It seems almost blasphemous to criticize Clayton Kershaw's postseason performance. It's like criticizing Tom Hanks because he doesn't win the Oscar every year. Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation, winner of three Cy Young Awards and five ERA titles. The career Los Angeles Dodgers starter is a remarkable 118-41 with a 2.08 ERA from 2011 to 2017. The left-hander's consistent execution and results defy the imagination.
But he's also 4-6 with a 4.28 ERA in 12 starts in the postseason from 2013 to 2016. He has had some good games, a few bad ones and some infamous seventh-inning meltdowns. He has certainly lacked a Madison Bumgarner moment or even a Corey Kluber-like run through the playoffs.
Some believe this tarnishes Kershaw's legacy. Some believe he hasn't actually pitched all that poorly and that the media is simply manufacturing an issue that doesn't exist.
Whatever your take, there's no denying that Kershaw's performance will be one of the most fascinating subplots of the 2017 postseason. Before we find out what happens this year, let's look back at the six pitches that have defined Kershaw's postseason career so far.
1. 2013 NLCS, Game 6 versus Cardinals
The situation: Bottom of third, 0-0 tie, nobody on, one out
Pitch number: 55
The pitch: 2-2 slider to Matt Carpenter
Kershaw's first three 2013 postseason starts had gone well. He'd allowed four runs in 19 innings, pitched a 12-strikeout gem to beat the Braves in the NLDS, and lost Game 2 of the NLCS to Michael Wacha 1-0 on an unearned run.
Starting on five days of rest in Game 6, Kershaw had thrown 40 pitches through two innings, a high pitch count that perhaps indicated he wasn't at the top of his game. He retired Wacha to start the third before battling Carpenter in an epic 11-pitch confrontation.
Kershaw used his entire repertoire as Carpenter fouled off eight pitches -- including seven in a row -- before finally hooking a double down the right-field line. It was a remarkable at-bat in many ways. When Kershaw got to two strikes, he struck the batter out nearly 50 percent of the time in 2013. Carpenter fouled off six pitches with two strikes.
From there, the inning fell apart, an excruciating 48-pitch debacle as the Cardinals scored four runs. Carpenter's double was the only extra-base hit, as the Cardinals put together four singles and two walks (one intentional). Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and David Freese all scorched their hits; the first two were rockets past diving infielders and the third went past Kershaw. Shane Robinson's two-run single to cap the scoring was the only hit not struck hard, a soft grounder into right field.
Some would label this bad luck. Has Kershaw simply been unlucky? After all, ground balls are good, although the Beltran and Molina hits weren't your typical five-hoppers through the infield. I compared Kershaw's regular-season numbers on grounders from 2013 through 2016 to his postseason results on grounders:
Regular season: .200 average allowed, .047 well-hit average
Postseason: .269 average allowed, .141 well-hit average
You can argue bad luck, but Kershaw has given up harder contact compared to the regular season. Harder contact means more hits.
One quote from Kershaw after the loss, which eliminated the Dodgers, stands out. He wasn't taking any consolation in a good season: "What does it really matter, making the playoffs or coming in last place, if you don't win the World Series? It doesn't really matter."
Could it be that come October, Kershaw puts so much pressure on himself that he's unable, as Annie Savoy of "Bull Durham" would recommend, to breathe through his eyelids when things get tight?
2. 2014 NL Division Series, Game 1 versus Cardinals
The situation: Top of seventh, Dodgers lead 6-4, bases loaded, two outs
Pitch number: 110
The pitch: 2-2 fastball to Matt Carpenter
When the Dodgers and Cardinals met again during the 2014 postseason, reports surfaced that the Cardinals might have stolen signs against Kershaw during that 2013 series.
"The Dodgers also planned to change their signs going into Friday's opener," ESPN's Mark Saxon wrote before Game 1. "A year ago, many of the Dodgers believed the Cardinals had gotten wind of catcher A.J. Ellis' signs and were relaying the location of pitches to batters from second base."
This game did nothing to alleviate rumors that the Cardinals had figured out something on Kershaw, whether because St. Louis was stealing signs or perhaps because Kershaw was tipping his pitches.
Kershaw led 6-2 entering the seventh, having allowed just two hits -- both home runs, including one to Carpenter. The first four batters singled. Matt Holliday hit a broken-bat liner to center, but the other three were all hit hard: Jhonny Peralta with a liner to left-center, Molina with a line drive to center and Matt Adams with a low screamer up the middle. No cheap ones. Jon Jay registered another hit sandwiched between two strikeouts, bringing up archnemesis Carpenter.
Kershaw got ahead on two foul balls. Carpenter then fouled off three more pitches. Kershaw's pitch count was getting up there -- 28 for the inning, 109 for the game. He was still throwing 95 mph, but the eighth pitch of the at-bat was down the middle, and Carpenter cleared the bases with a double off the right-center-field wall. Kershaw was done after 110 pitches. He had allowed six or fewer hits in 17 of his 27 starts during the regular season, but allowed six hits in this inning alone. Reliever Pedro Baez came in and gave up a walk and home run to Holliday, and Kershaw was charged with eight runs in a 10-9 loss.
Carpenter said he was aware of the battle the year before.
"During that at-bat, I was thinking about it. It was kind of a very similar scenario," Carpenter said after the game. "When I get in those at-bats versus him, I just try to fight. He's coming right after me; seems like every time I face him, I'm down 0-2 and I've got to fight my way back."
As much as everyone wanted to believe that Kershaw was tipping his pitches, fatigue was the more likely culprit. Game-time temperature was 92 degrees. No doubt the long inning wore on Kershaw. I'm reminded of something Justin Verlander said recently on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption about pitching in the playoffs being so mentally draining.
"You've pitched three innings, it feels like five," he said. "You've pitched six innings and it feels like a complete game."
