HOUSTON -- If you want to impugn the career of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, you must work hard to do so -- perhaps even to the point of straining sound thinking. If you're so inclined, however, there's but one path to take: The future Hall of Famer leads all active hurlers with a career regular-season ERA of 2.36; in the postseason, Kershaw's ERA bounds to 4.21 through 18 starts and four relief appearances.
It's one of the most glaring disconnects in the game today. How can Kershaw, silkily brilliant most of the time, become so ordinary when the point of all this hangs in the balance? To be sure, there's some overstatement involved. Kershaw's playoff body of work can accurately be described as suboptimal. It is not, however, awful or terrible or tragic or any other such overheated descriptor. It's a mixed bag that doesn't square with what Kershaw otherwise is, which is the best pitcher in the world.
Yes, of his 18 playoff starts coming into Sunday night's, five have come on short rest, but he's generally pitched well on those outings. The prevailing reality is that of the 13 times Kershaw has made a playoff start on full or extra rest, he's managed just five quality starts. In terms of "disaster starts," which refers to those outings in which a starter's runs allowed exceed his innings pitched, Kershaw has authored three of those in the postseason. By comparison, Kershaw in his regular-season career has 15 disaster starts in 290 overall starts, which comes to a rate of 5.2 percent. In the postseason, those three disaster starts (and not counting one outing in which his runs allowed equaled his innings pitched) in 18 overall starts makes for a disaster-start rate of 16.7 percent. That's a huge jump, to state the obvious.
It's of course worth mentioning that we're still dealing with a small sample size when it comes to Kershaw's playoff body of work, and when some bad luck meets the generally excellent offenses of playoff teams bad things can happen, even to this moundsman. That said, the narrative of "Kershaw, playoff choker," although unfair and simplistic, has a power these days. Game 5, though, presented Kershaw with an opportunity to scrub most of that away. Coming off his gem in Game 1, a similarly dominant outing that puts the Dodgers one win away from their first title since could've yielded a World Series MVP for Kershaw. Against that backdrop of legacy-shifting potential, we examined Kershaw's outing at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros got to Dallas Keuchel for three runs in the top of the first, so Kershaw immediately begins with a cushion. Working from the first base side of the rubber, he spends his warmup pitches on seven fastballs (all of which show good life) and one slider.
The top of the Houston lineup would seem to present a challenge for Kershaw, as A.J. Hinch has put five right-handed bats, ranging from good to great, at the front end. Kershaw in terms of slash-line outcomes has fairly balanced platoon splits for his career, but his command-and-control indicators are weaker against the opposite side.
To start, he goes fastball low-and-away to George Springer for called strike one. Then it's a slider that Springer grounds to third for the first out. While the slider is typically a pitch you use against same-side bats, Kershaw actually uses it more against right-handed bats than he does against lefties. There's also this ...
Over the years, Kershaw has become less fastball-reliant, and this season he's thrown his two breaking pitches more often than his four-seamer. The capability to adjust and keep adjusting is of course a prerequisite for any big-leaguer, and it's certainly been a Kershaw hallmark. "My biggest thing with Kershaw," says pitching instructor Josh Boggs of Pitch Mechanics 101 (@PitchMechanics on Twitter), "is how he keeps adapting. He came up with the fastball-curveball combo then developed a good slider and changeup. Now he's adapted from Rich Hill and will change arm slots."
Next is Alex Bregman, whom Kershaw attacks middle to away with three fastballs, two curves, and a slider. Bregman drives the last pitch of the at-bat 377 feet to center, but Bregman was just a little under it (despite an initial roar from the crowd in Houston). All breaking balls to Altuve, and he whiffs him when Altuve swings over a hard slider. The slider seems to hop out of Kershaw's hand when he releases, which initially can give it the look of a high fastball. As it completes its journey to the plate, though, it becomes a very different pitch.
Fastballs, one from stretch, and a curve for his warmups. Changing speeds is another thing Kershaw does well, especially when he sequences his slow curve behind his fastball. He gives Carlos Correa a 92 mph fastball down and over the middle for strike one, and the he presents a 73 mph loopy curve that winds up in on Correa's hands. He grounds out weakly to the right side. Kershaw's curveball is perhaps the most praised breaking ball in the game today, and it's been on the national radar since he bent one from behind Sean Casey's head into the strike zone in spring training of 2008. Boggs again: "He also throws from a higher than normal arm slot, which is why that curveball is so devastating. A high arm slot and 12-6 breaking curve is a recipe for success. His fastball already has a nice downhill plane from that slot and then a curveball with that much break is even more devastating."
