A look at Clayton Kershaw's perceived playoff 'struggles' and what it means

With the Los Angeles Dodgers preparing to square off against the Arizona Diamondbacks Friday night (how to watch), all eyes will be on Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw is coming off of yet another Cy Young caliber regular season, finishing 18-4 with a 2.31 ERA and a WHIP of just 0.949. In the loaded National League, whether or not he wins the award, it is a spectacular season by any metric.

For the Dodgers, however, this postseason isn't about personal accolades. For Kershaw, it will be about shedding the cloud that seems to hang over him in the playoffs. Kershaw has a 4-7 record with an ERA of 4.55 and a WHIP of 1.157 for his career in the postseason. Contrasted with his 144-64 regular season record, 2.36 ERA and WHIP of 1.002, it's hard to explain why Kershaw's playoff numbers seem so... pedestrian.

In short, it comes down to a much smaller sample size, a significantly more competitive atmosphere, and a lot of using pitchers in roles that they may or may not be used to -- in addition to other variables like always going up against an opposing ace and constantly pitching in so-called "clutch" situations.

When looking at pitchers, however, trends matter more than raw numbers. In 2016, Kershaw went 2-1 with a save in the postseason (with the save coming in a crucial Game 5 against the Nationals in the NLDS). However, the one loss was the Dodgers' final loss in the postseason and possibly the second worst loss of Kershaw's playoff career. Against the Cubs with a Game 7 in Los Angeles on the line, Kershaw gave up seven hits and four earned runs in five innings, in a game that the Dodgers would ultimately lose 5-0. The Cubs moved on to the World Series and the rest, as they say, is history.

Kershaw's playoff record so far

Digging a bit deeper, Kershaw has started 14 postseason games. He has picked up decisions in 11 of those starts. Kershaw has never picked up a decision in his four relief stints (two in 2008, one in 2009 and one in 2016). Of his 14 starts, Kershaw has 10 quality starts. Games in which he did not pitch at least six innings, Kershaw went 4 2/3 innings, four innings, five innings and five innings again. These occasions occurred in 2009 (Kershaw's second playoff start), 2013 (against the Cardinals, the worst start of his postseason career), 2016 (a win by decision over the Nationals) and again in 2016 (the aforementioned disaster against the Cubs).

In these four games, Kershaw gave up five, seven, three and four earned runs, respectively. With a total of 19 runs, those four starts account for about 45 percent of his playoff runs allowed. In all of MLB in 2017, the average quality start percentage was 44 percent -- Kershaw is sitting at a career quality start percentage of 71 percent in the playoffs. Even if you factor out Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS against the Cardinals -- in which Kershaw gave up eight runs in 6 2/3 innings in a losing effort -- that still keeps his percentage at 64 percent -- 20 percent better than the league's regular season average.

Managers are notoriously quick with the hook in the playoffs. With a lot of games to win and not a lot of chances to win them, being patient with a poor start can be a team's death knell. Joe Torre, Don Mattingly and Dave Roberts have all managed Kershaw. Where Mattingly would give Kershaw slack to a fault, Roberts has tried to pace his ace (Torre only had 2009 to really manage Kershaw, as in 2008 he was used as a situational reliever). It showed when Roberts took Kershaw out in Game 1 of the 2016 NLDS, despite Kershaw only having thrown five innings with three runs allowed. His pitch count was over 100 after five, and his seven strikeouts to that point wasn't helping the number. Roberts took Kershaw out of the game, and Dodgers took the win.

The deeper a pitcher gets into games, the more likely it is he's going to get a decision one way or the other. That much is obvious. In Kershaw's seven losses, the Dodgers have lost by two or less runs AND scored less than four runs three times. A 0-1 loss against St. Louis in Game 2 of the NLCS, a 2-3 loss to the Cardinals in Game 4 of the NLCS and a 1-3 loss in Game 1 of the 2015 NLCS against the Mets were all quality starts from Kershaw in which the bats simply never showed up.

In spite of these so-called struggles -- Roberts still trusts Kershaw enough to trot him out in Game 5 of an LDS series to pick up a crucial save. Kershaw went two-thirds of an inning to shut down a Nationals rally -- netting him the save and a Dodgers win. This trust shouldn't be taken for granted. It was a gutsy move on Roberts' part, not any pitcher can close a game, but it shows that Kershaw's mind in the playoffs isn't different. Or at least it isn't apparent to his manager.

An alarming Trend

There is one alarming trend regarding Kershaw's struggles, and that is regarding the two worst starts of his playoff career. Against both the Cardinals and the Cubs, in 2013 and 2016, Kershaw pitched in a road environment, in Game 6, with the home team having an opportunity to clinch. In those two starts, the numbers are fairly similar, and they're not good. Here are the numbers for those two games.

Opponent

IP

ER

Hits

SO

BB

St. Louis Cardinals (2013)

4.0

7

10

5

2

Chicago Cubs (2016)

5.0

4

7

4

0

In both games Kershaw failed to get a quality start, gave up four or more runs (there was also an unearned run allowed in the Cubs game, bringing the total to five) and the Dodgers lost those games by a combined score of 14-0. Obviously the offense not scoring is an issue, and almost renders the point moot, but even if the bats had livened up Kershaw wasn't giving them much of a chance to win. Giving up runs early can be debilitating, especially when it's your ace.

If the Dodgers get those wins, they play a decisive Game 7. A manager wants to trust an ace to win pivotal games and give the team a chance to take the series at home -- but both times Kershaw (and the Dodgers hitting) came up short. Kershaw getting the ball in those decisive moments is carefully mapped out by the manager, but to have those two starts be among the worst in his postseason career illustrates a frustrating trend to a manager like Roberts.

What to make of it all

All-in-all, Kershaw hasn't been as terrible as the narrative makes him out to be. Using raw numbers is fine, but it only tells half the story when it comes to a pitcher put in as many strange situations as Kershaw is. 

Kershaw's longevity is the real key. He will almost always bring his team deep into games. And, in difference to previous seasons, the Dodgers are more complete in 2017 than they have been in recent years. Their bats are better, and with the highest payroll in baseball, they're expected to perform. 

This season could be a make-or-break one for Kershaw's playoff legacy -- it's World Series or bust for the Dodgers. And if the Dodgers are going to go for broke, they need their ace to be in ace form throughout the postseason in an extremely deep National League. 

Kershaw can prove that his numbers are a result of outlying games and circumstances, but he needs to do so with conviction in 2017 after yet another great regular season.

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