Los Angeles Dodgers: Is Clayton Kershaw MLB’s Peyton Manning?

Oct 13, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) celebrates with Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz (51) after game five of the 2016 NLDS playoff baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. The Los Angeles Dodgers won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 13, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) celebrates with Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz (51) after game five of the 2016 NLDS playoff baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. The Los Angeles Dodgers won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

Clayton Kershaw has been baseball’s’ most dominant pitcher over the last five years. He has an MVP, three Cy Young awards, a runner-up, a third-place finish, plus four ERA titles. Overall his postseason performance has been lackluster as the Dodgers have fallen short of the World Series in four straight postseasons.

In fairness to Kershaw, a pitcher in this era is likely to only make one or two starts in a postseason. In a short series, that can still make a huge impact. The Ace is expected to take pressure off the other starters.

In a best of five series, it might only take one more win and in a best of seven two more. That’s a .333 winning percentage in a five-game series and .400 in a best of seven.

It’s often asked “how can a pitcher ever be an MVP pitching once every fifth day?” If a pitcher goes ten games over .500 in the regular season, the other four pitchers likely only need to go another 8-10 games over to make the playoffs.

Kershaw has a 4-7 record with a 4.55 ERA over 18 postseason appearances, 14 of which were starts. Strangely enough, some of his metrics in the postseason are not that far off what his regular season stats are.

In six postseasons, Kershaw has a 1.15 WHIP, allowed 7.7 H/9, 1.0 HR/9, 2.7 BB/9, 10.7 K/9 and a 3.93 K/W ratio. His regular season metrics are 1.007, 6.6, 0.5, 2.4, 9.8 and 4.02.

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The biggest difference has been allowing more home runs. A half more per game over the course of a major league regular season would amount to about 15 more home runs per season.

His hits and walks per nine innings and K/W ratio are actually improved in the postseason. Some of that could be attributed to facing fewer batters. His ERA is an almost astronomical 2.18 ER/9 innings higher than the regular season.

Call to the Pen’s Owen Sanborn examined this comparison in 2014. Fox MLB analysts Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci discussed Kershaw’s struggles in the Cardinals Divisional 3-2 Series-clinching game four win about Kershaw:

"(He) appeared tentative in the early going against the top of the Cardinals order. He was trying to be too perfect with his pitches and was looking to avoid making a mistake rather than getting the hitters out."

Fangraphs had an interesting take on this a week ago. Kershaw’s bullpen has had a huge part in what most view as his postseason failures. They studied his postseason stats a bit further inside the numbers. The Dodgers bullpen has allowed an astonishing 53 percent or eight out of Kershaw’s 15 inherited runners in the postseason to score.

The Inherited Runners of Clayton Kershaw’s Playoff Relievers:

DateGameRunners OnRunners-ScoredIR%
10/10/2008NLCS G2 @ PHI1*00%
10/13/2008NLCS G4 vs. PHI2*150%
10/8/2009NLDS G2 vs. STL200%
10/15/2009NLCS G1 vs. PHI100%
10/18/2013NLCS G6 @ STL2150%
10/3/2014NLDS G1 vs. STL11100%
10/9/2015NLDS G1 vs. NYM3267%
10/11/2016NLDS G4 vs. WAS33100%

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference via FanGraphs

*Appeared as reliever

Fangraphs went on to suggest that his FIP is “an elite” 2.25. No one can expect any pitcher to always throw a complete game. Kershaw, as with many aces, is asked to pitch on three day’s rest in the postseason at a much higher rate than in the regular season. Everything cannot be blamed on the Dodgers bullpen, though.

Looking further at the numbers, Fangraphs concluded:

"“Even if his bullpen stranded all eight of those inherited runners who came around to score, Kershaw’s postseason ERA would be 3.89…about 30% of inherited runners to score. That would put Kershaw’s postseason ERA at 4.31.”"

FanGraphs August Fagerstrom added:

"“There’s no denying that his bullpen has still allowed nearly twice the expected number of inherited runners to score, which has nothing to do with Kershaw himself, yet reflects negatively on his track record.”"

Amazingly, Kershaw has only one regular season start in his career on three days rest. Four of his 14 career postseason starts are on three days rest. He has pitched 25.2 innings over those four starts with a 3.15 ERA.

It could have been even lower. He’s given up nine earned runs in four starts on three days rest. Five of those nine came in his game four start against the Nationals in the divisional series this year. He was dominant in the two of the other three postseason starts on three days rest and gave up three runs in six innings in the other.

Kershaw made one start on three days rest in each of three postseasons prior to this season. He pitched 19 innings in those three starts, giving up six earned runs total. That comes to a 2.84 ERA. It’s still almost half a run higher than his career average.

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Amazingly enough, it’s been the conventional starts that have given him more trouble. In starts where he is coming off another start with four or more days rest, Kershaw has pitched 58.2 innings with a 4.44 ERA.

His worst start was game one of the NLDS in 2014 when he allowed eight earned runs in 6.2 innings. Astonishingly, he was opposed by Cardinals Ace Adam Wainwright who allowed six earned runs in 4.1 innings of his own.

If we throw out the eight-run debacle, Kershaw’s postseason ERA when starting on four or more days rest is 3.63. Respectable, but not what any team would expect from their number one starter in a postseason.

Peyton Manning did not win a playoff game until his sixth season and fourth playoff appearance in the NFL. It took another three seasons and three more playoff appearances before Manning and Colts would win a Super Bowl.

In their first six seasons making a playoff appearance with Manning under center, the Colts were 3-6 in the postseason. He was often criticized for not being able to win the big game.

The Patriots and Tom Brady had a 10-1 record and had won three Super Bowls by then. That was despite the Colts having three more seasons and two playoff appearances with Manning before the Pats went on their first Super Bowl run under Belichick and Brady in 2001.

Kershaw pitched in relief for the Dodgers in the 2008 playoffs. He did not make his first postseason start until the following season. Kershaw started game two against St. Louis in the 2009 Divisional Series. The Dodgers did not make the Playoffs again until 2013.

By 2013, Kershaw had won two of his Cy Young awards, had one Cy Young runner-up and three of his four straight ERA titles. This season marked the fifth season with Kershaw making a postseason start.

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Kershaw is undoubtedly the greatest pitcher of his era and arguably already a Hall of Fame pitcher comparable to another former Dodgers left-handed Ace, Sandy Koufax. Kershaw’s legacy and to truly be named among the greatest pitchers of all-time will depend on how he performs in subsequent postseasons.