-The K Zone-
July 13th, 2017
Is Kershaw Really a Postseason Choker? by Mojo Hill
Dodgers’ superstar ace Clayton Kershaw has already cemented himself as the greatest starting pitcher of this generation and could go down as one of the best of all time. Despite all his tremendous regular season success, an ongoing narrative has haunted him throughout most of his career, a well-known theory that Kershaw chokes in the postseason and can’t pitch in big games.
But in reality, this actually hasn’t been the case, and the fact that so many people consider Kershaw to be a choke artist speaks more to his amazing regular season dominance than any struggles he’s had in the playoffs. Through 282 starts in the regular season, Kershaw has an outstanding 2.35 ERA and 0.998 WHIP, so anything worse than that in the postseason is going to feel like a disappointment.
The main argument defending Kershaw’s postseason woes for awhile now has been lack of sample size. As Kershaw has reached the playoffs more and more this argument has weakened a little bit but is still relevant, as his 89 total postseason innings pitched is less than half of what Kershaw pitches in a typical regular season. It’s a large enough sample size that we can make some conclusions about how Kershaw has pitched in the playoffs, but not enough that we can judge his true talent level. We have 1892.1 innings of regular season data to judge his true talent level.
Let’s start with the basic statistics. In 18 games (14 starts), Kershaw is 4-7 with a 4.55 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. At first glance these numbers seem not horrific but very underwhelming for what we’ve come to expect from Kershaw. This ERA is a mix of some very good starts and some not so good ones that evens out to a mediocre 4.55.
But as we start delving into the advanced statistics, Kershaw doesn’t look so bad. His FIP is a very good 3.13, with his xFIP about the same at 3.17. These stats take into account the things the pitcher can mostly control, strikeouts, walks and home runs, in an attempt to gauge a pitcher’s true talent level in the sample size given, and are on the same scale as ERA. So in a sense, Kershaw has had some bad luck in the playoffs, and while the results still haven’t been as great as his regular season results, he has still mostly pitched like himself.
But where does this FIP come from, and why is it so much lower than his ERA? FIP takes into account strikeouts, an area in which Kershaw has actually performed better in the postseason than in the regular season. In the regular season, he has averaged 9.88 K/9, while in the postseason, he has averaged 10.72 K/9. He has also kept his walks down in the playoffs, averaging 2.73 BB/9, which is only a little bit worse than his regular season 2.37. As a result, his 21.5 K-BB% in the postseason is nearly identical to his 21.2 regular season K-BB%. So the problems he’s had in the postseason haven’t had to do with walking too many hitters or not striking out any batters. In that regard, he’s still pitched like the Clayton Kershaw we know and love. So where have his issues come from?
The answer to that is a higher average on balls in play, a higher HR/FB%, and a bad bullpen coming in to relieve him. FIP also takes into account home runs, and he has allowed more home runs in the postseason, averaging 1.01 HR/9 (which is still good, just not Kershaw good) versus an outstanding 0.58 HR/9 in the regular season. It’s really not fair to criticize him too much for this since his postseason sample size is still less than half of a regular season. In fact, that 1.01 HR/9 is actually better than his 2017 regular season HR/9 so far, which is a very uncharacteristic 1.22 in a year where he’s been neck-and-neck with Max Scherzer for the Cy Young award. Kershaw has allowed more home runs in the postseason as a result of not only a slightly higher flyball% but also a higher HR/FB%, 10.9 versus 7.7 in the regular season. While this doesn’t mean that he’s been unlucky, it does mean that his HR/FB% is likely to regress closer to his career norms. xFIP takes this into account and the number ends up being virtually the same as his FIP.
In addition to the extra home runs, Kershaw hasn’t been as lucky on balls in play as he has in his career. In the regular season, he’s held a .269 BABIP, which for most pitchers would be thought to be unsustainable, but Kershaw’s pitched for so long now that it’s become clear that he’s just that good. He hasn’t been quite as lucky in the postseason, where he’s allowed a .295 BABIP. And it’s not like Kershaw has allowed way more hard-hit balls in the playoffs than in the regular season, although he has allowed slightly more. He has a 20.1 line drive% in the playoffs, which is just slightly higher but very similar to his 19.8% in the regular season. Pitchers obviously try to prevent line drives, as they often result in hits, and Kershaw has prevented line drives from being hit about as well in the playoffs as in the regular season. So that’s not the problem.
