After more than a decade of playoff failures, Clayton Kershaw cements his legacy as an all-time great with a World Series championship
BY ROSS SHINBERG STAFF WRITER
In 2019, after the Washington Nationals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, the talking heads on ESPN’s “First Take” shared a similar sentiment: “Clayton Kershaw is one of the greatest pitchers in MLB history … during the regular season.”
Fans of both teams remember the moment vividly. Kershaw entered the winner-take-all game five in relief of starter Walker Buehler who had held the Nats to one run on four hits.
In the eighth inning, with his team leading 3-1, Kershaw surrendered home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto on back-to-back pitches. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled Kershaw immediately, and the Nationals won the game in extra innings.
Kershaw’s inability to pitch well in the postseason has clouded his legacy. On the surface, his numbers don’t seem overly egregious: a 4.19 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 13-12 record.
While those numbers certainly don’t stand up to Kershaw’s standards, the reason he gets so much scrutiny is that he has blown up in some of the highest leverage spots in which he has pitched.
2008 vs. Philadelphia, 2013 and 2014 vs. St. Louis, 2016 vs. Chicago and 2019 vs. Washington were some of his lowest moments in the postseason.
But the magic of October is that it only takes one great week to change the narrative.
In the 2020 World Series, Kershaw started games one and five. He was credited with the win in both games after throwing a combined 11.2 IP, allowing seven hits, three earned runs and punching out 14.
Those numbers would still be there whether or not the Dodgers won this year’s World Series. The Dodgers could have lost the series 4-2 even with Kershaw’s elite numbers, yet his public perception might not have changed much.
The unfortunate reality is that athletes are often judged on their number of championships, which are so random due to the small sample size of playoff series. One play can be the difference between being crowned a hero and a World Champion or a choker who can’t get the job done under pressure.
This is exaggerated in the MLB because baseball is a much more variant sport than other popular sports, like football or basketball.
RJ Bell of FOX Sports Radio described the stark contrast between the sports in this way: In a context-neutral situation, what is the most dramatic swing of points possible in a baseball game? Imagine the bases are loaded with two outs and a two-strike count, and the umpire calls a borderline pitch a ball. The next pitch gets sent out for a grand slam. That’s four runs instead of zero.
In 2020, an average of 9.3 runs were scored per game in the MLB and 43 percent of an entire game’s worth of runs could be scored or avoided based on one or two plays.
On the other hand, what’s the most dramatic swing of points possible in a basketball game? On a three-point attempt, the ball enters the rim, swirls around a few times, and pops out. That is zero points instead of three. In 2020, an average of 224 points were scored per game in the NBA. That’s only 1.3 percent of a game’s total points decided on one play.
For example, let’s draw a comparison to the NFL.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is an eight-time pro bowler and earned a spot on the NFL’s 2010s all-decade team. He is also a Super Bowl champion after he and the Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl 45.
But what if the Packers lost that game? The final score was 31-25, and the lead changed hands multiple times in the fourth quarter.
If the result of that game is reversed, Rodgers has zero Super Bowl wins, one Super Bowl appearance, and a .500 playoff record for his career. Rodgers would still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer without the Super Bowl win, but would he still be considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time?
With a sports-viewing public that tends to base its opinions on results and not the larger body of work, it is unfair that athletes’ legacies are judged in the way that they are. But now that Kershaw — after 13 seasons in the MLB — got his desired result, his legacy of being an all-time great should follow.
In game five of this year’s World Series, Kershaw passed Justin Verlander to become the all-time leader in postseason strikeouts (207). Kershaw is tied for fourth all time in playoff games started (30) and is sixth in innings pitched (189.0).
And in the regular season, Kershaw has been dynamite. His career stats include a 2.43 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP (fourth-best all time), a 9.74 K/9 (12th-best all time), 6.77 H/9 (third-best all time) and a .697 winning percentage (third-best all time).
Kershaw, an eight-time All-Star and a three-time Cy Young Award winner, also won the Triple Crown in 2011 after leading the league in wins (21), ERA (2.28) and strikeouts (248).
Incredibly enough, that wasn’t Kershaw’s best season. For his efforts during his historic 2014 campaign, Kershaw won the MVP award, something only one other starting pitcher has done since 1987.
In that season, Kershaw posted 21 additional wins, a 1.77 ERA, a 0.86 WHIP and 239 strikeouts (three strikeouts off the league-leading mark of 242).
Excluding his rookie year, Kershaw’s worst season as a professional was an injury-plagued 2018 season that limited him to 161 innings, a 2.73 ERA and an 8.6 K/9.
There was no doubt whether or not Kershaw was going to make the Hall of Fame. His World Series championship did not significantly affect his chances of going to Cooperstown.
But this championship should grant him a seat at the table of being one of the greatest baseball players to ever toe the rubber.