I’ve got to confess something:
Ever since the end of the season, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Clayton Kershaw. And not in a good way.
It seems a bit strange to do that, as he wasn’t even the main source of my ire after the NLDS game 5 meltdown. That of course was Dave Roberts, whose vocal detractors on social media I instantly joined. When I got home to my apartment after watching the game at the Garvey family home, I passionately called for his firing, and it was no hot take. I stand by it.
In the two weeks since that night, however, the other half of the Dodgers’ worst October debacle of the decade has taken center stage in my musings on all things blue. Which admittedly makes sense, for as much as Roberts mis-managed, Kershaw still failed to execute, in a role where he’s usually excelled in the playoffs no less.
Seeing Kershaw sullen in the dugout yet again, hearing of his bursting into tears when consoled by Rick Honeycutt, watching him maintain his composure to field questions and humbly accept that The Narrative is true…it was the image of the ace beleaguered by his postseason demons writ large.
I should feel absolute heartbreak over all of it. As a Dodgers fan and overall baseball fan, it just feels wrong to see the best pitcher of the era so crestfallen yet again. Moreover, to see such an exemplary human being off the field shredded on social media with malice and glee.
Yet I can only be honest: that isn’t my predominant sentiment. Rather, my feeling has been that of anger, of having to be dragged through this exact scenario yet again. Year after year, to varying degrees of severity, Kersh has turned in an underwhelming-to-terrible performance (or several) that have sunk his team’s title hopes either partially or definitively.
Baseball is meant to break your heart, and no player or team, no matter how talented, can win the whole thing every year. But for the L.A. October story to end with that same element year in and year out…the repetition has turned the sadness into exhausted frustration.
As it turns out, I’m far from the only one feeling this way:
Are you still angry with Clayton Kershaw’s postseason performance?
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) October 20, 2019
The period following the Dodgers’ swift exit has given me time to reflect on this extended run, and how the best pitcher of a generation has defined it for all fans, especially myself. After drifting away during the late McCourt years, I renewed my Dodger Blue vows in 2013, the 42-8 run providing an electric backdrop to the greatest summer of my entire life. I had already seen Kershaw pitch in person the summer before, but now I truly appreciated what he meant to the franchise.
Despite a few strong outings in the playoffs, it all ended with his shellacking at the hands of the Cardinals in the NLCS. A sobering reminder of the pain the Dodgers can inflict on their fans in October, but nothing unbearable. The 2014 season saw the GOAT attain true immortality in an MVP season for the ages, taking my love of the Dodgers to new heights in the process. And I loved Kershaw more than any other Dodger player in my lifetime, hands down.
Which just made it that much more painful when the Cardinals hit him even harder in the NLDS, both at home and on the road. The Matt Carpenter double shakes me to my core this day. The “choker” chorus really began to gain steam, and as a Northern California resident, I got the worst of it from Giants fans emboldened by Madison Bumgarner’s postseason for the ages. It agonized me, and I took it personally. I defended him through all of it, firmly believing he’d take those criticisms and shatter them someday soon.
The next two seasons were a mixed bag for those hopes. 2015 proved inconclusive, with another seventh-inning meltdown to start, but a three-day rest masterpiece to stave off elimination. 2016 was, to quote the Desert Rose Band, “one step forward and two steps back.” Two slightly troubled (but victorious) starts were supplanted by his white-knuckle save in Washington, and a masterpiece to even the NLCS. But it still ended the same way in game six, the Cubs incinerating him 5-0 to end the series. Perhaps he was gassed, but it still left us with more questions than answers.
Then came the dream season of 2017. With a muscular offense, impeccable bullpen, and three other aces behind him to negate any short rest starts, it was Kershaw’s best chance yet to purge The Narrative once and for all. Like 2016, a rough first two wins were followed by top-form efforts to clinch the pennant and win game one of the World Series.
It all came down to game five. With the series tied 2-2 after an emotional game four victory, Kershaw was quickly staked to a 4-0 lead. Having to leave for a wedding reception, I walked out the door certain that the GOAT would deliver his Podres/Koufax/Hershiser moment. While I had become more willing to acknowledge his shakiness in the playoffs, I wasn’t going to relish his greatest win yet any less.
Then, in the midst of the reception, I checked my phone to see the score midgame: 8-8. After a brief moment of incredulous numbness, I knew full well what had happened…without even checking the play-by-play. Sure enough, he had blown two leads, and failed to survive even the fifth inning. Yes, it was a game of many crazy twists and turns. But all of those ensuing moments were a result of his inability to go deep and hold leads that were more than enough to win. It was on him…and I admitted I couldn’t defend him from The Narrative anymore.
After L.A. fell short in game seven, many hung the goat horns for the series on Yu Darvish, while others blasted Kenley Jansen and Dave Roberts. They deserve part of the blame, no doubt. Yet I felt then, and still do, that Kershaw’s outing in game five was what definitively cost the Dodgers the series. That Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman had no qualms agreeing on it in their debate show speaks volumes. Andy McCullough and Dylan Hernandez were equally lucid even in the game’s dizzying aftermath.
It turned out to be the last chance for a ring in Kershaw’s prime. The following two seasons, during which he admirably battled age and injury to still be borderline great, did nothing to rectify things. A couple of brilliant starts in 2018 were overshadowed by the Brandon Woodruff home run and two dismal efforts against the Red Sox in the World Series. As for 2019…obviously, no elaboration is required.
