There's not much riding on Clayton Kershaw's start Wednesday afternoon in Game 5 of the NLCS.
Only that the winner of this game will be one win away from a trip to the World Series. And that Kershaw's long-debated playoff reputation might get swung for good, depending on how he fares. And that the best pitcher of his generation, a surefire Hall of Famer the minutes he retires, and one of the greatest left-handers to walk the Earth, might be pitching his final game for the franchise that's nurtured his prodigious talents since he was 18 years old.
That's all. No big.
Last fall, the Dodgers ace looked on his way to burying the narrative that he couldn't come through when the spotlight shone brightest. In Game 1 of the World Series, facing a stacked Astros lineup, Kershaw twirled seven transcendent innings, allowing just one run on three hits, while striking out 11. All of his skills were on full display, from his otherworldly command to an ability to keep hitters guessing with a deep repertoire, one that includes an all-world slider that he threw for the very first time in his life in his second major league season. That stellar outing ran his 2017 playoff record to 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA, numbers befitting a pitcher of Kershaw's stature.
But here's the thing about narratives: They can be really damn hard to kill. In his next start, Kershaw got crushed by Houston's offense, surrendering six runs in 4 ⅔ innings, en route to a backbreaking 13-12 extra-inning loss. Then he stormed back with authority, firing eight innings of three-hit shutout ball to beat the Braves in Game 2 of the NLDS.
All of which brought us to Game 1 of the NLCS against Milwaukee, a middle-of-the-road offense against left-handed pitching, but one with enough pop to be dangerous on the right night.
As fans, analysts, and baseball junkies, we can sometimes get caught up in the story of one game. Kershaw's run of great-awful-great in his three previous playoff starts showed the perils of going overboard on small sample sizes. So whatever might've happened in the NLCS opener, there'd be no reason to draw sweeping conclusions based on that one performance.
What we can do, though, is break down all the small details from that Game 1 outing. It's instructive to watch Kershaw in 2018, then compare him to the pitcher he was a year ago, three years ago, five years ago. At age 30, he doesn't have the same stuff he used to, he doesn't throw the same mix of pitches that he used to, and if we use a larger sample as judge and jury, we can see that he just isn't as unhittable as he used to be.
It all starts with fastball velocity. While hitters often need several years in the big leagues to refine their plate approach and hit their peak, pitchers arrive in the Show facing an immediate headwind. Every time a pitcher throws a pitch at maximum effort, he's fired another bullet that's now no longer in his chamber. Each pitch can bring that pitcher closer to wearing down, which eventually causes a drop in velocity, and increased injury risk. You know that old saying about the crafty veteran who can still get you out? We talk in those terms about older pitchers because unless you're Justin Verlander (or, say, Roger Clemens in the Blue Jays years), it's extremely unlikely that you'll be throwing as hard in your 30s as you did in your 20s. So you sure as hell better learn to be crafty with age, or you'll be selling insurance instead of taking the mound in front of 40,000 adoring fans.
Kershaw entered the majors as a very talented pitcher who also threw hard. He reached superstardom in his fourth big league season, when at age 23 he combined his terrifying stuff with that craftiness that only the great ones pick up that early, in the process winning his first Cy Young Award. Two years later, Kershaw reached the absolute height of his powers, hurling a career-high 236 regular-season innings, flashing a Koufaxian 1.83 ERA, and bagging the 2013 Cy Young Award.
Let's use Kershaw's performance in that year's postseason as our starting point to analyze his fastball velocity over the years. Here's how that looks for each of his playoff campaigns since '13:
KERSHAW'S AVERAGE FASTBALL VELOCITY
- 2013 postseason: 94.1 mph
- 2014 postseason: 94.1 mph
- 2015 postseason: 95.0 mph
- 2016 postseason: 94.2 mph
- 2017 postseason: 92.5 mph
- 2018 postseason: 91.0 mph
Kershaw is a smart guy. He knows exactly what's happened to his fastball over the years, where his once near-elite velocity now looks positively flaccid in today's era of triple-digit-firing monsters. So he's made adjustments. Check out how dramatically he's changed his pitch mix this fall:
KERSHAW'S POSTSEASON PITCH USAGE
- Fastball: 59 percent
- Slider: 16 percent
- Curve: 15 percent
- Fastball: 43 percent
- Slider: 42 percent
- Curve: 15 percent
Game 1 of the NLCS showed the cascading effects that a loss in velocity can have on a pitcher, even one as great as Kershaw. By not throwing his fastball as hard, Kershaw has tried to compensate both by throwing a lot more sliders, and also by aiming his diminished heater to postage stamp-sized spots. As a result, that diminished faith in his stuff has at times resulted in poorer command, further exacerbating the challenge.
That deadly combination of slower stuff and shaky command was on full display against the Brewers, in a game that saw Kershaw get rocked for five runs, while making his shortest exit ever from a postseason start, after just three innings.
Nick Pollack, the excellent pitching analyst and proprietor of the site Pitcher List, offered four GIFs to illustrate how badly Kershaw struggled in Game 1 of the NLCS, as compared to his still gaudy performance three years ago. Pollack found a 2015 start in Milwaukee that gives you an apples-to-apples camera view of how his location and movement changed. These four GIFs feature pitches that were all meant to hit the same locations, except that in each case, the pitch in question was better executed three years ago than it was on Friday night:
Fastball in to right-handed batter:
Fastball away to right-handed batter:
Fastball away to left-handed batter:
Slider in to right-handed batter:
Kershaw's thrived over the years by dotting the inside corner with fastballs to right-handed hitters, setting up a nasty slider that looks like it's about to hit the same spot, only to tumble to the dirt. Not only did Kershaw throw both of those pitches considerably slower last week against the Brewers, he also missed Yasmani Grandal's targets again and again, spinning fat pitches down the heart of the plate, right into the happy zone for Milwaukee's hitters.
None of this suggests that Kershaw is doomed, that Brewers hitters are going to jump all over him again, and that his day will end with an early trip to the showers. Going beyond the playoffs to the larger body of evidence that is regular-season work, we see that Kershaw has gone from planet eater (1.80 Fielding Independent Pitching in 2016) to very good (3.19 FIP in 2018) in a span of two years. Pitchers like Wade Miley and Jhoulys Chacin at their very best can't touch that lowered level of Kershaw performance over the long haul. But they can, and did find a flash of greatness in them during this series, putting up 10 ⅔ combined innings of scoreless ball in Games 2 and 3 of the NLCS. If they can do it, Kershaw certainly can too.
But with his once impressive velocity likely gone forever, Kershaw's margin for error is all but gone. He either needs to execute all of his pitches with pinpoint accuracy, or risk suffering a severe case of whiplash watching meatballs get hammered all over the park.
For those of us who get excited by baseball history, and all-time greatness, the future could be even more grim. A three-time Cy Young winner and all-time great just isn't what he once was, which means we probably need to temper expectations for him for the rest of his career. That in turn means that if Kershaw opts out of his contract with the Dodgers next month, he won't get anywhere near the small island nation GDP haul he might've hoped for a couple years ago. The former bastion of durability now carries the injury-prone label after three straight DL-truncated seasons. And when it comes to one-day performances that rank with the the best who ever played, those two will become more rare as time marches on.
So enjoy the Clayton Kershaw of our imaginations while we still can. For the Dodgers' sake, that guy would be most welcome around 2:05 p.m. local time on Wednesday afternoon.