Baseball has seldom witnessed a transcendental talent like Clayton Kershaw. Nor has it witnessed a regular season juggernaut that has delivered consistently inconsistent performances during baseball’s brightest stage. While a World Series ring continues to elude Kershaw, his overall regular season success throughout the first decade of his career necessitates an in-depth comparison to some of the game’s all-time greats.
Kershaw is often considered the greatest pitcher of his time, mainly due to the fact that he is the greatest of his time. Along with his 3 Cy Young Awards and his 2014 MVP award, Kershaw has the lowest Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP) at 1.00, the highest ERA+ at 161, the lowest Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) at 2.59, and the highest Win Probability Added (WPA) at 38.86 among all active pitchers. These are all pristine numbers, especially when one takes to consideration that he is only ten years into his surefire Hall of Fame career.
Sabermetrically, Kershaw further bolsters his case for a spot in Cooperstown. He boasts an other-worldly career SIERA of 2.99. Similar to ERA and FIP, SIERA is the newest and most advanced metric in the long line of ERA approximators. Akin to its forefathers, SIERA can be read just like ERA and answers the question: What is the actual skill level of this pitcher and how well did they actually perform? By FanGraphs’ standards, Kershaw’s career sub-3.00 SIERA is an impressive feat:
Clearly, Kershaw belongs in Cooperstown when it is all said and done. However, this was never an argument to begin with. What needs to be looked at is where he belongs among the greatest of all time. Does Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of his time, also warrant consideration as the greatest pitcher in baseball history?
To understand this question, we first need to understand what a pitcher needs to do. The obvious answer is that a pitcher needs to prevent the opposing team from scoring. However, what differentiates an ordinary pitcher to an all-time great pitcher is the ability to pitch regardless of what defense is behind them or what stadium they are pitching in. With this in mind, we need to look at certain statistics such as ERA+, FIP, and WHIP.
ERA+ is a great statistic to use for evaluating a pitcher because it adjusts a pitcher’s ERA according to a pitcher’s ballpark, which factors out such effects like Coors Field in Colorado, normally known as hitters’ haven, or Petco Park in San Diego, normally known as a pitcher’s paradise. And when looking at Kershaw’s ERA+, it is ranked second all time and first all time amongst starters at 159. Regardless of ballparks, Kershaw remains historically awesome at preventing runs.
Furthermore, Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, adjusts a pitcher’s ERA that factors out the defense behind them or random luck that could hurt or help him. As previously stated, Kershaw’s FIP is 2.59, the lowest FIP among all active pitchers, but the 36th lowest of all time. While not nearly as impressive, further research shows that the other 35 pitchers ahead of them all pitched in the Dead Ball Era (1900-1919) or earlier. In other words, Kershaw has the lowest career FIP since Babe Ruth first step foot on a professional baseball diamond.
Even when using a more traditional statistic like WHIP, which tracks how many base runners a pitcher leaves per inning, Kershaw still remains historic. With a 1.00 WHIP, Kershaw has the fourth lowest WHIP in baseball history. And the stats keep on coming...
While seeing that all ERA approximators reveal his greatness, all time great pitchers also need to prevent batters from hitting the ball hard, or even hit the ball at all. With 27.9% in K% and 21.2% in Soft%, Kershaw ranks seventh and eleventh all time, respectively. Basically, this means that Kershaw strikes out close to 28% of the batters he faces or induces 21.2% of them to soft contact, such as a slow ground ball or line drive, further cementing his place as an all-time difficult at-bat.
With the set of statistics that we have just used, it is clear that when Kershaw is on the mound, it is incredibly difficult to reach on base or to even score if runners do get on base. Now, we need to compare Kershaw with statistics that cover the all around game and where he stands with WAR.
Regarded as the sabermetrics’ mainstream, catch-all statistic in today’s baseball world, Wins Above Replacement, commonly known as WAR, tells us how many more wins a player is worth to his team than a replacement level player, or minor league free agent at his position. Throughout his first 10 full seasons, Kershaw is right on par with dominant 90’s pitchers Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, and dwarfed the WAR of pitching legends such as Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax, another lefty and Dodger legend whom Kershaw is often compared to.
Just through his ten year span, Kershaw stands very tall amongst some of the greatest of all time. Keeping up with his current pace for the next five to ten years would undoubtedly secure him a place among the Mount Rushmore of baseball pitchers. However, it is worth noting though that just merely betting on Kershaw to stay healthy enough to perform next year, let alone the next five to ten years, is not as automatic as it once seemed.
Injuries to his back have ravaged Kershaw’s past two seasons, and it is not entirely clear if he can stay healthy in the long haul now. Apart from his 2015 season, his innings have been going in a downward trend due to a herniated disk in 2016 and back stiffness in 2017. While all starting pitchers’ innings have generally gone down in recent seasons, one still has to question if his back will become a hindrance for him as he tries to become effective into his 30’s. The good news is that he has still been his usual self whenever he has toed the mound, but the Dodgers need to be cautious of over-exerting Kershaw these next few years.
