By Kevin Hahn
“Baseball has a way of ripping your heart out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for spring training.” - Noah Syndergaard.
The 2017 MLB season defied nearly all logic, and crushed the hearts of many along the way. A record-breaking number home runs hit in the regular season stirred serious controversy about juiced baseballs. The Indians set the new single season win streak record at 22 consecutive games. The Dodgers became the first playoff team ever to have a double digit winning streak and a double digit losing streak in the same season. The World Series reached new levels of sheer madness and hysteria. More teams are now embracing tanking, and the MLB is losing its competitive balance as the Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, Indians, Nationals, Red Sox, and Yankees unequivocally sit atop the perch of baseball. And for the first time ever, all 30 teams will play on the same Opening Day. What does this 2018 season have in store us?
In this article, we will examine some notable storylines to watch out for:
Astros Look to Avoid World Series Hangover
“We’re not the Cubs”, Astros’ ace Dallas Keuchel declared. Aside from Keuchel’s diss, the 2018 Astros are projected to steamroll their way through the AL West and own best record in the Show with another 100 win season, according to Fangraphs. The ‘Stros bolstered their starting rotation with the addition of flamethrower Gerrit Cole and still boast one of the most lethal lineups in the AL. The majority of the players listed in the bubble chart below are expected to put up solid weighted on-base averages (league-average is .320). The size of the bubble is determined by the expected number of plate appearances and these estimates are provided by ZiPS projections:
Moreover, all of their primary hitters are projected to post an wRC+ above the league average mark of 100:
And not a single pitcher in their starting rotation is projected to post an ERA and FIP over 4.00:
These 2018 Astros are deeper and scarier than ever before.
Can the Dodgers replicate the Kansas City 2014-15 blueprint? Or will they suffer the fate of the 2010-11 Texas Rangers?
Despite losing the heart and soul of the team, Justin Turner, until May, the Dodgers are still expected to claim a 6th consecutive NL West Division crown with most of their pennant-winning roster intact. Projected to still win 93 games, the embarrassment of riches provided by their organizational depth and versatility will allow them to sustain considerable blows to their starting lineup.
When healthy, the lefty heavy rotation of Kershaw-Wood-Maeda-Hill-Ryu is easily top 5 in baseball, but all of these listed players have a concerning injury history. As we've seen in recent years, the Friedman-Zaidi brain trust can construct a reliable bullpen from essentially nothing. Dumpster diving for unheralded hurlers has become a breeding ground for pitching reclamation projects for pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. Year after year, the relief corp has been led by Kenley Jansen, who is the undisputedly best reliever in baseball and even regarded by some as the second coming of Mariano Rivera. Offensively, Chris Taylor, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Cody Bellinger form a powerful leadoff quartet. A matured Yasiel Puig solidifies the back of the lineup along with the Dodgers’ platoon options in Kike Hernandez, Chase Utley, Andrew Toles, and Austin Barnes. This 2018 team may not reach the stratospheric highs of the 2017 team, but they are determined more than ever to return to the Fall Classic and erase memories of last year’s Game 7.
However, the Giants season is in jeopardy after losing ace southpaw Madison Bumgarner to a fractured left hand until early June at least. The Padres aren’t going anywhere until more of their loaded farm system graduates to the big leagues. The Diamondbacks and Rockies, both of whom are projected to be approximately .500 ballclubs, probably will not win the division but are still serious contenders for the NL wildcard spots if their rosters can stay healthy.
Will the Nationals finally make it past the NLDS? Or will they continue to be baseball’s version of the Lob City Clippers?
For the Nationals, the NL East division championship is practically handed to them.
The Phillies are currently in their rebuild-by-tanking process although their young talent is slowly starting to surface. The Braves are also in a similar position with inchoate Ronald Acuna waiting in the wings. The Mets, when healthy, possess a formidable pitching staff but are held back by their anemic offense. The Marlins have been absolutely gutted from the inside this offseason and are practically fielding half a minor league team on Opening Day (Courtesy of Derek Jeter).
