Clayton Kershaw Has a Complex Postseason History

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw Postseason Success Varies

It is safe to say that most baseball fans know that Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw is one of the best pitchers of the last 50 years. Even though he still has at least a few good years left in the tank, he’d be a lock for the Hall of Fame if he were to retire tomorrow. There is little left for him to accomplish.

The postseason is a different animal. A running thought is that he’s terrible in the postseason. Reality is different. The most accurate statement is that Clayton Kershaw is _____________ in the postseason. What goes in the blank varies based on the series situation.

The Seven Types of Playoff Games

In the playoffs, there are seven types of games.

  • Series Opener – The first game of a multiple-game series.
  • Leading Game – The team is ahead in the series but cannot clinch with a victory.
  • Trailing Game – The team is behind in the series but cannot be eliminated with a loss.
  • Pivotal Game – The series is tied, but neither team can clinch with a victory.
  • Closeout Game – The team is ahead in the series and can clinch with a victory.
  • Elimination Game – The team is behind in the series and will be eliminated with a loss.
  • Do or Die Game – The winner of the game clinches the series. Tiebreaker games, although part of the regular season, count as Do or Die Games.

Clayton Kershaw has pitched in 34 playoff games in his career, including all seven types of playoff games. Of these 34, he started 27. Overall, his record is 11-11 with one save, one blown save, and one hold. He has a 4.23 ERA with 189 strikeouts, 46 walks, a 1.074 WHIP, and a .219 opponent batting average.

The win-loss record is certainly lower than one would expect for someone with his resume, and his ERA is higher than one would expect. His WHIP, however, is quite good, and his opponent batting average is also good – only 11 points higher than his regular season number. Plus, it compares well with the league average for opponent BA in his career, which is .255. These two factors – WHIP and opponent BA – mean that his numbers need a closer look, because his W-L record and ERA should, under normal circumstances, be lower.

Notes Before Proceeding

Before proceeding, here are some statistical notes.  To get a full understanding of his outings, we will use some statistics that even long-time baseball fans might not be familiar with. One is the quality start (QS), a statistic that many people misunderstand. A pitcher gets a quality start when he pitches six innings or more and gives up three earned runs or less. When meeting those two guidelines, the pitcher wins most of the time.

This stat has two partner statistics – the cheap win (WChp) and the tough loss (LTuf). A cheap win happens when the pitcher gets the win without getting a quality start; a tough loss comes when the pitcher takes the loss despite having a quality start. In other words, did the pitcher’s team win despite his performance? On the flipside, did he pitch well enough to win under most circumstances but lose anyway? These statistics, while not perfect, generally do a good job answering those questions.

Wins Lost, Losses Saved, and Game Score

Another pair of statistics that give us a more complete picture of a starting pitcher’s performance over time is wins lost (WLst) and losses saved (LSv). If a starting pitcher leaves the game in a position to get the win, but a reliever later loses the lead, then it is a win lost. On the flipside, if the starter leaves the game in a position to get the loss but his team ties the game or takes the lead after he leaves, then it is a loss saved.

Finally, there is the Game Score statistic (GSc). It, like the others, is not perfect, but it still gives a solid overview of a starting pitcher’s performance in a game. To calculate it, start with 50 points. After that,

  • Add one point for every out recorded, or three points for every complete inning pitched.
  • Add two bonus points for every inning completed beyond the fourth inning.
  • Add one point for each strikeout.
  • Subtract two points for every hit allowed
  • Subtract four points for every earned run allowed.
  • Subtract two points for every unearned run allowed.
  • Subtract one points for each walk.

Now that we’re on the same page, let’s dive in.

Clayton Kershaw by Playoff Game Type

Clayton Kershaw’s postseason game log shows that he’s had some great playoff outings; some decent – good, but not great; some so-so – neither good nor bad; and some clunkers. When categorizing them by playoff game type, trends emerge.

(Data compiled by author from Baseball Reference.)

He has only pitched in two Pivotal Games. One was a great outing, Game Five of the 2018 NLCS against the Milwaukee Brewers. The other was atrocious – Game Five of the 2017 World Series against the Houston Astros. For all the other situations, here is a breakdown.

The Good

Leading Games

Clayton Kershaw has started four leading games. His record in those games is 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA, eight runs (all earned), two walks, 17 strikeouts, three homers, a 0.938 WHIP, and a .235 opponent batting average across 26 2/3 innings. The Dodgers are 3-1 in those games, with Kershaw putting up a quality start in all four and earning the win in two.

In the other two, Kershaw had a tough loss and a loss saved. The former was a 4-2 loss to the Washington Nationals in Game Two of the 2019 NLDS, where Kershaw gave up three earned runs in six innings. In the latter, Game Two of the 2009 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, Kershaw allowed two earned runs in 6 2/3 innings. When he left the game, the Dodgers were down by a run; they eventually rallied to win, 3-2, on a walk-off bases-loaded single by Mark Loretta.

