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Clayton Kershaw: Legacy of Postseason Mediocrity

Clayton Kershaw, ever since his debut in 2008 as a 20-year-old and breakout season the following year, has been a face of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Over a career that has lasted 16 years, Kershaw has been one of the best regular season pitchers in Major League Baseball, consistently posting ERAs under three, ERA+s (earned run average with era and stadiums taken into account) well over the average of 100, and during his peak from 2011-17, kept runners off the bases and struck them out at fantastic rates. With ten All-Star Game appearances, three Cy Young Awards, a Gold Glove (2011), a National League MVP in 2014, a career ERA of 2.48 (leads active players), 2,944 career strikeouts, and a career ERA+ of 157 (leads active players), Kershaw will be enshrined in Cooperstown once his career is over. However, with all of these regular season accolades to his name, Kershaw has been, without a doubt, one of the most disappointing postseason pitchers in recent memory. Over twelve years of postseason pitching, Kershaw holds a 13-13 record and an ERA of 4.49, with the National League Championship Series being the home to his worst stats. Out of many years of dominant pitching, he only has one World Series ring, the 2020 one which is often (and rightfully in my opinion) placed with an asterisk due to an absurdly shortened season and playoff bracket that was much more broken than the current one supposedly is. Ironic how there is a complete absence of Dodgers fans complaining about that 2020 bracket. With this in mind, let’s go through and analyze Kershaw’s postseason performances, season by season, as the recent sweep of the Dodgers in the 2023 National League Division Series by the Arizona Diamondbacks ensures these stats won’t change anytime soon.



2008 NLCS vs Philadelphia Phillies

With 2008 being his rookie season, Kershaw, understandably didn’t pitch much. In Game 2 he pitched 1.2 innings without giving up a run and in Game 4 he pitched 0.1 innings, where he surrendered a run and earned a hold, netting him an ERA of 4.50 for that postseason as the Dodgers fell in five to the eventual World Series champion Phillies. As a result, we can’t glean much from this postseason.



2009 NLDS vs St. Louis Cardinals & NLCS vs Phillies

After putting up a fantastic sophomore season, Kershaw affirmed himself as a key part of the Dodgers rotation, seeing use in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Cardinals. Kershaw threw for 6.2 innings while only surrendering two runs en route to a close 3-2 win, with the result ending in a no-decision for him. The Dodgers swept the Cardinals and once again faced off against the Phillies, where in Game 1 they forced Kershaw out after 4.2 innings and five earned runs, with Kershaw earning the loss. In Game 5, with their backs against the wall, Kershaw once again pitched, this time in relief, where in two innings he surrendered two runs as the Dodgers went on to lose the game and the series. His ERA for the postseason was understandably bad, sitting at 6.08 and proving one to forget about.


2010-12

The Dodgers did not make the postseason from 2010-12 as they firmly hugged closer to .500 and missed the Wild Card each year.


2013 NLDS vs Atlanta Braves & NLCS vs Cardinals

In Game 1 of the NLDS in Atlanta, Kershaw actually pitched a very fine game, going seven innings and giving up a single run with 12 Ks en route to his first postseason win. In decisive Game 4, Kershaw would only earn the no decision as his two unearned runs over six innings of work required the bullpen to finish it out as the Dodgers moved on to the NLCS. In Game 2 against the Cardinals, Kershaw pitched very well, only giving up one unearned run in six innings. However that one run was all St. Louis needed as they shut out the Dodgers to win, giving Kershaw the loss. Decisive Game 6 was Kershaw’s first true playoff implosion, as after five days’ rest, he surrendered seven runs over four innings of work earning the loss as the Cardinals clinched the series and moved on to the World Series. By this point, Kershaw’s postseason ERA was sitting firmly at 4.23 with a 1-3 record.


2014 NLDS vs Cardinals

In Game 1 of the NLDS against St. Louis, Kershaw served up yet another pitching disaster as he gave up eight runs over 6.2 innings of work, forcing his offense to have to bat over their heads to narrowly lose 10-9 and give the Cardinals an early advantage. In a decisive Game 4, Kershaw rebounded well, surrendering only three runs over six innings of work. Unfortunately for Kershaw, his offense only mustered two runs and the Dodgers were once again sent packing.