All the Nats have to do is stay the course until October. Ideally, with a fully recovered Daniel Murphy back in the postseason lineup, they are a force to be reckoned with, so long as they don’t find another way to self-implode. The Win Probability chart, which measures each a team’s probability of winning a game in a play-by-play, base-out state format, depicts the Nationals’ postseason meltdowns in their past three winner-take-all Division Series Game 5’s at home:
At certain junctures in these games, the Nationals had a probability of winning as high as 96% in 2012 NLDS Game 5, 77% in 2016 NLDS Game 5, 82% in 2017 NLDS Game 5. Although the 2012 Nationals blew a nearly insurmountable 6-0 lead in Game 5, they gave us a glimpse into just how potent this talented young team could be in the coming years. This team finished with the best record in the National League. Bryce Harper was not even 20 years old yet, and a formidable 27-and-under trio comprised of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, and Stephen Strasburg anchored the team’s starting pitching.
From 2016 onward with a roster now featuring a fearsome one-two punch in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, a stacked hitting corps in Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and speedster Trea Turner, it is difficult to fathom that a team this talented has not even made it past the NL division series in the last two years. The window is closing for the Nationals, who must act quickly before potentially losing Harper and Murphy in free agency after this season and Stephen Strasburg after 2019.
Will the Indians end their 69 year championship drought?
The Indians are expected to three-peat as AL Central champs with 94 wins, according to Fangraphs. The 2017 Indians team virtually broke the game last season during their 22 game win streak and finished the season with 102 wins. Yet, after blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, the Indians inexplicably blew a commanding 2-0 lead in the 2017 ALDS against the Yankees. Cleveland now owns the longest active World Series title drought and looks poised for October redemption. Sensational shortstop Francisco Lindor, versatile Jose Ramirez, and power hitter Edwin Encarnacion are the backbone of Cleveland’s offense. Like the Astros, the Indians possess a strong, but balanced starting rotation. Corey Kluber is Cleveland’s undisputed ace and leads this rotation alongside Carlos Carrasco. Meanwhile, the supporting cast in Bauer, Salazar, Tomlin, and Clevinger fortify the back of the rotation, as all of these pitchers are more than capable of posting respectable sub-4.00 ERAs and FIPs. Furthermore, their bullpen is comprised of lockdown reliever Andrew Miller and a lights-out closer in Cody Allen. This Indians team virtually checks off every box.
The Minnesota Twins could make things interesting should they beat the regular season projections for a second consecutive year, although losing Santana until May does complicate their start to the season. Minnesota has brought in a lot of new faces to their clubhouse at a relatively affordable cost during the offseason. Their starting rotation is now one spot deeper after acquiring Odorizzi to be their #3 starter behind Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios. There is promising young talent in agile outfielder Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano. Face of the franchise Joe Maurer still provides premium hitting for a catcher-turned-first-baseman.
On the other hand, Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit are definitely out of contention after dealing away their franchise centerpieces as they look to rebuild their farm systems. Out of the three, the White Sox possess the most major-league ready young talent. Look no further than Yoan Moncada. Nevertheless, these teams still have a ways to go before they become serious contenders.
Two Horse Races in the AL East and NL Central
It will go right down to the wire in the AL East between the Yankees and Red Sox. Per Fangraphs, New York and Boston are projected to win 95 and 93 games, respectively. The runner-up will most likely claim one of the two AL wildcard spots. The Yankees arguably have the best bullpen in baseball, led by flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, and a robust setup corps of Betances, Kahnle, Robertson, Warren, and Green. Last season, they had the third-lowest ERA (3.34), the lowest average against (.204), the highest whiff rate (29.1 percent), and an absurd 9.2 WAR. Moreover, Luis Severino established himself as the ace of the rotation, at just 24 years of age. Oh, they also have Giancarlo Stanton now. Together, Judge and Stanton have- and will- hit more homers than entire teams. The Evil Empire is officially back.
