Clayton Kershaw has had one of the best pitching primes in all of baseball history. His 7-year stretch from 2011-2017 was one of the most dominant stints in recent memory. In that stretch, Kershaw never finished outside of the top five in Cy Young voting, winning the award three times. In his remarkable 2014 MVP campaign, his 1.77 FIP ranked third all-time since the dead-ball era. FIP is a statistic that measures a pitcher’s effectiveness, taking plays that would involve the defense out of the equation. (FIP) Kershaw is one of just 10 players to eclipse three Cy Young Awards, while also being one of the eleven pitchers to ever capture the Cy Young and MVP in their careers. Yet after all his regular-season success, playoff Kershaw has not performed as well. Let’s look at the many reasons why Kershaw has underperformed in October.
Clayton Kershaw has absolutely dominated every team he has faced in his career. Batters hit .208 on him in his career in the regular season, compared to a .223 average in the postseason. A reason for this regular season success is his lack of competition in the NL West. Since his debut in 2008, the four other NL West teams have a winning percentage .479 (3838-4179). Despite this lack of offensive production, Kershaw’s BAA (Batting Average Against) still sits at .208 against the NL West. Although Kershaw struggles in the postseason, it is not the tough competition that phases him. In the regular season, Kershaw has held hitters to a (Kershaw Stats) .216 average against teams that eventually make the playoffs. (98-453) Facing playoff teams are not a factor in Kershaw’s struggles, as he dominates them in the regular season just months before he gets embarrassed on national television.
If it is not the unusually difficult competition that leads to playoff Kershaw’s problems, what could it be? Kershaw tends to change the way he pitches in the postseason, and it has led to his demise in October.
Clayton Kershaw’s off-speed pitches are some of the most devastating in MLB history. His 9.7 K/9 is the twelfth best of all time, and his slider and curveball are a big reason why. The 8-time all-star relies heavily on his off-speed with two strikes, throwing it a heavy 56 percent of the time. (Baseball Savant) He likes to use his fastball a higher majority overall, but his reliance on off-speed is a major part of his success. The southpaw seems to lose his confidence in his pitches when he gets on the big stage though. He doesn’t like to challenge talented hitters with his fastball as often, and it gets him in trouble. In the postseason, his off-speed pitches are thrown much more (47%), and hitters noticed this as well. Their averages have jumped over 30 points on off-speed pitches because hitters are no longer surprised by them.
Pitch selection is a huge part of pitching and of baseball in general. When Kershaw’s loopy curveball is expected by hitters, it is much easier to hit than when hitters must adjust to it. Although the Gold Glove winner hasn’t been super consistent in the playoffs, pitch selection cannot be the only reason.
Uncomfortable on the Mound
The 2011 Triple Crown winner has been the ace of the Dodgers for a very long time. With this role, however, comes great responsibility of having to go out and get the Dodgers a win. Kershaw is a starting pitcher, but sometimes playoff Kershaw is needed to come out of the pen, or pitch on minimum rest. Many people point to poor management decisions being a factor for Kershaw’s postseason implosions. Although he may pitch on short days rest often, you would be shocked to find out he pitches better on short rest than he does on his normal rest or even longer rest. When pitching on more than his normal four days’ rest, his average ERA is about 7. His normal 4-day rest’s ERA is 3.55, which is decent, but not Kershaw-like. However, when he pitches on less than four days rest his average ERA is 3.2.
Even though he is put in uncomfortable situations, the ace excels in them. The one other unpleasant scenario is relief pitching. Kershaw has come in relief seven different times, and he hasn’t exactly dominated those scenarios. His ERA in relief appearances is 4.5, and he allows almost twice as many homeruns when he doesn’t start. Luckily for the Dodgers, they have been smart to avoid using playoff Kershaw out of the bullpen. It is very odd how disappointed the 5x ERA leader has pitched in the postseason. In my opinion, it is even odder how there is no specific reason that Kershaw has struggled so much. He pitches well on short days’ rest, and although he is bad as a reliever, there is not a big enough sample size to pin his shortcomings strictly on this.
The 2020 World Series will begin Tuesday, October 19, with Clayton Kershaw on the mound. Barring his start, playoff Kershaw has not helped lead the Dodgers to any success in the Fall Classic. His championship WPA is –7.1, meaning that he has cost the Dodgers a seven percent chance of winning it all in his career thus far. If the 32-year-old can’t begin to succeed, his legacy will forever be tarnished. Kershaw will take the mound to attempt to prove us wrong once more in Game 1. If he can do it, then he can flip the script on his disappointing Octobers. If not, then Kershaw may just go down as the least clutch player of all time.
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