A Closer Look at Postseason Narrative
The biggest area of concern is inevitably Kershaw’s dubious postseason track record. Over the course of 7 postseasons that Kershaw has participated in, we have seen the full spectrum. On one night, we witness flashes of brilliance, whether it be spinning a World Series Game 1 gem or stifling the Cubs en route to Los Angeles’ first World Series since 1988. On another night, we witness lowlights of the Claw at his very worst, whether it be imploding in the 7th inning or getting lit up by the opposing team in crucial elimination games.
Traditional baseball metrics are not so favorable for Kershaw. In his postseason career, Kershaw owns a 7-7 win-loss record, a lackluster 4.35 ERA and an even more underwhelming 3.70 FIP. Moreover, the long ball is a thorn in his side. His postseason HR/FB rate of 14.5%, a drastic increase from his exceptional regular season HR/FB of 7.5%. As we dive into Kershaw’s full body of postseason work, there is a recurring theme: Postseason Kershaw can pitch 5-6 quality innings. However, as hellbent as he is trying to pitch deeper into each game, the lights brighten, the pressure rises, the defense disappoints, and Kershaw shrinks in the worst possible way. The seventh inning becomes his worst nightmare.
Kershaw did have a few relief appearances in the 2008 postseason and a poor start in the 2009 NLCS that did result in the first loss recorded on his postseason resume. But these took place in his first two years in the big leagues, i.e., two years prior to his breakthrough 2011 season. While many dismiss Kershaw upon first glance at his W-L record and career postseason ERA, they fail to acknowledge the full story. First off, four of those seven losses and a good chunk of those earned runs allowed have come from inexplicable meltdowns against a team has Kershaw’s number and makes every Dodger fan shudder at the utterance of its very name: the St. Louis Cardinals.
However, those 4 losses against St. Louis were not entirely due to Kershaw’s lack of performance. After 2 stellar outings (Game 1: 7 IP, 1 ER; Game 4: 6 IP, 0 ER, 2R) against the Braves in the NLDS, Kershaw became the first pitcher in postseason history to lose a game allowing zero earned runs and less than 3 hits by shouldering a tough 1-0 loss in Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS due to a nonexistent Dodger offense. On the contrary, there was the Cardinals’ 2013 NLCS Game 6 rout of Kershaw, torching him for 7 earned runs en route to their second World Series in 3 years.
Time would not heal old wounds for the Dodger southpaw. The 2014 postseason marked the beginning of a perpetual uphill battle to rewrite a postseason “choke artist” narrative. Starting the opener of the Cardinals rematch in the 2014 NLDS, Kershaw cruised through 6 innings, having only given up 2 earned runs. But six innings is never good enough by Kershaw-level standards. The ability to pitch deeper into games (i.e. go 7+ innings) is what sets apart a bona fide ace from an above-average starter. Yet, one must be careful what they wish for. Time after time, Kershaw’s insistence on pitching the 7th has resulted in his own undoing. In the 7th inning alone of the 2014 NLDS opener, the Cardinals lit him up for 6 earned runs, reclaiming the lead for good and prompting a shocking exit for Kershaw after 6.2 IP. Four days later, in a valiant road effort to force a winner-take-all NLDS Game 5 back at Chavez Ravine, Kershaw was nothing short of brilliant on 3 day’s rest, nursing a fragile 2-0 lead in midst of a hostile St. Louis crowd… up through the first six innings. The postseason demons soon returned; in the 7th inning, all it took was two unlucky defensive mishaps (questionably ruled as hits) and a subsequent hanging curveball for Matt Adams to mash into the right field bleachers to send the Cardinals to their 4th consecutive NLCS. A 6.0 IP, 3 ER performance is nothing to be ashamed of, but this was one of Kershaw’s most deflating quality starts given the way that this 7th inning transpired. In both starts, Kershaw had thrown a masterpiece through the first six frames, but none of that matters to the majority of the baseball world. All that is remembered is two ill-fated 7th innings that reduced the greatest pitcher on the planet to a postseason meme.
The postseason of 2015 gave the Dodgers some optimism about Kershaw. Again, in the opener of the NLDS, Kershaw pitched six quality innings with the score leveled at 1 run apiece. Then the 7th inning happened. After 6.2 IP, Kershaw left the game with the bases loaded and in came two inherited runs (courtesy of Pedro Baez), and the Dodgers lost 3-1. However, Game 4 of the NLDS gave fans short-lived hope about Kershaw turning the page on his postseason struggles. Down 2-1 in the series and starting on short-rest for the third year in a row, Kershaw forced a winner-take-all Game 5 to send the series back to Los Angeles, hurling seven strong innings of one-run ball despite some unlucky fielding errors and pressure with runners on base in the 7th inning.
