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Is Kershaw the “worst great pitcher” in postseason history?

By Dan Holmes    October 12, 2019
Oops, I did it again.

Dave Roberts may have thought he was doing Clayton Kershaw’s legacy a favor when he kept the pitcher in Game Five of the NLDS to start the eighth inning on Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

Two swings and two home runs later, the game tied, Kershaw’s postseason narrative remains a poor bedtime story, a nightmare rather than a “happily ever after.”

The three-time Cy Young Award winner and former MVP was forced to take an embarrassing walk to the dugout after he surrendered two big flies to the Nationals that erased a lead and plummeted the Dodgers season into doubt. And as he took that walk, Kershaw heard something unusual: boos. He heard boos from the LA crowd, who suddenly realized a third trip to the Fall Classic was looking grim.

Kershaw’s failures in the 2019 playoffs are the latest in a puzzling postseason history for the southpaw. In the regular season, Kershaw is The Claw. In the postseason, he’s more like The Wounded Paw.

It’s apparent now that Kershaw is a ghost of his former self. He’s an old gunslinger who’s gun jams too often. A six-inning starting pitcher with five miles missing from his fastball. His reputation may still impress opposing teams, but he doesn’t scare them any more.

Gone are the days when Kershaw got the ball in Game One. Nope, that’s a job for the Buehler Kid now. And while he still demands a marquee billing, the Dodger legend is at least one one notch, and probably two notches, behind his contemporary challengers Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. Both of those gunslingers can still sling, still make bats swing at air, still send batters back to the dugout frustrated.

His postseason record is the heavy weight hanging around the neck of Clayton Kershaw. While he’s certainly one of the 100 greatest pitchers in baseball history, his record in the playoffs and World Series might be the least effective of any of the great pitchers.

Kershaw’s postseason record

G W L ERA IP H R ER BB SO HR WHIP
Quality Starts 13 7 4 1.67 86.1 51 19 16 18 93 6 7.4
Non-Quality Starts 12 2 7 8.27 62.0 73 59 57 22 65 15 13.8
In Relief 7 0 0 4.50 10.0 6 5 5 5 12 3 9.9
All Post-Season 32 9 11 4.43 158.1 130 83 78 45 170 24 10.0

Kershaw has now pitched essentially an extra season in the postseason: 32 games, 25 starts. But he’s been a true Jekyl and Hyde: in almost half his starts he’s failed to produce a quality start. In those dirty dozen, The Claw has a dreadful ERA of 8.27, and most troubling: his team is 4-8 in those crucial games. The Dodgers are only 13-12 in his 25 starts in the postseason, hardly what you want from a once-in-a-generation ace.

Kershaw will one day accept a plaque in Cooperstown, but when that day comes, will he still have the stigma of being a putrid postseason performer?

Where do Kershaw’s postseason woes rate in baseball history? In an attempt to answer that question, I looked at some of the greatest pitchers of all-time, comparing their regular season ERA with that same stat in the postseason. Because innings pitched are a result of opportunity and I wanted to measure volume, I figured how many earned runs below or above their regular season performance the pitcher allowed in their postseason career.

The chart below shows how each pitcher performed against himself. Even though Tom Seaver pitched just about as well in the postseason as he did in the regular season and only performed a fraction of a run better than his established level, he was still a great pitcher in the postseason, because he was compared against regular season Tom Seaver.

Postseason ERA compared to Regular Season ERA

The chart below shows most of the pitchers bandied about as all-time greats, with a few other notables who make an interesting contrast with Kershaw.


PITCHER

ERA
PS
ERA

IP
+/- RUNS
EXPECTED
Curt Schilling 3.46 2.23 133 -18.1
John Smoltz 3.33 2.67 209 -15.3
Orel Hershiser 3.48 2.59 132 -13.1
Christy Mathewson 2.13 0.97 101 -13.0
Madison Bumgarner 3.13 2.11 102 -11.6
Sandy Koufax 2.76 0.95 57 -11.5
Fernando Valenzuela 3.54 1.98 63 -11.0
Bob Gibson 2.91 1.89 81 -9.2
Lefty Grove 3.06 1.75 51 -7.4
Carl Hubbell 2.98 1.79 50 -6.6
Tom Glavine 3.54 3.30 218 -5.7
Jim Palmer 2.86 2.61 124 -3.4
Justin Verlander 3.33 3.20 163 -2.4
Juan Marichal 2.89 1.50 12 -1.9
Nolan Ryan 3.19 3.07 58 -0.8
Tom Seaver 2.86 2.77 61 -0.6
Warren Spahn 3.09 3.05 56 -0.2
Walter Johnson 2.36 2.52 50 +0.9
Greg Maddux 3.16 3.27 198 +2.5
Bob Feller 3.25 5.02 14 +2.7
Randy Johnson 3.29 3.50 121 +2.8
Max Scherzer 3.20 3.60 95 +4.2
Pedro Martinez 2.93 3.46 96 +5.7
Zack Greinke 3.35 4.58 70 +9.6
Roger Clemens 3.12 3.75 199 +13.8
Clayton Kershaw 2.44 4.43 158 +34.9

Wow. Note that Kershaw rates almost 35 earned runs above his expected level of performance, by far the highest figure in history. Or put another way, Kershaw has been the biggest disappointment in the postseason among the great pitchers in the history of the sport.

Another active pitcher rates pretty poorly, Zack Greinke, who still has time to repair his reputation this October.

If Kershaw wasn’t so bad in the postseason, would we be talking about Roger Clemens? Not really, because Roger’s performance in the postseason isn’t dreadful. He rates lower among these pitchers because he pitched slightly worse than his regular season level and he pitched almost 200 innings, so his underperformance adds up.

Kershaw rests alone in the deep trenches of postseason stinkiness. If we look strictly at postseason ERA compared to regular season, Kershaw is almost two runs above (1.99 actually). That figure is the worst among pitchers with at least 50 innings in the postseason. The only other pitchers I could find who pitched a minimum of 50 innings in the postseason and had an ERA at least one run higher than their career ERA, are Bret Saberhagen, Greinke, and Vida Blue. Kershaw’s 158 innings are double any of those pitchers in the postseason.

Yes, Clayton Kershaw is a great pitcher, he has the hardware and regular season numbers to prove it. But yes, he is also the “worst great pitcher” in the postseason that we’ve ever seen.

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About the Author

Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.

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