On the other hand, the Red Sox have put together two solid seasons in 2016 and 2017, with only 2 disappointing ALDS exits to show for. Like New York, Boston has also stocked up on power by signing J.D. Martinez to go with the promising prospects Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi. Mookie Betts has a George Springer type of effect on this Boston offense as the energizing leadoff hitter. With the starting rotation, strikeout machine Chris Sale leads the pack, followed by Price, Porcello, Velasquez and Johnson. Bounceback years from Price and Porcello are crucial to the Red Sox’s playoff push.
The Blue Jays, who are expected to win 87 games, are still an unpredictable dark horse that could contend for a wild card spot. Much of these playoff hopes are contingent upon another MVP-caliber season from Josh Donaldson, an even bigger breakout year from Marcus Stroman, and bounceback years from J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, and Marco Estrada. Winning the AL East, however, would be a Herculean task for this roster even with the help of sensational prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr.
The Baltimore Orioles, expected to win 78 games, is out of contention and has much bigger things to worry about: Manny Machado. Fearing that Machado may just walk away from them in free agency, the Orioles are contemplating a midsummer trade to at least get something in return for their Gold Glove infielder. Tampa Bay… well, they just became the Marlins of the AL. Gotta love tanking.
The NL Central faces a similar situation, although many predict the Cubs to win the division by a larger margin than that of the AL East. Projected to win 93 games according to Fangraphs, the Cubs look to bounce back from their supposed World Series hangover, even though making their third consecutive NLCS the following year is no small feat. The young core in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo speaks for itself, but the biggest area of concern for Joe Maddon’s ballclub is the starting rotation. With the loss of Jake Arrieta to the Phillies, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks must re-channel their 2016 ace forms. Yu Darvish must remain healthy and rediscover his pre-Tommy John surgery self that made him an AL Cy Young runner-up in 2013.
The Cardinals are still the lurking threat, projected to win 85 games this year. They have fortified their bullpen with Dominic Leone and Luke Gregerson, and boosted their offense with the addition of breakout star Marcell Ozuna. A 4.8 WAR player in 2017, the 27-year-old outfielder erupted for 37 HR’s, 124 RBI’s and a slash line of 0.312/0.376/.548. Even more so, he produced an outstanding .388 wOBA and 142 wRC+ by sabermetric standards. A .355 BABIP in 2017, considerably higher than his career mark of .327, could be a possible reason for Ozuna’s stellar year. The key to a strong 2018 is whether he can sustain this mark and replicate his 2017 form. If so, then the Cardinals could very well propel themselves from 83 wins last year to 87-89 win territory and put some pressure on the Cubs.
The 2018 Brewers, like the 2018 Jays, are a dark horse in their respective division. With the notable additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee is determined to contend and looks to exceed their projection of 78 wins this season. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Pirates have adopted the increasingly popular rebuild-by-tanking approach after trading then-franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen to the Giants. Lastly, the Reds are going nowhere, while each fruitless season means another precious season of Joey Votto gone to waste.
Preventing the Sophomore Slump
Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge spearheaded the Dodgers’ and Yankees’ youth movements last season. Bellinger broke the National League rookie record for home runs with 39 dingers, while Aaron Judge not only took home the AL home run crown but also the Major League rookie record for home runs with 52 long balls. What remains to be seen is whether or not they can prove the doubters wrong by following up their rookie campaigns with strong sophomore seasons.
Bellinger is expected to produce similar numbers to those of his abbreviated 2017 season. After producing a league average .299 BABIP in 2017, it is understandable that we don’t see a substantial deviation in Bellinger’s 2018 projections from his rookie year.
However, this gets more complicated with Aaron Judge. A drop in WAR from 8.2 to 4.8 means Judge is due for some serious regression this season. A significant factor that comes into play is the 0.357 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) that All Rise sustained in his first full season in the big leagues. Given that a league-average BABIP is usually .300, an extreme BABIP usually means one of two things:
Boom or Bust?