Now, more than ever, it has to be acknowledged that Clayton Kershaw is a pitcher of two dueling legacies. What was once a small sample size is now roughly a full season of work, with a career ERA twice that of his regular season one. His home run rate in October, even in an era of increased totals, is ugly.
To be fair, he is not the sole source of blame for the lack of a title these past seven seasons. Especially over a span that long, no one thing could be. But when they’re viewed as a whole, he has been the most consistent factor throughout. Once again, Max Kellerman sums it up perfectly:
Yet even after all of that, it still seems like it’s anathema in Dodger fan circles to even remotely speak the truth about Kershaw’s evident shortcomings on the big stage. More often than not, it’s dismissed as “Kershaw slander.” Pointing out these facts is not a false attack on his character, as the word slander would imply. They’re just that…facts.
It’s not just Dodger fans who go down this route either. There have been no shortage of think pieces from baseball analysts and writers who attempt to put his worst moments in some sort of perspective. (Granted, these defenses have thinned out with each passing year.) Some of them point to his fair share of superb starts and relief outings that stand out from the bad, which is reasonable as there are quite a few worthy of note.
Others go to the well-worn observation that a chunk of his earned runs were inherited runs allowed by the relievers that followed. Once or twice, this would be mere bad luck. But the inherited runner rule is ultimately a fair measure of a pitcher’s responsibility to keep batters from getting on base at all. Leaving runners stranded has been a consistent byproduct of Kershaw’s worst outings.
I get where the defensiveness of the GOAT comes from, moreso from the Dodger faithful. However the stats slice, the criticisms can feel like an attack on him, and consequently all of us. It hits that nerve of pride that’s inherent in being a fan. After all, being a passionate sports fan is predicated on emotion, not reason.
Hell, it isn’t exactly a rational endeavor at all to begin with. You attach yourself vicariously to a bunch of strangers you’ve never met, rooting for victories that don’t really change anything in your daily life. As self-aware Mets fanatic Jerry Seinfeld soberly put it, “You’re actually rooting for the clothes!”
Yet Clayton Kershaw has been so godly in the art of pitching that at the height of his powers, he made that irrational gamble feel wholly rational. In his prime, investing yourself in a Dodgers win was the safest bet every five days thanks to him. And away from those on-field clothes, he’s been a model humanitarian.
It’s just not fair for an all-time legend whose class equals his talent to be saddled with this narrative. Again, I once was in the camp that went to every length to defend his checkered playoff outings. It ate me alive after 2014 especially, especially as Giants fans encircled with their “3 in 5!” taunts.
But here’s the thing: criticizing Kershaw for his poor performance in the postseason does not, in any way whatsoever, make one “less of a fan.” Now, if that spills over to behavior like throwing his jersey onto the field, or running it over in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, that’s crossing a line. Same for deeming him a “fraud.”
Taking stock of his (or any player’s) failings is a healthy, realistic thing to do. It’s even a way of appreciating all that’s gone right for him in the regular season, which as Kellerman noted could make him the best of all-time in that capacity. Moreover, accepting them is in-step with what it means to be a Dodgers fan. We all know the history of this franchise is defined just as much by painful defeat and tribulation as it is by triumph and historic performances. In a way, Clayton Kershaw embodies both realms.
I hope this article doesn’t come across as positing contradictory points. I really do believe it’s possible to have room for both sentiments regarding the greatest pitcher in Dodgers (and maybe baseball) history. Without him, the Dodgers certainly don’t win the division seven years in a row. More importantly, they, and the entire sport, would be lacking one of its most humane ambassadors.
At the same time, it’s reasonable to hold the playoffs against him. He takes full responsibility for all of it, and has time and again. Acknowledging them isn’t going to prevent him from going into the Baseball Hall of Fame one day, and it sure won’t keep us from loving him for decades to come. But his inability to replicate his near weekly dominance when it matters most has needed to be reckoned with for some time.
Of course, this gap is one that can still be rectified. This window of contention is far, far from over. It is well within the realm of possibility that Los Angeles finally gets over the hump before his current contract is up. It would make for the greatest “monkey off his back” story perhaps in the history of professional sports.
For now, however, Dodger fans should embrace the duality of Kershaw’s legacy. On the one hand, never stop celebrating his regular season majesty. Wrap your mind around the fact that we may never live to see a pitcher with a prime anywhere near his. Relive the 2014 no-hitter time and again, and tear up as he inches ever closer to that (near) perfect triumph, Ellen anxiously anticipating it in the wake of realizing she and her husband would welcome their first child soon. And of course, appreciate his hard work in making the most out of his decline. Contrary to what some believe, he’s far from “washed.”
On the other hand, don’t shy away from chronicling and acknowledging his failures in October. You don’t have to be angry, or call him a choker or a fraud. Hell, my aforementioned anger may likely fade as the off-season goes on. But those missteps in autumn over the past seven years have cost the Dodgers a lot; at least one championship, maybe even more. That shouldn’t be ignored, excused or trivialized.
Baseball is, after all, a sport defined by the sharpness of defeat, and its ability to show that any player is mortal. Nothing proves that more than October, of which Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander are but the most recent examples.
Justin Verlander falls to 0-5 in World Series appearances. pic.twitter.com/bB9gVmlqzt
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 24, 2019
While it’s true that Kershaw is not alone in facing playoff adversity, there might not be a greater disparity in regular season supremacy and postseason disappointment than his track record. It’s not a fun reality to come to terms with by any means, but Dodgers fans do themselves – and the GOAT himself – no favors by denying it.