Yuli Gurriel works Kershaw for a six-pitch encounter. Bookended by fastballs, Kershaw goes to the slider four straight times and misses the zone with three of them (what other lefty would attack a righty with pop with four straight sliders?). After that heavy dose of sliders, he beats Gurriel with a fastball up and away, and Gurriel can only pop it up to the right side.
So all those sliders to right-handers ... Kershaw has such command over the pitch and it has such deception thanks to the early "fastball-ishness" of it that it's a weapon against any hitter. He can back-door it to right-handers, or he can work in the heart of the plate and have it dive under their bats or catch the handle at the last instant.
Reddick is the first left-handed batter that Kershaw sees. He presents with a pair of fastballs followed by a curve and another fastball. Against same-side hitters, he's much more partial to his fastball. He flies out, 350 feet or so to center.
Behind in the count to Evan Gattis, Kershaw goes breaking ball-heavy, and Gattis eventually gets the bat head on a low slider and lines it -- 94 mph off the bat -- to left center. It's the first hit of the game against Kershaw, and that means we see the lefty work from the stretch for the first time tonight. He comes set then lifts his glove and pulls it back down, almost like a "namaste" yoga gesture. As he moves toward the plate, he breaks his hands and does a step-sweep move with this front leg that's got to be a little hard on the batter's timing.
That's also the case for Kershaw's windup, which features that brief front-leg hover as he moves toward the plate -- the one that looks like he's about to crush a beer can underfoot. "To do any of the things a pitcher at that level can do, you have to be an elite athlete," Boggs, the pitching instructor, explains. "What does that mean? Balance, adjustability, consistency, etc. Kershaw does a great job of essentially getting into the "athletic position" everyone was taught in gym class in elementary school. Only difference is his right leg is off the ground."
With Gattis on first, Kershaw works the switch-hitting Marwin Gonzalez low and inside. Five of the six pitches are breaking balls, and the last, a slider that nicks the lower boundary of the zone, he chops into a 5-4-3 double play. Kershaw induced 15 GIDPs during the regular season. In a way, the breaking ball-centric approach reflects what a luxury it is to be a pitcher of Kershaw's gifts. That's because he boasts a fastball that would be the envy of most pitchers in baseball. He averages 93 with it, but he can push it up to 96, 97 on occasion. It also at times boasts a lot of movement for a four-seamer, particularly some late tailing action that hitters of either hand can find baffling. Generally speaking, he uses it to work left-handers away and right-handers in, although that's partly a function of that aforementioned late tail. Either way, he's great at manipulating it, likely with slight variations in finger pressure.
After two fastballs, Brian McCann grounds out weakly on a slider. After three, Kershaw's at 39 pitches, 27 of which have been strikes.
Almost all fastballs for Kershaw as he warms up after a long half-inning (he's now staked to a 4-0 lead, and the Dodgers, per basic win expectancy, have an 85.8 percent chance of winning Game 5). He throws one fastball from the stretch, and he throws one slider, which he spikes at about 55 feet. It's folly to read too much into warmup pitch command, but he's all over the place right now.
Against Springer, Kershaw misses with a pair of fastballs and a pair of sliders to put the leadoff hitter aboard. In between those four balls, he grooved a fastball that Springer could've crushed. After the second pitch, a 1-0 slider that missed low and outside, Kershaw writhed toward third base and screamed in frustration. Honestly, the walk was a good outcome for Kershaw in that AB.
A seven-pitch at-bat by Bregman follows, and again Kershaw throws only fastballs and sliders. At this point, you must wonder whether he's lacking feel for his curve tonight. He lifts a slider to left for the first out. Next up, Altuve sees a curve, but it misses. He winds up hitting a slider sharply to left for a single. That brings up Correa. With Correa up, Kershaw and Austin Barnes have some troubles with the signals now that a runner is on second for the first time, so they have a chat between mound and plate, much to the displeasure of the crowd at Minute Maid Park. He presents the Houston shortstop with two tailing fastballs. The second one, though, stays elevated, and Correa doubles to left. That plates Springer and brings up Gurriel.