It has not been a great spring training for Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani, on both ends of the game. Despite showing frontline talent as a starting pitcher, Ohtani has been getting shelled by opposing teams. Perhaps the differences in properties of American and Japanese baseballs could play a factor in Ohtani’s difficult pitching transition. Most projections have him as roughly a 3.50 ERA/FIP pitcher worth 3 WAR to an Angels team that will most likely contend for an AL wild card spot since the Astros are a juggernaut in the AL West. As a hitter, Ohtani’s long swing and underdeveloped hitting tools have put him at a disadvantage when facing major league pitching. After hitting .108 (3 for 28) this spring, several scouts have went as far as saying that Ohtani cannot has never seen a “good” curveball in his life and is better off starting the season in the minors if he wants to improve his hitting. Of course, we should take caution in our judgements because spring training performances are a small sample size and have very weak correlation with the regular season. Ohtani could very well prove everyone wrong and seamlessly adjust both his pitching and hitting on-the-go during the season. But for any highly-anticipated, electrifying player, a spring training like Ohtani’s does raise some concerns. It’s beyond our control. All we can do is wait and see.
Opening Day is just one day away. We’re ready for you, baseball.
Sources: Baseball Reference, Fangraphs
By Mikee Salud
We are currently in the middle of March, and all eyes are on the NCAA, basketball, and March Madness. The First Round has already provided a historic upset with the 16-seed UMBC defeating 1-seed Virginia, something that many, myself included, did not think would happen in our lifetime (let's take a moment of silence for everyone's bracket). As the Round of 64 has come to a close, let us look at who has the best chance of winning the tournament right now as we head into the Second Round.
To start off, it must be said that using stats will always be the best way to predict winning. However, in the case of March Madness, where every round is decided by one game, there is a high degree of unpredictability that not even stats can quantify. No one could have predicted that UMBC would upset Virginia, no matter how many stats were being used. In fact, there are over 9 trillion different ways to make a bracket, which make it literally impossible to create the perfect bracket. All in all, this article can be seen as completely foolish within an hour of this article being released. That being said, all we can do is make our best predictions, and this is where statistics can come through.
The First Round of March Madness had a general lack of upsets up until the historic UMBC win (Rest in Peace Arizona, DeAndre Ayton, and Sean Miller’s coaching career). While we cannot calculate certain variables such as momentum, what we can look at are stats that correlate the most to winning basketball games. Former Sacramento Kings and ESPN Director of Analytics Dean Oliver once stated that the four factors that most correlate to basketball wins are shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throw proficiency. Using these four factors, we will try determine which teams lead these categories and make an educated guess on who has the best chance to win.
The objective of basketball is quite simple: one team needs to score more points against the other team before the time runs out. When looking at which team is the most efficient at shooting, we look at certain stats, most specifically effective field goal percentage. The difference between field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage is that eFG% adjusts for the fact that a 3 pointer is worth one more point higher than a 2 point field goal. This helps to more clearly identify which team is scoring more efficiently. The top five teams in effective field goal percentage that are still in the tournament are:
Villanova was already one of the favorites to win the tournament altogether, and it is no surprise as they have with the most efficient offense in the nation. Their starting five alone boasts incredible shooting prowess, as all five shoot the three-ball 38% or higher, leading to a nice spread offense and wide open lanes for their players such as Jalen Brunson to penetrate through. Elsewhere, we have Kansas, who besides having Devonte' Graham, are also aided by the Nation-leader in Field Goal Percentage in Center Udoka Azubuike. Shockingly, eleventh-seeded Loyola Chicago had the fifth highest effective field goal percentage in the nation, which aided their attack as they upset Miami in their first round match up.
