Debate: Is Kershaw a playoff ‘choker’?

October 16th, 2020

had another uneven postseason start in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series on Thursday night, in a career full of them. He allowed one run through five innings (a Marcell Ozuna homer in the fourth), but things unraveled in the sixth as the Braves tagged him for three additional runs as part of a six-run rally. The Dodgers went on to lose, 10-2, bringing the Braves' advantage in the series to 3-1. gathered a roundtable to discuss Kershaw’s October legacy, the one major blip on his Hall of Fame résumé.

Matt Meyers (@mtmeyers): It seems like the "Is Kershaw a playoff choker" discussion won't ever go away. After tonight, where do you think it stands?

Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter): As much as I hate to say it, I think the discussion continues, and not in Kershaw's favor. Full disclosure, I haven't agreed with a lot of the criticism in the past, and I remember one postseason specifically when then-Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had to keep him out there, not because he was dealing, but because the bullpen was pretty weak. And Kershaw gave up a couple of runs after being really strong through five or six, and everyone blamed him for the loss. That made me mad. However, 2020 was a short season. In real time, we'd be in June-ish. Kershaw should be strong. And he's just not getting it done.

Anthony Castrovince (@castrovince): The guy is a legend. Nothing that happened in Game 4 was going to change my opinion of him ... Wait ... we're talking about Bryse Wilson, right?

Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello): I remember that one postseason Alyson is referring to, and also like three other postseasons, including last year when Dave Roberts left him in to face Juan Soto and ... look. His postseason rep is never, ever going to change at this point. If he threw a perfect game to win Game 7 of the World Series, maybe, but tonight's mess was the same as literally every single mess: He was put in a position he had no business being in. As soon as he gave up that go-ahead hit to Freddie Freeman, Roberts should have been walking out to the mound. Marcell Ozuna slugged .636 this year.

Footer: At some point you have to wonder if Dave Roberts is deferring too much to the "He's a future Hall of Famer" and letting him go too long out of respect and not out of reality and what's actually happening on the field. Maybe you need to lift him after five, Dave. It's OK.

Castrovince: Over-reliance on Kershaw is a huge part of the creation of this narrative. As are inherited runners he left behind that wound up scoring (as was the case again tonight).

Petriello: Kershaw, don't forget, pitched reasonably well tonight, after being pushed back due to a back injury. As usual, his manager left him in too long, thinking he's still Peak MVP Kershaw -- he's not -- and as usual, his bullpen let him down, and, let's not forget, the Dodgers scored one run for him off a guy with a career ERA of 5.91.

It's not like he was limiting Ozuna before, anyway:

That is literally why Brusdar Graterol exists, to come in and throw bowling ball sinkers and keep Ozuna on the ground. Say what you will about Kershaw: Roberts biffed this one. The bats didn't score. This was a team effort.

Meyers: The bullpen definitely did him no favors tonight (allowing the inherited runner to score), which has definitely hurt him in the past. So you think there is no chance he can ever redeem his reputation? Barry Bonds did it in 2002 after a career of playoff failures.

Castrovince: Nah, it's too much of A Thing at this point. It's not going away. And to be clear, he's done his share to influence that. Twenty-seven home runs is, you know, a lot of home runs.

Petriello: I agree with Castrovince, much as I hate to admit it. His October story is going to be his story, no matter what, and much of that is on him.

Meyers: His overall line this October is actually pretty good! He has 23 K’s, two walks in 19 innings pitched (3.32 ERA).

Castrovince: Try telling that to the wolves! The Kershaw October story is one with a lot of nuance, a lot of explanation, a lot of, "Yeah, but ..." None of that makes its way to the masses, I'm afraid. If people want to call Kershaw a choker, they have ammunition, unfortunately.

Footer: So if he's just another guy, and not Kershaw, wouldn't they be strategizing a little more? It seems like as many moves as they make because that's what the data is telling them to do, they're not necessarily applying the same when it comes to Kershaw. Are their expectations too unrealistic/elevated?

