The truth about Kershaw's playoff history

October 21st, 2020

Two opposing facts are true when describing ’s ever-evolving, ever-confounding history with the postseason, which he will add to on Sunday night when he starts Game 2 against the Rays. (8 p.m. ET on FOX)

  1. Kershaw has simply not been as dominant a pitcher when the calendar flips to October. Kershaw’s career postseason ERA (4.22) is nearly two runs higher than his regular-season ERA (2.43), and that’s over 183 1/3 career postseason innings -- the equivalent of an entire regular season. Maybe it’s still not as large a sample size as some would like it to be, but at the same time, only six pitchers have compiled more career postseason innings.
  1. Kershaw has enjoyed just as many postseason “gems” as the “disastrous” outings that seem to stick in our collective memories much longer. Just three years ago, Kershaw held the Astros to a run while pairing 11 strikeouts with no walks in his first career World Series game. Just three weeks ago, Kershaw authored the greatest postseason start of his life in a 13-strikeout, eight scoreless-inning domination of the Brewers. And in Tuesday’s World Series opener, Kershaw cruised after an uneven first inning, keeping the Rays to a solo homer across six excellent innings.

Postseason Kershaw is anything but a new topic of discussion, and much of it would finally be moot if the Dodgers finally raise the Commissioner’s Trophy a few days from now. But until Los Angeles is a World Series champion, the Kershaw discussion continues -- and that discussion may as well be comprehensive. If we strip away all of the narratives and labels, how has Kershaw really pitched in October? How much different is Kershaw’s postseason performance compared to some of his closest peers, and how much is he a victim of circumstance and factors outside his control? 

Again, one could look at Kershaw’s 4.22 postseason ERA, wipe their hands clean and walk away. But here are some facts and figures to consider when it comes to the roller coaster that is “Clayton Kershaw, postseason performer.”

Kershaw’s starts have gravitated toward the extremes

Twenty-three pitchers, including Kershaw, have made at least 15 postseason starts since the MLB playoffs expanded to multiple rounds with the beginning of divisional play in 1969. Adding two other marquee names in Madison Bumgarner and Pedro Martinez (14 postseason starts each) pushes that list to an even 25. Some of those 25 pitchers -- including Martinez, Bumgarner and Kershaw -- made memorable appearances out of the bullpen (both good and bad for Kershaw), but for our purposes here it’s cleanest just to look at their starts.

One quick-and-dirty way (though not a perfect way, as no method would be) to evaluate the quality of those starts is by using Game Score, a metric first devised by Bill James that puts a pitcher’s start on a scale of 0-100 (based on the accumulation of innings, runs, hits, walks, strikeouts, etc.), with a 50 score being roughly “average” and anything below 40 being “sub-replacement” level. In this exercise, we’re splitting each pitcher’s body of work into three buckets: a “gem” start (game score of 66 or higher), an “average” start (game score between 40-65) or a “clunker” start (game score of 39 or lower).

Kershaw’s 29 postseason starts split this way:

“Gem” starts (≥66 game score): 11 starts
“Average” starts (40-65 game score): 11 starts
“Bad” starts (≤39 game score): 7 starts

Kershaw’s Game 1 start, which included a Kershaw-esque eight strikeouts with just one walk, marked his 11th postseason “gem” with a game score of 71. Among that group of 25 starters, here’s where that distribution puts Kershaw:

• Kershaw’s 11 “gems” tie him with Tom Glavine and Curt Schilling for the top spot -- both within this group and among all pitchers in postseason history.

• But his seven “clunkers” are also tied for the third-most in the group. It should be noted, however, that the only two stars with more “clunkers” were Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte (nine), who combined to win seven World Series rings thanks to some dynastic Yankees teams playing behind them in the late 1990s.

• Roughly 38% of Kershaw’s postseason starts have fallen in the “average” bucket, which is actually on the low end -- tied for fourth lowest in our group of 25.

Translation: When compared to some of his contemporary peers, Kershaw’s fortunes have gravitated more toward the extreme poles. That matches the eye test; Kershaw’s October outings have hardly ever lacked in drama.

Kershaw could have used some help around him

While it’s true that Kershaw could have helped his legacy the most of anyone by simply pitching better, his teammates have also taken their feet off the gas when their ace was on the mound.

The Dodgers’ eight-run explosion through the first six innings of Game 1 marked only the seventh time in Kershaw’s 29 postseason starts that his offense scored at least five runs by the time he released his final pitch of the game. Overall, the Dodgers offense has averaged just 3.1 runs on the scoreboard at the time Kershaw left the game across those 29 starts. That figure is roughly the same -- 3.0 runs -- in Kershaw’s starts in which he has allowed three or fewer runs himself at the time of his departure (not including any inherited runners he left to his bullpen).

A pitcher shouldn’t be allowing more than three runs if he wants to be known as a postseason ace, but three runs also doesn’t leave that pitcher much margin for error. Time and time again, Kershaw has battled both expectations and the scoreboard, hardly ever enjoying a giant lead that has allowed him to relax and attack hitters with a cushion. (This is where we note that Kershaw has squandered some of those few exceptions; he couldn’t hold a 6-1 lead against the Cardinals in 2014 NLDS Game 1, and blew leads of 4-0 and 7-4 against the Astros in 2017 World Series Game 5.) Kershaw has worked free and easy with a lead in plenty of regular-season games with the Dodgers, but he hasn’t had that luxury nearly as much in October.

The late-inning drama

Just about every Kershaw postseason start these days is accompanied by a graphic detailing his misfortune as the game moves to the later innings. Be honest, you thought about it a little when Kershaw sat in the dugout for over a half-hour between the fifth and sixth inning Tuesday. After Game 1, Kershaw’s career starts in October break down as such:

Innings 1-5: 3.53 ERA
Innings 6 and beyond: 7.09 ERA

But it’s also fair to wonder why, after repeated instances in which Kershaw ran into trouble navigating the lineup a third time, the Dodgers kept pushing him deep into games. In early years (the 2014 NLDS comes to mind), former manager Don Mattingly had to compensate for a suspect Dodgers bullpen. But in recent instances, such as Kershaw’s loss in last week’s NLCS Game 4 against the Braves, current manager Dave Roberts seems to leave Kershaw in longer than he would any other starter -- perhaps, simply, because he’s Kershaw.

Sometimes, Kershaw just couldn’t control what happened next. Consider that five of Kershaw’s 12 postseason losses came in starts in which he personally surrendered just three or fewer runs before handing the ball to his manager and walking back to the dugout. And consider this, too: per Elias, Kershaw’s career postseason ERA would stand at 3.49 if none of the runners he had left on base had ever come around to score. Is that a pipe-dream number? Of course. Seeing the runners you leave behind come home is part of being a starting pitcher, and the best way to avoid all that is to finish strong the way Kershaw did on Tuesday.

This will all come up again after Kershaw pitches in Game 5, and maybe the debate will still rage on even if the Dodgers finally take home the title. But just know that it’s not as if Kershaw has blown up every time he’s taken the ball in October. He proved that in Game 1.

Like most things in life worth debating, it’s complicated.