2015 NLDS vs New York Mets

In Game 1 of the NLDS, Kershaw pitched yet another solid outing where he gave up three runs over 6.2 innings, notching 11 Ks on the way to a loss as his offense could barely muster a single run against Mets pitching. In Game 4, Kershaw pitched another great outing as he went seven innings and only gave up a single run, earning a 3-1 win. Unfortunately for him, the Dodgers went out and lost the decisive Game 5 to lose the series and walk into the offseason.


2016 NLDS vs Washington Nationals & NLCS vs Chicago Cubs

In Game 1 of the NLDS, Kershaw went out and pitched a solid outing, only lasting five innings and surrendering three runs before allowing his bullpen to close out the game and earn him the 4-3 win. In Game 4 against the Nationals, Kershaw pitched another solid enough outing, surrendering five runs on 6.2 innings of work and earning 11 Ks, with his bullpen once again closing out the game for a 6-5 win. In decisive Game 5, manager Dave Roberts, in his first postseason as the Dodgers skipper, sent Kershaw out as the closer, with Kershaw rewarding him with a save on 0.2 innings of work to clinch the series and move on. Kershaw’s next start was Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cubs, where he pitched a gem, going seven innings while giving up no runs and a pair of hits, his offense only needing one run to win. Unfortunately for Kershaw, his magic from Game 2 was nowhere to be found in decisive Game 6, where he only mustered five innings, surrendering five runs (four earned) and earning the loss as his offense was shutout to lose 5-0 and give the Cubs the series win, with Chicago going on to win the World Series. After six postseasons, Kershaw’s ERA sat at 4.55 with a 4-7 record.


2017 NLDS vs Arizona Diamondbacks, NLCS vs Cubs, & World Series vs Houston Astros

Kershaw’s outing in Game 1 of the NLDS was, all things considered, solid, as he went 6.1 innings and surrendered four runs as he earned the 9-5 win. The Dodgers would sweep the D-Backs in three and move onto the NLCS against the Cubs, where Kershaw pitched a mediocre outing in Game 1, surrendering two runs but only lasting five innings and a no-decision, with the team finishing with a 5-2 win. In decisive Game 5, he pitched much better, going six full innings with only one run surrendered as the Dodgers punched their tickets to the World Series against the Houston Astros with an 11-1 win. In Game 1, he pitched very well, going seven innings and only giving up one run to the potent Astros offense, the final result a 3-1 win. In Game 5, Kershaw got rocked as he barely lasted 4.2 innings and gave up six runs in a game where both teams felt defense was a suggestion. Kershaw notched the no-decision as the Dodgers lost 13-12. In the winner-take-all Game 7, Dave Roberts called on Kershaw to pitch in relief, going four innings of scoreless ball but ultimately the Dodgers fell 5-1 to lose the World Series with Kershaw landing another no-decision. Of course, the Astros World Series win would become controversial due to their cheating scandal, but outside of Game 5, Kershaw pitched well, so this fact can’t be used as an excuse for Kershaw’s October failures. Whether Game 5 was affected can’t be determined, so as far as we know, this was just another Kershaw implosion and that’s how I will be judging it.


2018 NLDS vs Braves, NLCS vs Milwaukee Brewers, & World Series vs Boston Red Sox

Kershaw’s only start of the NLDS came in Game 2 where he pitched his best postseason performance, going for eight innings where he only surrendered two hits and kept the Braves scoreless, earning himself a 3-0 win. The Dodgers moved onto the NLCS after taking down the Braves in four, with Kershaw’s next start being Game 1 of the series against the Brewers where he got shelled for five runs (four earned) in barely three innings of work, ending in a 6-5 loss. Kershaw rebounded well in Game 5 as he went seven innings and gave up one run en route to a 5-2 win. Dave Roberts threw Kershaw out in Game 7 as a closer, Kershaw doing well to close out the game with a scoreless inning and punch the Dodgers’ tickets to the World Series. In Game 1, Kershaw gave up yet another poor performance, giving up five runs in just four innings as the Red Sox went on to win 8-4. Kershaw’s Game 5 performance was marginally better as he gave up four runs on seven innings of work, however, his offense only put up a run as the Dodgers lost 5-1 to give Boston the championship.


