The narrative winds itself through every October, the constant that connects each postseason to the previous one for the past eight years, with many of the horrifying twists and turns of a Stephen King novel. Will Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, finally get to celebrate a World Series title with his teammates?
Kershaw is back on the mound for Sunday’s Game 5 with a chance to put the Los Angeles Dodgers back on top after the ultimate gut-punch of a loss Saturday night. He has been effective this postseason, with a 13-strikeout game against the Brewers in the wild-card round and a 2.88 ERA over four starts. His one rough outing was a crucial one, though; in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, he gave up four runs over five innings as L.A. fell to the brink of elimination before rallying to win the final three games. It is perhaps notable that Kershaw did not pitch in any of those three victories. Walker Buehler is now regarded as the Dodgers’ ace, and Kershaw doesn’t have to win every game, as was expected — unfairly — for so many years. He is still one of the most valuable players on the roster, but the Dodgers have many valuable players.
That doesn’t make a Kershaw start any less full of intrigue, however. I suspect even if you’re not a Dodgers fan, you find yourself pulling for Kershaw this time of year. In his career in the regular season, he’s 175-76 with a 2.43 ERA. In his career in the postseason, he’s 12-12 with a 4.22 ERA. I saw a list similar to the one below on a recent broadcast. Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, Kershaw has the fifth-worst postseason ERA among pitchers with at least 70 innings:
David Price: 4.62
Charles Nagy: 4.46
Al Leiter: 4.38
CC Sabathia: 4.28
Clayton Kershaw: 4.22
Zack Greinke: 4.22
That’s out of 36 pitchers. Mariano Rivera tops the list, with Madison Bumgarner second and Curt Schilling third. What makes the above ranking stand out even more, of course, is the difference between that postseason ERA and the player’s career ERA:
Kershaw has been so dominant in the regular season, which has made his results in the playoffs only more frustrating. On top of that, he is held to an impossible standard. He is expected to duplicate the heroic performances of World Series legends such as Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson — who cares if they pitched in a different era and had to pitch in only one series per year — or to match an October run like his contemporary and rival Bumgarner had for the Giants in 2014.
Sunday night’s start will be a big test for Kershaw for another key reason: It’s the first time this postseason he’ll make a second start in a series. I had a theory that most of Kershaw’s postseason struggles have come the second time he faced a team in a series. Before putting theory to paper, I checked the numbers. I went back to 2013, the first postseason Kershaw pitched in after he had become the best pitcher in the game.
First game in a series: 102⅔ IP, 78 H, 44 R, 42 ER, 23 BB, 118 SO, 14 HR, 3.15 ERA
Subsequent appearances: 65⅓ IP, 55 H, 37 R, 34 ER, 16 BB, 72 SO, 11 HR, 5.44 ERA
So the theory holds. Kershaw’s major issues mostly have come the second time around. One thing I’ve heard people say is Kershaw has been pushed hard in the postseason, pitching on three days’ rest at times earlier in this run, plus making several relief appearances along the way. That’s true; he was pushed hard by Don Mattingly and then Dave Roberts. The trouble with that theory is Kershaw actually pitched well on short rest. He has made four starts on three days’ rest, all in Game 4 of a division series and his second start of a series:
2013 NLDS vs. Braves: 6 IP, 0 ER, 6 SO
2014 NLDS vs. Cardinals: 6 IP, 3 ER, 9 SO
2015 NLDS vs. Mets: 7 IP, 1 ER, 8 SO
2016 NLDS vs. Nationals: 6.2 IP, 5 ER, 11 SO
That’s a 3.16 ERA, and even the game against the Nationals is a little misleading. He left in the seventh inning with two outs and the bases loaded, but the bullpen allowed all three runners to score. That was the year he came on to get the final two outs in Game 5 for the save. He then started Game 2 of the NLCS on two days of rest (or four days of rest after his Game 4 start). You know what? He pitched seven scoreless innings against the Cubs. It was his second start of the series, in Game 6, when the Cubs knocked him around for two home runs and five runs in five innings.
So it doesn’t really hold that short rest has hurt Kershaw. Now, sure, maybe there’s a cumulative effect here. Maybe he was gassed by the time he faced the Cubs in Game 6. I keep wondering if seeing Kershaw a second time in short order helps opponents. Part of the mystery of facing Kershaw is he doesn’t look like any other pitcher with that hesitation and his windup and the over-top delivery. Maybe the familiarity of seeing him again a few days later helps — similar to how offensive numbers jump the third time through the order (part of that is pitcher fatigue, but part of that is hitters have seen the pitcher for two at-bats already).
I went back to the 2015 postseason and checked the numbers on starters for their first start in a series and then their second start. This gave a list of 80 pitchers (and 81 second starts, as Corey Kluber started three times in the 2016 World Series).
First start: 444⅓ IP, 344 H, 160 R, 153 ER, 148 BB, 454 SO, 51 HR, 3.12 ERA
Second start: 399⅓ IP, 338 H, 181 R, 168 ER, 138 BB, 434 SO, 61 HR, 3.79 ERA
So, yes, pitchers don’t fare as well the second time in a series. Their average innings pitched goes from 5.6 to 4.9. Their home runs per nine innings goes from 1.03 to 1.37. Their ERA rises 0.67 runs — but Kershaw’s ERA rises 2.29 runs.
It should be noted that Kershaw hasn’t pitched as badly as his ERA suggests. Compare his second-start numbers to the other 81 starts per nine innings:
Kershaw: 7.6 H, 2.2 BB, 9.9 SO, 1.52 HR, 5.44 ERA
Others: 7.6 H, 3.1 BB, 9.8 SO, 1.37 HR, 3.79 ERA
His raw numbers are basically the same as the control group — except the ERA. For whatever reason, his runs in the postseason too often come in crooked numbers or one bad inning.
Anyway, the Dodgers know this. Roberts won’t allow him to go too long, and the Dodgers have plenty of arms in the bullpen. In his four starts this postseason, Kershaw has thrown 93, 87, 87 and 78 pitches. He’ll be pitching on four days of rest. He gave up only two hits in six innings in the Game 1 victory over the Rays. All the signs point to another good start. I hope so.