Stop me if you heard this before: Clayton Kershaw has a legacy-defining postseason start Sunday, and he has the chance to prove that he can get it done in October.
Baseball fans have gotten used to this narrative over the past decade. Kershaw, the best regular season pitcher of his generation by nearly every metric has had trouble bringing that same success into the postseason. With the L.A. Dodgers winning the division every year since 2013, Kershaw has had plenty of opportunities to silence his critics.
The discussion around Kershaw and his diminished postseason performance is a classic one amongst sports fans, almost to the point of a cliche. Kershaw being given the moniker of choker is almost a yearly tradition at this point. Those fans who simplify their athletes into heroes or chumps, look at Kershaw as just another athlete who can’t get it done when the pressure’s on. The only thing that can end this discussion: a World Series victory. Even if Kershaw doesn’t play well, a World Series ring always goes a long way in silencing the doubters.
The rebuttal of this “win or go home” fan often comes from the nerdy fan. A fan who is proud of how analytical they are. This fan will often point to small sample sizes and their belief that the idea of a “clutch” athlete is simply a myth. A nerdy fan believes that those who “go by their gut” might as well be going by another part of their gastrointestinal tract. On the other hand, a “trust the process” fan focuses more on the journey than the destination. However, in their heart of hearts, they know just as well as anyone, how much validity a championship ring can give.
Oftentimes those two fans come together and agree on one thing when it comes to athletes, especially the well-liked ones. They root like crazy for them to get it done.
Sure, they want to see that athlete climb the mountain and overcome whatever demons he/she may have had along the way. But, the main reason many non-Rays fans will be rooting hard for Kershaw Sunday is actually a selfish one. We, as fans, want to believe more than anything that our own eyes aren’t lying to us. We see the Kershaws of the world look like the most spectacular thing we’ve ever seen in the regular season. It’s something we’ll tell our grandchildren about. However, when the bright lights are on, the Kershaws of the world simply look, well, human. Some fans can’t accept that.
Kershaw has had his fair share of success in the playoffs. Anyone who claims otherwise is either ignorant or lying to you. He has made 7 postseason starts in which he has given up 1 run or fewer. The future Hall of Famer got the save in a winner-take-all game 5 against the Nationals in the NLDS in 2016 on just 1 day of rest. He even pitched the final inning of game 7 in the 2018 NLCS against the Brewers after throwing a gem just 3 days prior.
But Kershaw has definitely had his rough starts as well, mostly coming in the 6th inning or later. The Dodger lefty had notable meltdowns in back-to-back seasons against the Cardinals in 2013-14. He also lost the NLCS-clinching game against the Cubs in 2016. A few years later, he gave up the lead via gut-wrenching back-to-back home runs against the Nationals in game 5 of the 2019 NLDS. Kerhsaw has also struggled in 3 of his 4 World Series starts prior to this year. (I’ll give him a pass against the 2017 Astros who were later caught cheating.)
All of these facts and all of this data come together to prove one thing; the truth isn’t so black and white when it comes to Kershaw. He isn’t the bum that some portray him to be. But, to just throw away his poor playoff performance as a small sample size would be ignoring the fact that the sample size just isn’t that small anymore.
Heading into Sunday, Kershaw is 12-12 with a 4.22 E.R.A in his playoff career. He has made 29 starts and 7 relief appearances, all adding up to just over a season’s worth of appearances for a pitcher. Kershaw’s stats are that of a mediocre pitcher. A far cry from the 175-76 pitcher with a 2.43 E.R.A. baseball fans are accustomed to seeing in the regular season. On the other end, Kershaw’s postseason numbers are also a far cry from the bench-warmer many claim him to be in October.
The truth is that the story is pretty much written on Clayton Kershaw. Barring an unforeseen sharp turn in either direction in the back half of his career, he is the greatest pitcher of his generation. You can’t take that away from Kershaw, as he will walk into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The other fact of the matter is that he’s just an average postseason player, often shadowed by his longtime division rival Madison Bumgarner. These perspectives should not change because of one start, regardless of how well it goes. They also shouldn’t change if the Dodgers are able to get 2 more victories to win their first World Series since 1988.
Clayton Kershaw surely does not deserve our pity. He’s had the success that most pitchers could only ever dream of, and the bank account to back it up. But Sunday, Kershaw will have many fans rooting for him to change the narrative. Because no matter how great an athlete is, fans always want to see the look on their face when that greatness gets rewarded with victory.