Trailing Games

Clayton Kershaw also did well in his two Trailing Game starts. He has five total appearances in these types of games, and his relief outings – all against the Philadelphia Phillies – had mixed results. However, his two starts were both strong. Although he lost the first – a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals in Game Two of the 2013 NLCS – he pitched well enough to win. In six innings, he allowed only two hits, one walk, and an unearned run. Not only was it a Tough Loss, it was a loss where his Game Score was 70.

In the second, Kershaw earned the win as he pitched the first seven innings of a 1-0 shutout of the Chicago Cubs in Game Two of the 2016 NLCS. He allowed two hits and one walk while striking out six, giving him a Game Score of 78.

Closeout Games

Clayton Kershaw is at his best in Closeout Games. In three starts, he has a record of 2-0 with a 0.45 ERA, one earned run (out of three total), 24 strikeouts, three walks, one home run, a 0.600 WHIP, and a .129 opponent batting average in 20 innings. His average Game Score in these is 74. The lone home run – a solo shot by Kris Bryant in Game Five of the 2017 NLCS – is also the only extra-base hit he has allowed in a Closeout Game.

His most recent closeout game was Game Two of the 2020 Wild Card Series against the Brewers. It saw him walk one while allowing three hits and striking out 13. He pitched the first eight innings of a 3-0 shutout. The game score for that one was the highest of his postseason career – 88.

The Struggles

Series Openers

Clayton Kershaw has both pitched in and started more series openers than any other playoff game type. In his 10 appearances – all starts – he has a record of 4-5 with a 5.86 ERA. He had 72 strikeouts, 22 walks, 11 home runs allowed, a 1.337 WHIP, and a .249 opponent batting average over 55 1/3 innings. Only three of his 10 starts were quality starts. His highest Game Score was 78; his low was 29; and his average was 49.

His first start in a series opener came in his fourth-ever postseason appearance: Game One of the 2009 NLCS against the Phillies. It did not go well for Kershaw, as he allowed five runs, all earned, on four hits and five walks in 4 2/3 innings. He struck out three and allowed one home run, adding up to a Game Score of 34.

The next time Kershaw started a series opener was Game One of the 2013 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves. He dazzled, going seven innings and striking out 12 while allowing an earned run on three hits and three walks. The see-saw continued in his next series opener, Game One of the 2014 NLDS against the Cardinals. His final line was eight runs, all earned, on eight hits with 10 strikeouts and two home runs in 6 2/3 innings.

2015-2017

In his next series opener – Game One of the 2015 NLDS against the New York Mets – he pitched well, going 6 2/3 innings and allowing three runs on four hits and four walks while fanning 11. However, he lost, as Jacob deGrom struck out 13 in seven scoreless innings of a 3-1 Mets victory. Kershaw’s next start in a Series Opener came in Game One of the 2016 NLDS, and although it was shaky (5 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 7 K), it was enough to earn him the win in a 4-3 victory over the Nationals.

Luck prevailed in his next series opener. It was Game One of the 2017 NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he gave up four home runs. However, they were all solo shots, so his final line was 6 1/3 innings, five hits, four earned runs, three walks, and seven strikeouts in a 9-5 victory. The series opener after that one was in the NLCS the same year against the Cubs. Kershaw was so-so in that one – he gave up four hits, two earned runs, and a walk while striking out four in a five-inning effort. Although the Dodgers ultimately won, 5-2, they were down 2-0 when Kershaw left the game, so Kershaw had a “no decision” and a “loss saved.”

One of the best starts of his postseason career came in the next series opener. It was Game One of the 2017 World Series against the Astros. Kershaw wowed the Dodger Stadium crowd in his first World Series appearance, pitching seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball. He struck out 11 and walked one, with his only blemish coming on a fourth-inning solo home run by Alex Bregman. The Dodgers ultimately won, 3-1, with Kershaw as the winning pitcher.

2018

Clayton Kershaw has pitched two more series openers since then. One came in the 2018 NLCS against the Brewers. The other came in the World Series that same year against the Boston Red Sox. Neither went well.

Against the Brewers, Kershaw allowed five runs (four earned) on six hits while walking two and giving up a home run to Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff. He lasted into the fourth but left the game facing a 4-1 deficit with a runner on first and nobody out in a game the Dodgers ultimately lost, 6-5. It was the shortest postseason outing of his career.

The Red Sox game matched the second-shortest outing of his postseason career. They lit him up for five runs – all earned – on seven hits and three walks. Kershaw made it into the fifth but did not record an out, giving way to Ryan Madson with the game tied at three and runners on first and second. Both of those runners later scored, so they were charged to Kershaw even though he was no longer in the game. The Dodgers eventually lost, 8-4.