It's a slider, middle in, the second straight pitch that Kershaw has left up. Gurriel doesn't miss ...
That's 389 feet into the Crawford Boxes -- not a cheap one by any stretch, but it calls to mind the ballpark's tendencies. Prior to Game 5, Kershaw was asked about the unconventional dimensions of Minute Maid Park (it's just 315 feet down the left field line, which is contrary to MLB ballpark guidelines). "No, I don't think you can change anything based on where you're at," Kershaw said. "It's just a matter of making good pitches to these guys. Most of the time I would say it doesn't come into play that much. I feel the homers I give up are pretty legit. As long as you're making your pitches, you might hit one off the wall that you're not supposed to or something, but other than that you can't really change."
During the regular season, Kershaw threw more than 1,000 sliders, and just six times did batters homer off of the pitch. The comfortable majority of his home runs come off fastballs. Speaking of which, Kershaw allowed 1.2 home runs per nine innings this season, which roughly doubles his previous career-high in a qualifying campaign. Home runs are of course up all across baseball (2017 brought us more homers than ever before, on both a gross and rate basis), and perhaps Kershaw as someone who relies so heavily on deception and repertoire, is vulnerable in the "power to excess" era. His lone blemish in his Game 2 gem was of course a home run. On that point ...
Most HR allowed in a single postseason— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) October 30, 2017
8 Kershaw 2017
7 Pettitte 1996
7 Hamels 2009
7 Garrelts 1989
7 Show 1984
7 Beckett 2008
Fastball-slider-fastball to get Reddick on a pop-up, and then Kershaw ends the frame with a fly-out from Gattis -- the result of a nice level change after staying low with his four pitches of the AB.
With the Gurriel blast, Kershaw squandered the four-run lead he had to begin the fourth. That 85.8 percent chance of victory for the Dodgers noted above? It's now down to 41.3 percent. Kershaw's labored inning cut their chances in half. Obviously, this is not going to be the signature outing he surely pined for.
Kershaw gets a lead back, and Roberts may want to try to get some length out of him. He goes conventional against Gonzalez and throws him four fastballs in five pitches. Gonzalez is retired on a fairly well struck fly ball to left. McCann gets punched looking on the fourth pitch of the AB, and that's just Kershaw's second strikeout of the night. He follows that up with another walk of Springer, this after an eight-pitch AB in which the four balls came on three sliders and a curve. During the Springer plate appearance, Kenta Maeda begins warming up in the Dodger bullpen. Pitching coach Ricky Honeycutt comes out, and the entire infield caucuses on the mound for a talk.
The second pitch to Bregman is an alarmingly flat slider from Kershaw. It comes in the early moments of what turns out to be a 10-pitch struggle. In the end, Bregman, who's been so productive and so disciplined at the plate this postseason, ekes out a walk, in part by fouling off three fastballs and a curve. For the final pitch, Kershaw overthrows a slider and puts in the dirt. His body language tells you his night is over. Maeda comes on, but the runners on first and second belong to Kershaw. When Altuve homers to tie it again, Kershaw's line is complete ...
In the fourth and fifth innings, the Astros worked Kershaw for 55 pitches, and just 30 of those were strikes. Framed another way, he threw just 12.7 percent of his pitches while ahead in the count in the fourth and fifth innings. In the regular season, he was one of the best in baseball with an ahead-in-the-count percentage of 41.1. Even having his stuff, even pitching unconventionally when behind, Kershaw can't survive that many hitter's counts. And so he didn't.
In terms of Game Score, a quick-and-dirty Bill James metric that measures a pitcher's dominance or lack thereof in a given start (50 is average and anything 90 or higher is an absolute gem), Kershaw registered a meager 32 for Game 5. That's the second-lowest of his postseason career (In Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS against the Cardinals, he put up a 17). Bake in Sunday night's numbers, and Kershaw now has a career playoff ERA of 4.50.
And so Kershaw's Dodgers are on the brink of elimination. When you give Kershaw seven runs of support, you don't expect that to be the outcome. The story of Kershaw in October -- fair or not, overstated or not -- isn't changing for now.