Is that what happens to Kershaw? This isn't the only time we've seen him hit the wall in the seventh inning.
3. 2014 NL Division Series, Game 4 versus Cardinals
The situation: Bottom of seventh, Dodgers lead 2-0, two on, no outs
Pitch number: 102
The pitch: 0-1 curveball to Matt Adams
This is the signature "What just happened?" moment of Kershaw's postseason career. In 2014, Adams hit just .190 against left-handed pitchers. A left-handed hitter, Adams was in the lineup because he had a couple of quality at-bats against Kershaw in previous postseason games.
Here's the stat that will blow you away: In the regular season from 2009 to 2017, Kershaw has allowed just 10 home runs off his curveball on more than 1,000 at-bats ending with the pitch ... and ZERO versus left-handed batters.
But in this NLDS game, Adams hit a home run -- the only one Kershaw has ever allowed to a lefty off his curveball. The Dodgers lost the game and the series. It didn't matter that neither of the two hits preceding the home run were hit hard. An iconic photo shows Adams watching the ball sail over the fence, both arms upraised with his index fingers pointing to the heavens. Kershaw is hunched over the mound, both hands on his knees, his head twisted back toward the outfield.
"The season ended and I was a big part of the reason why," Kershaw would say. "It doesn't feel good, regardless of how you pitched. I can't really put it into words right now. Just bad déjà vu, all over again."
4. 2015 NL Division Series, Game 1 versus Mets
The situation: Top of seventh, Mets lead 1-0, runners at second and third, two outs
Pitch number: 113
The pitch: 3-2 fastball to Curtis Granderson
Kershaw was locked in a tense duel with Mets starter Jacob deGrom and took the mound for, you guessed it, the seventh inning. Kershaw had recorded 11 strikeouts and was sitting at 88 pitches. It was a late afternoon start in Los Angeles, with a game-time temperature once again of 92 degrees.
He walked Lucas Duda to lead off the inning. With one out, Kershaw got ahead 0-2 against light-hitting Ruben Tejada but eventually walked him on a 3-2 fastball way up. After deGrom bunted, Granderson was up. Kershaw chunked a 2-2 curveball in the dirt, slapping his hand on his thigh in frustration. Granderson fouled off a 95 mph fastball. The next fastball was outside for ball four -- the bases were loaded, and with the right-handed David Wright coming up, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly went to the bullpen.
It was the right call. Kershaw had walked three batters, which he'd done in a game just four times all season. Once again, he couldn't finish the seventh inning. Over the four regular seasons in question, Kershaw pitched seven-plus innings in 85 of 114 regular-season starts. In the playoffs, he has done it just three times in 12 starts (and has never pitched into the eighth inning).
Pedro Baez came on, Wright singled in two runs, and the Mets won 3-1. Kershaw came back in Game 4 on three days' rest and delivered one of his best playoff performances, winning 3-1, but the Mets won Game 5 and eliminated L.A.
5. 2016 NL Division Series, Game 4 versus Nationals
The situation: Top of seventh, Dodgers lead 5-2, runners at first and second, two outs
Pitch number: 110
The pitch: 3-2 fastball to Bryce Harper
Kershaw had won the series opener, scuffling through 101 pitches in five innings, allowing three runs. Now he was back on three days' rest. The Dodgers staked him to a three-run lead entering the top of the seventh.
Danny Espinosa led off with a hard single, but Kershaw got two quick outs. Then he had a little bad luck as Trea Turner hit a grounder to shortstop, but Corey Seager was shifted way over. Seager made a diving stop, but his flip to second base was a millisecond too late. That brought up Harper, suddenly the tying run. Give Harper credit here. He took a 1-2 fastball just low, somehow laid off a nasty 2-2 curve, fouled off two fastballs -- 95 and 94 mph -- and then took another fastball low and away for the walk.
Harper hadn't won the battle, but he didn't lose it, and he knocked Kershaw from the game. Maybe manager Dave Roberts should have left Kershaw in. You can debate that, along with the decision Mattingly made to pull Kershaw the year before. Dodgers relievers allowed all three baserunners to score. Kershaw ended up with a no-decision.
His ERA in the seventh inning over these four postseasons: 25.20. Over five innings pitched, he has allowed 12 hits, 14 runs and six walks. His ERA in innings 1-6 is 2.78.
Do we expect too much of Kershaw? Sure, we want the superhuman performances we see so often in the regular season. From 2013 to 2016, his average regular-season game score was 69; in the postseason, his average was 56. His best postseason game score of 78 (Game 2 last year against the Cubs) is tied for his 29th-best game in the regular season. Bumgarner, by contrast, has had five postseason game scores (spread out over four postseasons) better than Kershaw's best.
6. 2016 NLCS, Game 6 versus Cubs
The situation: Bottom of fifth, Cubs lead 4-0, nobody on, two outs
Pitch number: 88
The pitch: 1-1 fastball to Anthony Rizzo
So here's the remarkable thing about Kershaw's performance in the postseason. His strikeout rate in 13 games (including one relief appearance) is 31.7 percent. In the regular season over the same years, it's 30.5 percent. The margin between dominance and mediocrity has been razor-thin. His failures in the postseason have come in bunches.
I noticed this too: After selecting the six key plate appearances, I realized all came against left-handed batters. Except for Adams, the others are extremely disciplined hitters, and they hyper-focused in these showdowns. Now, I could have chosen a different pitch in this game; it was already 4-0 when Rizzo homered. It even looked like a pretty good pitch, low and in. But check out where Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal set up: low and away. Missed location.
So here we go again. This is the best Dodgers team Kershaw has been part of. He doesn't have to do it all by himself. What will happen? Let's just say if he's out there in the seventh inning, I hope he's breathing through his eyelids.