2019 NLDS vs Nationals

Before the 2019 postseason, Kershaw had about eight performances that you could call poor, with five of them being true implosions (2013 NLCS Game 6 vs STL, 2014 NLDS Game 1 vs STL, 2017 WS Game 2 vs HOU, 2018 NLCS Game 1 vs MIL, 2018 WS Game 1 vs BOS). Kershaw’s 2019 postseason was important, however, as it effectively secured his reputation as a postseason choker. In Game 2 of the NLDS, Kershaw went six innings, surrendering three runs en route to a 4-2 loss. This loss was bad enough, but in decisive Game 5, the implosion was next level. Dave Roberts, as he had done before, sent Kershaw out to pitch as a closer, this time in the 8th inning. With a two-run lead, Kershaw served up back-to-back home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, with Roberts pulling him after barely a third of an inning. The Nationals went on to win in the 10th inning, clinch the series, and ride their momentum to a World Series title. The argument against Kershaw now had a definite choke job to cling to, alongside an ERA of 4.43, a 9-11 record, and a blown save in his postseason career.


2020 NLWC vs Brewers, NLDS vs San Diego Padres, NLCS vs Braves, & WS vs Tampa Bay Rays

To put it plainly, this entire season and postseason was a joke. The stats and ring may technically count, but we all know that a 60-game regular season is a joke since none of the full-season fatigue was present and the lack of crowds made road games a non-factor. Anyone who tells you that the ring from this year counts, no matter who won, should not be taken seriously.

Despite all the factors stated above, Kershaw’s 2020 postseason was his usual one, a good outing mixed in with a couple of mediocre or bad ones. His first outing, decisive Game 2 of the National League Wild Card Series against the Brewers, was a gem as he went eight innings with only three hits, no runs, and 13 strikeouts, the most in any of his postseason appearances. The Dodgers won 3-0 to move on, facing off against their division rivals, the Padres, in the NLDS. Kershaw’s only start was Game 2, this time going six innings with three runs as the Dodgers won 6-5, and LA won the series in a three-game sweep. Kershaw’s only outing against the Braves in the NLCS was Game 4 as he earned the loss in a 10-2 result, giving up four runs on five innings of work, an overall poor performance. Luckily for him, the Braves blew a 3-1 series lead to give the Dodgers a trip to the World Series. In Game 1, Kershaw pitched a good outing, going six innings and surrendering only a run as LA cruised to an 8-3 victory. In Game 5, Kershaw earned another solid win as he went 5.2 innings and gave up a pair of runs, the bullpen closing out a 5-2 win and the Dodgers winning Game 6 two days later to win their Mickey Mouse ring.


2021

The Dodgers made the postseason in 2021, however, Kershaw did not pitch a single game as he suffered a left forearm injury on October 2nd, one that kept him off the active roster as the Dodgers made it to the NLCS and lost in six games to the eventual World Series champion Braves.


2022 NLDS vs Padres

Kershaw’s only start of the 2022 postseason was Game 2 of the NLDS against the divisional rival Padres. This start was as mediocre as one can get, with Kershaw going five innings, surrendering three runs, and earning a no-decision as LA went on to lose 5-3 and eventually lost the series in four games to head into the offseason early.


2023 NLDS vs Diamondbacks

Kershaw’s lone outing of the 2023 postseason is without a doubt his worst start ever and one that gives me personal joy as it came against my favorite team, the D-Backs. In Game 1 of the NLDS, with the Dodgers heavily favored, Kershaw served up absolute meatballs to the young D-Backs lineup as he surrendered six runs and barely recorded an out. What was worse is that the Dodgers went on to be swept in three games by Arizona, making this Kershaw’s only time on the mound in the 2023 postseason and fully ironing the label of postseason choker onto his forehead in the eyes of many.


Without a doubt, Clayton Kershaw will go down as a Hall of Fame pitcher. His regular season resume is too good not to enshrine him in Cooperstown. The truth is, Kershaw is not a complete choker in the playoffs. Instead, he is horribly mediocre. The issue with this is, if you are one of the best regular season pitchers in baseball for over a decade, the expectation is that some of that success will transfer into October. This has not been the case for Kershaw. Instead, he has put out a lot of mediocre outings, with seven fantastic performances being countered by seven absolute stinkers, with more of them occurring in recent seasons. For a pitcher as dominant as him, the negative results will always stand out more, especially when your only ring is from a season everyone (rightfully) places an asterisk on. With Kershaw sitting at age 35 and his contract now expiring, that 2023 disaster of an outing against Arizona could very well be his last postseason outing depending on if the Dodgers take a risk and keep him or if he walks. Regardless, Kershaw will join the group of Hall of Fame pitchers that had the most chances at a ring and only won one* (2020 doesn’t count), with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz all sharing the dubious honor of having 12+ chances and earning a single ring. He will stand out in that group, however, as none of the other three were as mediocre in October as he was.

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