For better and for worse, the 2016 postseason revealed a lot about Kershaw at the absolute brink of elimination. In the NLDS against the Washington Nationals, it took all 218 pitches thrown by Kershaw to send the Dodgers to the NLCS. Essentially, every game he pitched in this series, the Dodgers wound up winning. He pitched his way to a gutsy 4-3 victory in Game 1, allowing 3 earned runs in 5 IP. Then in Game 4, Kershaw found himself tasked with yet another effort on 3 days rest to force a decisive Game 5 back in Washington D.C. Through the first six innings, Kershaw was sensational, having only given up 2 earned runs as he battled his way back into the game after throwing over 30 pitches in the 1st inning alone. Entering the 7th inning with a 5-2 lead, a botched double play attempt and questionable ball-strike calling by the umpire resulted in a Bryce Harper walk that would load the bases anad prompt Kershaw’s exit after 6.2 quality innings. The combined efforts of Pedro Baez and Luis Avilan unsurprisingly blew the lead, with all 3 inherited runners scoring to tie the game at 5-5. At this point in Kershaw’s postseason career, the Dodger bullpen had now allowed 9 out of 14 inherited runners to score, further inflating his playoff ERA. Nevertheless, the Dodgers ultimately emerged victorious in Game 4 with a tight 6-5 win. Kershaw had done his job. And for someone who did not watch this game with their own set of eyes, the 6.2 IP and 5 ER final stat line for him does not nearly tell the full story. What could not be easily quantified in this game was the unprecedented level of heart and determination that we saw in Kershaw compared to his previous starts on 3 days rest. He had sacrificed his left arm for a fourth consecutive year to save his team’s season, only to witness his bullpen deface his brilliant work in the most maddening way possible. But this would not deter him from challenging that postseason narrative once more.
In a nail-biting Game 5 that went right down to the wire, Kershaw again seemed to have turned the page on his postseason struggles. Entering in the bottom of the 9th inning with the winning runs on base, Kershaw slammed the door shut on the Nationals for a 2-out save after Dave Roberts had exhausted the entire Dodger relief corps. This act of redemption was all but short-lived. Kershaw’s struggles ultimately resurfaced in the championship series against the Cubs. After throwing 7 shutout innings in a 1-0 Game 2 victory at Wrigley Field, Kershaw imploded in Game 6 as the Cubs thrashed him for 5 earned runs in 5 IP en route to their first World Series in 108 years.
The 2017 postseason nearly had the baseball world convinced yet again. In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Diamondbacks, Kershaw cruised through 6 innings with a 7-2 lead. Subsequently, he gave up back-to-back solo shots in the 7th inning, and manager Dave Roberts took no hesitation in pulling out Kershaw in order to preserve a 7-4 lead. In the NLCS, Kershaw put up 2 strong starts (Game 1: 5 IP, 2 ER, and Game 5: 6 IP, 1 ER) against the Cubs with plenty of run support in each game as the Dodgers coasted to the World Series in just 5 games. In Game 1 of the Fall Classic, Kershaw was masterful through seven frames, and even managed to fight his way through a botched double play attempt with the tying run at the plate to squash any chances of another infamous 7th inning implosion. The postseason demons had finally been exorcised- or so we thought.
With the series tied at 2 games apiece, the Game 5 slugfest that defied all logic had erased all progress Kershaw had made this postseason in rewriting the narrative. Cruising through 3 scoreless IP, Kershaw blew a 4 run lead in the 4th inning and set the stage for blowing a 3 run cushion in the 5th, as Kenta Maeda served up a 3 run bomb to Jose Altuve with 2 inherited runners aboard. Overall, Kershaw failed to complete the 5th inning and gave up 6 ER in a pivotal Game 5 that could have given the Dodgers a chance to clinch the World Series back in Los Angeles. Although he pitched 4 scoreless innings of mopup work in the Dodgers’ 5-1 Game 7 loss, Kershaw’s lasting postseason imprint (until the next chance he gets in the postseason) will be his lack of performance in World Series Game 5.
However, one peculiarity amidst all these polarizing playoff performances is his astounding 2.93 postseason SIERA, which is right on par with his 2.99 regular season SIERA. SIERA accounts for the bad defensive luck Kershaw has had with the infield in some of his starts and the complexity of balls in play he has allowed. Additionally, he has an excellent 28% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate that stand in stark contrast to his troubling HR/FB rate of 14.5%. Holistically, Kershaw’s postseason performances and numbers lack the consistent uniformity that his regular season numbers produce. Based on Kershaw’s body of work in the postseason and the charts below that compare additional pitching metrics in the regular season and postseason, it is evident that Kershaw’s postseason career is a crapshoot:
Throughout all of this research, it is clear that if Kershaw were to retire now, he would still be considered a top ten pitcher of all time, arguably even a top five pitcher. However, two daunting hurdles stand in the way of his potential ascension to being hailed the greatest pitcher of all time. First, is for Kershaw to remain an elite pitcher for another five years at the very least, and second, is to win the World Series, the only accomplishment missing from an already decorated career. For the foreseeable future, the Dodgers appear built to have multiple lengthy postseason runs in them, which allows Kershaw the chance to pitch in multiple postseasons, change the narrative of his career, and pursue the elusive trophy that he has yet to grasp. However, as Kershaw turns 30 this March, Father Time is ticking, so he must make the most of what he has left.
Sources: Fangraphs; Baseball Reference