The next thing that we need to look at is turnover stats. The importance of limiting one's own turnovers and creating turnovers against opponents cannot be understated. Turnovers can allow easy fast breaks and buckets, and can easily ruin the momentum for any team. To see which team prevents the most turnovers, we look at turnover percentage, which shows how many possessions a team coughs up per 100 possessions.
Among the Second Round teams, Nevada and Florida take care of the ball the best, with the Wolf Pack having multiple ball handlers such as guard Cody Martin and forward Lindsey Drew, while Florida's offense is being mainly initiated by senior guard Chris Chiozza. There is also another appearance from Villanova, proving that they do not only shoot the ball well, but protect it also.
When looking at rebounding, we do not just need to look at rebounding percentage, but offensive rebounding percentage as well. Rebounds in general create possessions, and the more possessions one has means more opportunities to score. Having more offensive rebounds creates extra opportunities on the offense and can wear out a defense. Rebounding percentage tells us the percentage of rebounds a team grabbed.
While Gonzaga is within the top five in Total Rebounding %, they are nowhere near close to the top five in the country in Offensive Rebounding %. This tells us that their rebounding percentage is most likely deceiving and could possibly be more of a result of opponents missing shots as opposed to a more all around rebounding prowess. Going further into the tournament, they are not the safest bets to create extra possessions the same way that a team such as Duke or Michigan State are. Duke currently has freshmen stars Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., who pull down an impressive 11.3 and 9.3 rebounds a game respectively, while Michigan State has a plethora of long, lengthy guys such as Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. who can do the dirty work down low. The Spartans even have their point guard Cassius Winston pulling down 3.5 boards, an impressive number for a guy six-feet tall.
The last factor that needs to be looked at is free throw proficiency. Free throws should essentially be free points, so being able to get to the line will enable teams points that the defense cannot prevent. However, being able to have many free throw attempts is not enough, as teams need to make them. Take for example someone like Shaquille O'Neal, a career 52.7% free throw shooter, was fouled numerous times due to his inability to knock down free throws and ruined his teams flow and momentum. Being able to draw fouls and make free throws is crucial to winning basketball games. Free throw rate calculates the amount of free throw attempts per field goal attempt.
Xavier's one advantage by far is the ability to win the free throw game, as they consistently get to the free throw line often and convert them at a near 80% clip. They are led by Senior guard Trevon Bluiett, who attempts 5.5 free throws a game and makes them 86% of the time. Interesting to note that while Kentucky attempts the most free throws per field goal attempt among the teams that are left, they shoot free throws at a poor 70%, which can seriously hinder their team, especially at the end of games where hitting free throws are crucial to win. Some of their key players, such as PJ Washington, Hamidou Diallo, and Wenyen Gabriel will become almost unplayable in late game situations, as they all shoot below 63% from the free throw line.
With all of this in mind, Villanova should be the winner of the tournament. Led by Head Coach Jay Wright and star Juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, this is not at all a bold prediction in the slightest, as they are a number one seed in the tournament and NCAA.com reported that the majority of all brackets made have Villanova coming out on top. That being said, they score at an incredibly efficient clip, keep the turnovers low, and convert free throws at a good rate, making the most of every opportunity and giving themselves the best chance to beat anyone. However, they do lack in the rebounding department, which could hurt them if they face a dominant big man, such as Duke's Marvin Bagley. If we are looking at a potential upset or cinderella story, take a look at Loyola Chicago, who score incredibly efficiently and, while this stat was not discussed, also carry a decent defense with an Opponents eFG% of .475. Or you could look at UMBC, who already have etched their name in the record books and could ride this momentum into a Sweet Sixteen bid. Nonetheless, like I said in the beginning of the article, any team can theoretically beat anyone in any given night, which could make this prediction foolish. Heck, UMBC could win it all and truly surprise the entire world even more than it already has. After all, this is what makes the "Madness" in March Madness: exhilarating, unpredictable, and completely fun.
Sources: Basketball Reference, NCAA.com, Sportingnews
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