from the dugout while the inning he started lived on. It was the seventh frame of Tuesday night's Game 4 of the National League Division Series between the Dodgers and the Nationals in Los Angeles, and Kershaw was responsible for all three of the men on
Clayton Kershaw looked on from the dugout while the inning he started lived on. It was the seventh frame of Tuesday night's Game 4 of the National League Division Series 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 Báez took the mound in an attempt to preserve the lead. Baez threw one pitch, hit Jayson Werth, forced in a run, and out went Baez. Kershaw might not have flashbacks, but he's seen this situation before. In came Luis Avilán. He threw two pitches, the latter of which hit Daniel Murphy's bat, landed in the outfield grass, and two runs scored. Game tied.
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The Dodgers went on to win the game, 6-5, forcing a Game 5 (Thursday at 8 p.m. ET/5 PT, FS1), so in hindsight, what happened in this inning doesn't matter much. But Kershaw's pitching line won't change: 6 2/3 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 11 K's, 0 HRs. That said, 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 facing Bryce Harper three times -- you might say Kershaw pitched brilliantly. And yet, his ERA for the day was 6.75.
Kershaw's ERA for his entire postseason career is now 4.83 in 76 1/3 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 NL Championship Series 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.
Fast-forward to 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, in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cardinals, Baez allows a home run to Matt Holliday that blows the game open and brings in the only runner Kershaw left for Baez. In 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.
Kershaw's reaction after the 2014 Holliday home run off of Baez sums up the situation pretty accurately:
Accounting for Baez and Avilan's joint efforts to bring in all of Kershaw's runners Tuesday night, that's 15 baserunners Kershaw has handed over to his relievers in 15 postseason outings, eight of which those relievers have allowed to score. That's 53 percent of the baserunners 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 percent of its inherited runners to score.
Kershaw has now been charged with having allowed 41 earned runs in his postseason career. He was sitting in the dugout when 20 percent of his postseason runs have scored.
And that just isn't fair to Kershaw. His postseason Fielding 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, 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 a 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 percent of inherited runners to score. That would put Kershaw's postseason ERA at 4.31.
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 has only been pulled from a game after he's been stretched to the absolute maximum limit of his capabilities, 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 has had some brutal final innings, even before a reliever takes over. Whether you want to put the blame on the Dodgers 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.
August Fagerstrom is a contributor to MLB.com. A version of this article first appeared at FanGraphs.com.