So, sports are cruel, whether the participants are professionalized adults or mere school children. But sports are real, which is what makes them so damned compelling — in a way that lays bare the mockery of a sham that “reality” TV truly is. The latest case in point: Clayton Kershaw, now a certifiably tragic figure in baseball’s sprawling Hall of Misery & Woe.
I fell asleep in a Vermont hotel room two Wednesday nights ago thinking Kershaw and his Dodgers had beaten back the pesky Washington Nationals in their best-of-five National League Division Series. Kershaw, having already lost Game 2, at home, was summoned to preserve a 3-1 lead in the 7th inning of Game 5. This he did, securing the third out.
That’s when I nodded off.
For some reason, I later learned, Kershaw was summoned by Dodger manager Dave Roberts to pitch the 8th, wherein the erstwhile starter gave up home runs on consecutive pitches to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. Tie game. Kershaw was lifted and L.A. lost in the 10th on Howie Kendrick’s grand slam… Where was Kenley Jansen through all this? Isn’t he L.A.’s closer?
I want to be clear: I honestly have nothing against Kershaw — or the Dodgers. When I first started following baseball in the early 1970s, I loved those Dodger teams of Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, Yeager & Ferguson behind the plate, Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith in left and right). I rooted hard for them later in the ‘70s when they faced the Evil Empire Yankees in consecutive World Series.
And yet I have been mystified by the conventional wisdom surrounding Kershaw these past few years. Folks seem determined to cast this guy as one of the great pitchers of all time — despite the fact that he’s done so very little in the post-season, which, we can agree, is the true measure of pitching greatness. I’ve even heard Sandy Koufax comparisons! (Just google “Kerhaw Koufax” to see the extent of this folly.) Yes, they’re both Dodgers; their surnames both begin with K; they’re both lefties. But that’s where the similarities end.
Again, I don’t dislike Kershaw, nor do I wish to run the guy down in light of what has been another gut-wrenching failure. But his October went like other Octobers, which is why these Kershaw-boosting narratives make no sense. They are in fact the careless musings of baseball know-nothings and hype-vendors.
I don’t Tweet much (follow @MandarinHal, if you want proof) but after watching Kershaw struggled in the first inning of Game 2, I posted the following:
Kershaw went on to lose that game, of course, moving his post-season record to 9-11. After the ill-fated relief performance in Game 5, his ERA is now 4.43. In the regular season he’s pretty damned good: 169-74 with a 2.44 ERA. But there are plenty of guys who compile great regular season records only to be revealed as somewhat ordinary during the playoffs.
The advanced metrics convey the first half of this dynamic. Kershaw’s WAR (wins above replacement, which tells us how much better an individual pitcher performs compared to a league-average pitcher) tells the story we should already know: He is 43rd all time, behind active players like Justin Verlander (30) and Zach Greinke (39), dead even with the likes of Roy Halladay and Luis Tiant. These are all fine pitchers.
See here Halladay’s post-season stats (3-2, 2.37 ERA) and Tiant’s (3-0, 2.86 ERA). Kershaw has obviously had a ton more opportunities in post-season. But that merely provides observers fewer opportunities to ignore the reality. See here his playoff performance in a nutshell, with all the stats, advanced and otherwise.
Kershaw’s ERA speaks for itself. But check out how things deteriorate the further things go in the post-season. Is there any other takeaway here other than, “The bigger the game, the better the opponent, the more ordinary he gets”?
This is not what anyone ever said about Koufax, for the record. Kershaw is basically Roger Clemens circa 1995, before the older Texan went to the Yankees — one of the truly great teams in baseball history — and bit-played his way to a ring and a modicum of playoff success. Before that move, he was disturbingly ordinary when it came to beating good teams, in the playoffs. Clemens won the Cy Young but Bruce Hurst was the Sox best starter throughout the 1986 postseason. In 1988 and ‘90, Clemens piled up more plaudits but couldn’t beat Oakland ace Dave Stewart in a game that mattered.
Baseball is fun because we are encouraged to compare players through the ages. I get that. But perspective must be maintained. The mere fact that people are talking on TV about Major League Baseball on 3-4 different channels, 18 hours out of every broadcast day does not entitle them to talk shit. [Taking shit-talkers to task would make for compelling TV, too, after all. Producers at MLB Network & ESPN: You know where to find me.]
As such, let’s also stop talking loose about 100-win teams belonging among the “great teams of all time”. Somehow this sentiment was attached to the 106-win Dodgers this year. The Nationals are clearly better than pundits gave THEM credit for, but can we agree any team that brings ANY starter out of the bullpen to pitch the 7th and 8th innings of a playoff game probably does not have one of the great bullpens of all time? Can we agree that any team running Joe Kelly out there in any critical post-season situations is automatically DQ’d from GOAT discussions?
Houston does strike me as a legitimately “all-time great team” candidate, with one of the finest top-three starter rotations I can recall, one World Series title going on two, and an amazing collection of young talent still coming into its own. The 103-win Yankees have a legitimately fearsome lineup and superb bullpen. Injuries have obscured just how history will judge them… Meantime, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly the Dodgers did in 2019 that was so great, besides having gone 51-25 against the National League West.