Petriello: I think you're absolutely right. They defer to him because of who he is. Or was.

Footer: And that's the dangerous part of the postseason. Kershaw is 32 and has thrown more than 2,300 innings. That's the Kershaw you need to manage. Not the 22-year-old that dazzled a decade ago.

Petriello: I think that's right. And when this same plan -- keep him in too long -- keeps not working every single year, the odds that it's going to work when he's 33, 34, etc. ... are not getting better.

Castrovince: I think the Dave Roberts October narrative is growing.

Petriello: I honestly wondered if, after the Soto incident last year, Roberts would be back for 2020. It's weird to say after a 43-17 season, but I'm at least wondering it again for 2021.

Castrovince: To be fair, the lack of off-days (and the many questions in this bullpen) have to influence the decision-making this week.

Petriello: Ultimately, the bullpen has been lousy, and the bats haven't done much. "What did Kershaw do" is something like 11th on my list of issues if the Dodgers do go ahead and lose this NLCS. But because of the narrative, that's what we'll always talk about.

Footer: Also, something to consider -- with no off-days (and yes, I realize we're beating this topic to death), managers have to manage differently. And when you have your ace on the mound, you may need to ride him a little longer, just to ensure the relievers' arms don't all fall off by Sunday. So it's not unreasonable to ask for six or seven strong innings. Kershaw's struggle to do that is part of the issue, obviously.

And can we give a little credit to the Braves' offense? They're good, y'all

Meyers: Let's say the Dodgers come back and win this series, and then Kershaw has a dominant World Series start and they win it all. How might that change the conversation?

Footer: Yes, I believe that would at least soften the narrative. We'd all be salivating that the future Hall of Famer dug deep, rallied and finally led his team to their first title in 32 years.

Castrovince: I thought that's where we were headed in 2017. Then it all went to trash ...

Petriello: It'd help. A little. Not enough. The #narrative always wins.

Footer: But you know, that 2017 World Series is a good example -- the Dodgers gave Kershaw a nice lead and it was gone pretty quickly in that crazy Game 5.

Castrovince: I was genuinely curious whether this trend would hold in 2020, given that, as Alyson said, we are in the equivalent of June. But on the whole, Kershaw has gotten worse the deeper the Dodgers go. If you look at his October ERA, it rises by the round. I didn't think that would be the case this year, but, well, here we are.

Footer: The more the Dodgers roll to a ridiculously good regular-season record and don't win the World Series, this will follow Kershaw. They had a better than .700 winning percentage in the regular season and are on the brink of elimination. There's plenty of blame to go around, but Kershaw is part of that. He just is.

Meyers: Last question: When all is said and done, Kershaw's career postseason ERA (4.31) is nearly 2 runs higher than his career regular-season ERA (2.43). Even accounting for tougher offenses in the postseason, he just hasn't been as good. Is the "choker" label -- for lack of a better term -- fair or unfair?

Footer: A little unfair. You don't play bad teams in October. Let's give some credit to the fact that most postseason teams can hit well (with the exception of the possible AL champ this year, of course). Then again, Nate Eovaldi crushed that narrative a couple years ago, so what do I know.

Castrovince: I won't call him a choker. That's rude. I will call him a tortured soul in whom all humble people can recognize a piece of themselves and their Sisyphean pursuit of greatness.

Footer: I need a dictionary.

Petriello: Yes. Maybe it's semantics, but choking implies some sort of weakness or inability to pitch in the postseason, and obviously that isn't true; he's had several outstanding October starts. (Don't forget, for example, Game 1 of the 2017 World Series -- 11 K’s, zero walks, seven shutout innings. It was dominant, and it was against ... that team.) He's had plenty of good moments, more bad ones, some of which blame was shared with others ... look, he's going to be a first-ballot, inner-circle Hall of Famer. His postseason resume isn't what's going to push him there.