Elimination Games

Clayton Kershaw has pitched in six elimination games, starting all of them. The Dodgers are 2-4 in those games. Kershaw is 1-4 with a 6.06 ERA, seven walks, 42 strikeouts, seven home runs allowed, a 1.262 WHIP, and a .270 opponent batting average in 35 2/3 innings. Only two games were quality starts; one of those two ended as a Tough Loss.

His first elimination game was Game Six of the 2013 NLCS against the Cardinals. He gave up seven runs on 10 hits in four innings, leaving in the fifth with runners on second and third and nobody out. The game score – 17 – is the lowest of his postseason career.

The following season, he pitched an elimination game against those same Cardinals in Game Four of the Division Series. Kershaw pitched decently, allowing three runs on four hits while walking two and fanning nine in six innings. However, it was really a story of one bad inning. He entered the seventh holding a 2-0 lead. Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta hit consecutive singles before Matt Adams hit a three-run homer to make the score 3-2 and end Kershaw’s night. That was also the final score, giving Kershaw a Tough Loss that stung bitterly.

Two Good, Two Not-So-Good

Kershaw had a great outing in his next elimination game, going seven innings while allowing three hits and striking out 11 against the Mets. He only allowed one run, and that came on a home run by Daniel Murphy with one out in the bottom of the fourth. The Dodgers hung on to win, 3-1.

His relievers let him down in the next elimination game, Game Four of the 2016 NLDS against the Nationals. Kershaw left the game in the top of the seventh with two outs, the bases loaded, and the Dodgers holding a 5-2 lead. He had allowed seven hits and struck out 11. The next two pitchers – Pedro Baez and Luis Avilan – hit a batter, bringing in a run, and gave up a two-run single, respectively. Just like that, the lead was gone. Instead of Kershaw allowing two runs, he ended up allowing five. The Dodgers got the lead back in the bottom of the eighth on an RBI single by Chase Utley, and they held on to win, 6-5.

These two outings did not kick off a new trend. His next two elimination game starts were in Game Six of the 2016 NLCS and Game Five of the 2018 World Series. The former, against the Cubs, saw Kershaw give up five runs (four earned) on seven hits and two home runs while striking out four in five innings. It was all the Cubs needed, as they won, 5-0, to win their first pennant since 1945. In the latter, against the Red Sox, Kershaw gave up four runs on seven hits and three home runs while striking out five in seven innings. The Red Sox hung on to win, 5-1, for their ninth World Series crown.

Do or Die Games

Kershaw has appeared in four do-or-die games, all in relief. They were Game Five of the 2016 NLDS, Game Seven of the 2017 World Series, Game Seven of the 2018 NLDS, and Game Five of the 2019 NLDS.

The first three were scoreless outings, and he earned the save in the first game. In the last one, he entered the game with the Dodgers leading the Nationals, 3-1, in the top of the seventh. There were runners on second and third with two out and Adam Eaton at the plate. Kershaw struck him out on three pitches. It fell apart when Kershaw surrendered back-to-back home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto to open the eighth. Kenta Maeda took over at that point. Ultimately, the Dodgers lost, 7-3, on a Howie Kendrick grand slam in the 10th inning off Joe Kelly.

Specific Opponents

Now that we’ve exhaustively covered specific postseason situations, the next question is whether any specific teams hit Clayton Kershaw well. The flip side of that is whether there are any teams Kershaw owns. Both questions have the same answer – yes.

Kershaw’s Achilles heel is the Cardinals. He has pitched five postseason games against them, all as a starter. In those games, he is 0-4 with a 6.14 ERA, 33 strikeouts, six walks, four home runs allowed, a 1.330 WHIP, a .287 opponent batting average, and an average game score of 47 in 29 1/3 innings. Against all other teams, by comparison, he has 29 games (22 starts). His record is 11-7 with one save, one blown save, and one hold. He has a 3.84 ERA with 156 strikeouts, 40 walks, 22 home runs allowed, a 1.021 WHIP, 12 quality starts, a .204 opponent batting average, and a game score average of 57 across 143 innings.

On the flip side, Kershaw is almost unhittable against the Braves. They have never beaten him in the regular or postseason. In three postseason games – all starts – he is 2-0 with a 0.43 ERA. He has only allowed one earned run in 21 innings. In addition, he has 21 strikeouts, four walks, a 0.571 WHIP, a .204 opponent batting average, and a game score average of 75 (81, 76, and 67).

Outlook

Clayton Kershaw is one of the best left-handed pitchers ever and is unquestionably headed for the Hall of Fame. He will most likely get in on the first ballot with over 90% of the vote. The only item missing from his resume is a World Series crown. Many point to his postseason record as a large reason why, and this criticism is justified. But as seen here, he doesn’t always struggle. Sometimes he pitches well; sometimes he pitches decently; sometimes he pitches so-so; and sometimes he has a nightmarish outing.

Which Kershaw shows up depends on the situation. His next start is a trailing game against the Braves, two of his strengths. If he stays true to the numbers, expect a strong performance.

View author’s full postseason Kershaw Game Log here.

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