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No, the Dodgers Should Not Have Started Clayton Kershaw in Game 7

Sure, L.A.’s ace pitched well in relief in his team’s loss, but arguing about his usage on short rest is reasonable only in retrospect

World Series - Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Much of the Dodger-centric takeaways from Houston’s 5-1 win in Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night focused on L.A.’s failures to capitalize on its opportunities to come back after the Astros scored five runs against starter Yu Darvish in the first two innings. The Dodgers hit just 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men on base in their loss.

But a secondary angle has focused on manager Dave Roberts’s decision to start Darvish in the pivotal contest, after L.A.’s trade-deadline acquisition had lasted just 1 2/3 innings in a rough Game 3 start. Darvish was on full rest but struggled once again; instead, critics began arguing in the middle innings on Wednesday, Roberts should have started Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who was on just two days’ rest after a rough start of his own, but who eventually threw four scoreless innings in relief in Game 7.

On Thursday’s episode of The Ringer MLB Show, Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann discussed this strain of thinking, ultimately siding with Roberts despite his decision backfiring. Listen to the full episode here; this conversation has been edited and condensed.

At First Glance, This Argument Looks Reasonable

“Of course, the contrast to Darvish was strong,” Lindbergh said. “[Kershaw] was great, and because we went from Darvish allowing a bunch of runs to Kershaw allowing no runs, I think it was only natural for people to raise the question of how might this game have played out differently if Kershaw had started.”

Furthermore, although most of the critics were second-guessers, a few baseball writers had proposed starting Kershaw even before the game. “Basically, the point was, if Kershaw is going to pitch—and you know he was going to pitch; he was always virtually guaranteed to pitch in this game no matter what the score was—then use him from the start because that way you can guarantee you’re getting Kershaw at a moment that matters,” Lindbergh summarized.

As it happened, though, by not starting Kershaw, “by the time Kershaw was in, the game was out of hand and he couldn’t really do anything except keep it where it was,” Lindbergh added. “If you start with him, then you get to throw him when it’s still scoreless, when the Dodgers still have a chance, when the top of the lineup is guaranteed to be up.”

And while Darvish likely would have appeared in relief in such a scenario—thus meaning he would pitch regardless of whether Kershaw started—that possibility wouldn’t have been ironclad. “You might not have used Darvish at all,” Baumann said. “Alex Wood probably had another inning and two thirds in him, the way he was pitching.”

But Darvish Was a Dodger Precisely to Start This Kind of Game

The Dodgers’ trade for Darvish just minutes before 4 p.m. on July 31 represented the biggest splash that any team made at that deadline. Although not quite as good as Justin Verlander, whom Houston acquired in August’s waiver period, Darvish was the best arm to change teams in July. In recent seasons, a shallow rotation had forced L.A. to rely on Kershaw on short rest in the playoffs, leading to scattered individual results and not a single pennant win for the team, and after Darvish allowed just a single run each in his NLDS and NLCS starts earlier in October, the Dodgers’ new aggression seemed to be paying off.

“You don’t trade for Darvish unless you’re comfortable starting him in Game 7,” Baumann said. “You don’t give up [top-100 prospect] Willie Calhoun for two months of a pitcher who you’re going to chicken out and not start in Game 7.”

Of course, Darvish didn’t live up to his potential in his Game 7 start, but pitching against the best lineup in baseball in a high-pressure situation isn’t a recipe for guaranteed success. “How many of the best pitchers in baseball got [lit up] this postseason?” Baumann said. “Because it happened to [Corey] Kluber, it happened to [Max] Scherzer, it happened to Kershaw, it happened to Darvish. [Dallas] Keuchel got knocked around a couple times. [Justin] Verlander’s probably the only guy who didn’t have an out-and-out bad inning who you’d find on a Cy Young ballot.”

The Kershaw-on-Short-Rest Factor Was Iffy, Too

The history of pitchers starting on short rest in the playoffs points to an overall decline in performance—and that’s usually on three days of rest, let alone the two on which Kershaw was operating. Only once in the wild-card era has a pitcher started on only two days’ rest, which is symptomatic of an evolution in pitcher use patterns.

“This argument gets couched in, ‘Oh, Sandy Koufax started Game 7 of the 1965 World Series on two days’ rest,’” Baumann said, “and yeah, that had no ill-effects on his career long term, and we definitely use pitchers the same way now as we did in 1965. It’s good to know that some people’s thinking hasn’t evolved in the last 50 years, but you know what? The people who manage the Dodgers have gotten smarter in the past 52 years.”

And even Koufax’s example is an anomaly. “Who else started Game 7 of the World Series on two days’ rest, two years later?” Baumann said. “Jim Lonborg. And we all remember the Red Sox winning Game 7 of the 1967 World Series, which is why nobody gave a shit when they won in 2004, right? Because this always works bringing back your ace on two days’ rest to start.”

Given how poorly Kershaw had pitched in Game 5 just a few days earlier, it would have seemed silly before the game to propose starting him, Baumann said. “The same people that are saying, ‘Oh, why didn’t you start Kershaw?’ were piling soil on his grave when he gave up six runs in Game 5. Like, are you really going to bench Darvish on his turn to pitch on full rest, for Kershaw on two days’ rest after he gave up six runs? Like, that’s really the hill you want to die on? So there was no guarantee he was gonna pitch that well.”

In Conclusion, the Argument Is Almost Entirely About Results Rather Than Process

“The only reason you can make this take is looking back on it,” Baumann said, “knowing that Kershaw’s appearance was going to go as well as it possibly could have, and that Darvish’s appearance was going to go as poorly as it possibly could have. … If you’re so certain this could have happened, you should be using your time machine for better shit than this. If you’re going to go back and start Clayton Kershaw in Game 7 of the World Series, go kill baby Hitler first. This is a better use of everybody’s time than discussing this outrageous take.”

Although not as outraged, Lindbergh agreed with the analysis behind it. “First of all, you can’t just assume that if Kershaw had started the game, he would have gone four scoreless innings,” he said. “Who knows if the hitters are approaching him differently if it’s a scoreless game as opposed to one they’re already winning 5-0?”

Heading into the game, he added, it wasn’t just unclear how effectively Kershaw would pitch; it was also unclear how many innings Kershaw could pitch. “You couldn’t safely assume more than an inning or two, or maybe three from Kershaw here,” Lindbergh said. “And if he goes two innings, let’s say, instead of four, then you’re probably in a situation where you have to use Darvish anyway, or at least they’d certainly be tempted to, and then who knows? Maybe he blows up anyway, and it doesn’t end up mattering. So I think it’s definitely a bit of a stretch to say that it was a mistake, that Dave Roberts should regret this. I think the way it played out obviously made it look like the alternative would have been better, but I just don’t think we can actually say that. I don’t blame Roberts or the Dodgers for doing something different than they did.”

“I think the original plan,” Baumann added, “was something like: Get Darvish in the order twice and then kind of white-knuckle through the middle with [Brandon] Morrow, [Alex] Wood, and [Tony] Watson, and give the last three innings to split between Kershaw and [Kenley] Jansen in some capacity. I think that plan is perfectly fine. … It feels weird to say you’re surprised by Clayton Kershaw pitching scoreless innings, but in this situation, considering what happened the last time he was out there, that’s almost as surprising as Darvish giving up five runs in an inning and two thirds.”