Kershaw has allowed slightly more fly balls, 40.2 FB% versus 34.3%, and this paired with the higher HR/FB% makes for a bad combination and more home runs. He’s still allowed ground balls at a similar rate, only slightly less at 39.7% versus 45.9%. So has Kershaw allowed more well-hit balls in the postseason than in the regular season? Yes, but only slightly, and not enough that he should be considered a choker. The only slight increase in line drives shouldn’t result in as big a gap in BABIP as it actually does, meaning that luck has not quite been on Kershaw’s side the way it has been in the regular season. He’s struck people out like regular season Kershaw, he’s prevented walks like regular season Kershaw, and he’s prevented balls from being well hit only slightly less than regular season Kershaw. That in addition to slightly more fly balls leaving the ballpark has resulted in a really good pitcher that maybe is not quite as good as regular season Kershaw, but still very good and it certainly doesn’t warrant calling him a “choke artist.”
It can also be argued that Kershaw has been overused and over-pressured to do well. He’s been so ridiculously good in the regular season that the expectations are for him to be just as good in the playoffs and to do it practically every three or four days against the best teams in baseball. Anything less and he seem like a disappointment. People often overlook the great moments he’s had in the playoffs, like when he came out of the bullpen against the Nationals to save a tight game or when he dominated the eventual World Champion Cubs in game 2 of the 2016 NLCS. As a result of high expectations and trust in Kershaw, he has perhaps been left in games slightly longer than he maybe should have.
An occurrence that has plagued Kershaw in the postseason a few teams is going deep into games and then getting hit around before his exit from the game. He’s often left with men on base, and the relievers coming in after him haven’t exactly been kind to him, allowing nine of the fourteen runners he’s left on base to score. Let’s say the bullpen comes in and dominates, stranding all fourteen of those runners, and his postseason ERA jumps from 4.55 all the way down to 3.64.
Also remember that in the playoffs, teams are in their full strength and effort, doing everything they possibly can to try and win. These are the best teams in baseball, the teams that had everything working well enough for 162 games to make it past all the other teams and into the playoffs. The offenses Kershaw has to face in the playoffs are going to generally be better than the average offense he might face throughout the season. It is not uncommon for great pitchers to have slightly worse results in the playoffs. Madison Bumgarner, a famous “postseason hero” for the Giants, has a postseason FIP only 0.02 better than Kershaw’s and an xFIP 0.43 worse than Kershaw’s. Luck can go in very different directions for some pitchers in small sample sizes, and this is a perfect example.
Look at Pedro Martinez. In more postseason innings pitched than Kershaw, he has a significantly worse FIP/xFIP (3.75/4.31) despite an unsustainable low BABIP of .257, lower than his regular season .279. And no one thinks of him as a postseason “choker.” Greg Maddux, another all-time great, also has a worse FIP/xFIP (3.66/4.45) than Kershaw in even more innings pitched (198). And nobody considers him a postseason choker. Roger Clemens is the same deal. 3.52 FIP, 3.91 xFIP in 199 innings pitched. These pitchers are still considered all-time greats despite having postseason numbers that are arguably worse than Kershaw’s.
This really goes to show just how good Kershaw has been in the regular season. He puts up godlike numbers and then when he puts up “only” good numbers in the playoffs, it seems like he’s bad in comparison. When you look at the aforementioned fellow all-time greats, it’s clear that Kershaw is not the first great pitcher to have a little trouble in the playoffs.
So has Kershaw been as utterly dominant in the playoffs as in the regular season? No. But has he been a choke artist who gives up eight runs every time he’s put under pressure? No, not at all. He has had some rough outings in the postseason, particularly against the Cardinals, where he hasn’t been able to dominate and take control of the game quite like normal, but he has also had plenty of good moments of great pitching and when he’s left with runners on base, his bullpen has mostly let him down. All he really needs is one great World Series run to erase this ongoing narrative once and for all. No matter what, these small hiccups in the playoffs shouldn’t diminish the legendary career that Clayton Kershaw is in the midst of.