I talk about Clayton Kershaw a lot.
A quick search yielded 69 tweets mentioning Kershaw and one blog post focused on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ star southpaw. It’s hard not to discuss him, considering that his excellence since 2008 has essentially made him a Hall of Fame lock with one NL MVP, three Cy Young awards, four seven-win1 seasons, and five years with an earned run average (ERA) south of 2.50.
When the calendar flips to October however, it’s not the accolades observers bring up with Kershaw, but rather the “failures”. Similar to Peyton Manning (who I’ve also discussed in the past), Kershaw is saddled with the narrative of being a postseason choker, despite only throwing 84 innings in the playoffs. 84 innings is essentially 14 starts, which is too small of a sample size to draw any conclusions from. If we did, then in 2013 we’d argue about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Jeff Locke2 being one of the best pitchers in baseball and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Cole Hamels being replaceable.
With seven shutout innings last night and a two-out save last Thursday to send the Dodgers to the NLCS, Kershaw has quieted some of his detractors. But should those detractors have even existed? (No.) In a world where over two million people follow Skip Bayless and his asinine takes, unfair narratives have sadly become commonplace in our sports observations. Instead of staring at a high ERA number, a brief amount of research can show that poor managing and bullpen implosions with inherited runners have masked his strong peripherals (2.92 FIP, 2.68 SIERA, 21.7% K-BB%).
With all of that being said, I was curious to see whether there were Cooperstown-bound or residing pitchers that would have faced the same criticism if social media was around back then. And as I expected, Kershaw’s not alone in this department.
(Note: The following research is drawn from arbitrary endpoints, which I don’t typically like using, but Kershaw’s 84-inning postseason sample is virtually the same thing.)
1986-00 RS: 3435.0 IP, 244-133 W-L3, 3.02 ERA (149 ERA+), 3.03 FIP, 1.16 WHIP, 2.95 K/BB, 104.2 bWAR4
1986-005 PS: 83.1 IP, 3-5 W-L, 4.32 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 1.91 K/BB
Career RS: 4916.2 IP, 354-184 W-L, 3.12 ERA (143 ERA+), 3.09 FIP, 1.17 WHIP, 2.96 K/BB, 139.4 bWAR
Career PS: 199.0 IP, 12-8 W-L, 3.75 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 2.47 K/BB
Clemens’ career 3.75 postseason ERA is inflated because of a poor opening stretch from 1986 to the 2000 ALCS. He gave up 10 hits and seven earned in his October debut against the California Angels and couldn’t get through five innings (4.1 IP, 3 ER) in Game 2 of the 1986 World Series against the Mets. However, after a poor 2000 ALCS (11.0 IP, 8.18 ERA), Clemens dominated the rest of the postseason with 17 shutout frames, allowing just three hits and two walks against 24 strikeouts.
1995-99 RS: 1004.2 IP, 79-26 W-L, 2.71 ERA (169 ERA+), 2.70 FIP, 1.08 WHIP, 4.22 K/BB, 32.8 bWAR
1995-99 PS: 60.2 IP, 2-6 W-L, 3.71 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 3.84 K/BB
Career RS: 4135.1 IP, 303-166 W-L, 3.29 ERA (135 ERA+), 3.19 FIP, 1.17 WHIP, 3.26 K/BB, 104.3 bWAR
Career PS: 121.0 IP, 7-9 W-L, 3.50 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 4.13 K/BB
Prior to his brilliant 2001 postseason, The Big Unit had his fair share of October struggles. In the 1997 ALDS against Baltimore, he gave up eight earned runs in 13 frames, despite compiling a 13:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Game 4. Johnson had better run prevention numbers the following year in Houston (14.0 IP, 3 ER), but was saddled with a pair of losses after the Astros mustered up just two runs in his starts. The K/BB numbers were again there in his lone 1999 start with Arizona (11 K, 3 BB); however, he was charged with seven earned runs over 8.1 innings after Bobby Chouinard allowed a two-out grand slam in the top of the ninth.
1989-95 RS: 1685.0 IP, 124-67 W-L, 2.54 ERA (156 ERA+), 2.84 FIP, 1.08 WHIP, 3.06 K/BB, 45.7 bWAR
1989-95 PS: 58.0 IP, 4-3 W-L, 4.66 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 1.94 K/BB
Career RS: 5008.1 IP, 355-227 W-L, 3.16 ERA (132 ERA+), 3.26 FIP, 1.14 WHIP, 3.37 K/BB, 104.6 bWAR
Career PS: 198.0 IP, 11-14 W-L, 3.27 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.45 K/BB
Maddux won four consecutive Cy Young awards during the aforementioned stretch and finished third in 1989, but didn’t find the same success over his first nine postseason starts. He allowed eight runs over four innings in his October debut and pitched poorly in Game 6 of the 1993 NLCS against the Phillies (5.2 IP, 5 ER, 4 BB, 3 K). However, Maddux moved past the early struggles by posting a 2.70 ERA and 2.73 K/BB in his final 140 playoff frames, while only allowing more than two earned runs in a trio of starts (2000 vs. STL, 2001 vs. ARZ, 2006 vs. NYM).
1967-78 RS: 3157.1 IP, 204-146 W-L, 3.04 ERA (120 ERA+), 3.11 FIP, 1.23 WHIP, 2.23 K/BB, 53.7 bWAR
1967-78 PS: 37.2 IP, 1-3 W-L, 4.78 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 1.56 K/BB
Career RS: 5217.2 IP, 329-244 W-L, 3.22 ERA (115 ERA+), 3.15 FIP, 1.25 WHIP, 2.26 K/BB, 84.1 bWAR
Career PS: 99.1 IP, 6-6 W-L, 3.26 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 1.65 K/BB
While his postseason debut in the 1967 World Series was strong (6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K), Carlton had a poor stretch of starts from 1976-78 that would have brought forth some backlash today from the Philadelphia media. He gave up four earned runs during that timeframe on three occasions and was touched up for five runs in 6.2 frames on Game 1 of the 1977 NLCS. Of course, Carlton righted the ship starting in 1980, with a 2.34 ERA in his final nine October starts.
In conclusion, even the best pitchers ever to play the game have had rough stretches in October. The “can’t pitch in the postseason” narrative is ridiculous considering the sample size and the unpredictability of the tournament. This is the same sport that has seen Josh Beckett win two World Series MVP awards and someone as mediocre as Jeff Suppan become a postseason hero 10 years ago.
So please, quit believing in false narratives. If history has told us anything, it’s that we should probably expect performances like Kershaw’s last night to happen more often.