On Tuesday, during Game 4 of the NL Division Series between the Dodgers and Nationals, one of baseball’s most prevalent October narratives popped up once again. That narrative, of course, is the assertion that Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw isn’t a good Postseason pitcher. Dodgers fans will scream from the rooftops that it’s not warranted, given that Kershaw’s bullpen has let him down on numerous occasions. But digging into the numbers a little bit, it’s clear that while the Dodgers bullpen deserves some scorn, Kershaw himself shouldn’t be without blame.
Looking at Kershaw’s overall Postseason statistics, one can see how the narrative exists. Over 15 appearances, 12 starts and three relief outings (two coming in 2008 and one in 2009), Kershaw is 3-6 with a 4.83 ERA, striking out 95 and walking 26 in 76 1/3 innings. The strikeout and walk rates are both higher than Kershaw’s career marks in the regular season, and as a result, his strikeout to walk ratio is 3.65, slightly worse than his 4.02 mark in the regular season. Kershaw is also more homer-prone in the playoffs – he’s given up eight dingers in those 76 1/3 innings, when his career high homer total over a full season is just 16.
The “bad bullpen” argument also holds some weight. Kershaw has left the game with 14 runners on base in his 15 appearances (including leaving the bases loaded in the seventh inning on Tuesday), and nine of those 14 ended up scoring. If each one of those stranded runners ended up scoring, Kershaw’s ERA would drop a full run, down to 3.77.
Some of Kershaw’s poor win-loss record can be attributed to the Dodgers offense. In eight of his 12 starts, the Dodgers scored four or fewer runs. However, the team is still 4-4 in those games, which includes a 9-0 embarrassment of Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS against the Cardinals.
Is Kershaw leaving these starts with leads? Sometimes – in four starts, Kershaw was in line for the win, and he got the nod in three of those (the one he didn’t? Yesterday). In seven starts, he left trailing, and got handed the loss in six of them. He left one start tied, and the Dodgers won that game. What that means is that Kershaw isn’t exactly giving his bullpen a lead *to* blow every time out – they’ve been behind the eight-ball because of the offense and Kershaw more often than not.
Kershaw isn’t getting shelled every time out. He’s allowed more than three runs in a Postseason start just four times, which is actually fewer than the amount of times he’s allowed two or fewer runs (five times). But he’s not going deep into games, either – Kershaw has finished the seventh inning just twice in his playoff career. He’s failed to complete at least five innings just as many times, twice, in his career.
Crunching all of the numbers, what do we have? Kershaw isn’t an otherworldly pitcher in the Postseason. But he’s not a scrub, either – David Price has a 5.54 career Postseason ERA and a 2-8 record. Does it matter? Not really. In the Postseason, we’re dealing with such small samples that one bad start (or two awful ones, in the case of Kershaw) can skew everything. Take those two horrendous starts (back to back starts against the Cardinals, coming in the 2013 NLCS and 2014 NLDS) out of the equation, and Kershaw’s Postseason ERA falls to 3.56. No one would be complaining about that, right?
The general conclusion here is this – Kershaw’s not a great playoff pitcher. He’s not an awful one, either. Every time he goes out there, the Dodgers have a good chance to win the game, better than they’d get from starting someone like say, Joe Blanton. I know that’s not the most attractive take in the world, but it’s the most realistic one. There’s a huge middle ground between Postseason stud and Postseason dud, and that’s where Kershaw falls, even though his regular season success doesn’t indicate he’d be a middle of the pack player.