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Clayton Kershaw’s October Misery Has Become a Defining Part of His Legacy

Three-time Cy Young Award winner. NL MVP. Future Hall of Famer. Walking meme. Another Dodgers World Series failure falls heaviest on the L.A. ace.

Clayton Kershaw Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Let us acknowledge that we are biased. That post-championship overreactions age poorly. That the sample sizes are not robust. That some things, like talent, are unimpeachable, and other things, like the nice, tight seams on 2018-vintage baseballs that have made them ever likelier to leave the confines of the outfield, cannot really be helped, at least by the guy on the mound.

But also: that Clayton Kershaw is dreadful in the postseason.

The Dodgers lost the World Series. You might have heard. This is not the same thing as the Red Sox winning the World Series, which they might have done had their opponents actually shown up. L.A. has now been to two consecutive World Series and asked two consecutive Dodger Stadium cleaning crews to mop up champagne from the visitors’ clubhouse. It’s a tough draw.

Sunday, it was Kershaw who formally took the L, pitching seven innings and giving up as many hits, three of them home runs, the latest addition to the ace’s grim October pantheon. He now has a postseason record of 9–10 with a 4.32 ERA. In elimination games, the numbers are bleaker still: His ERA is 6.06 over six do-or-die matchups, the worst in MLB history; in those games, he’s given up eight home runs, the most of any MLB pitcher in history. He’s pitched four or more innings in five World Series games over the last two years; his team lost four of them. Brandon Woodruff—the Brewers relief pitcher with five Major League hits to his name—took him deep in the NLCS. Salt, meet wound.

It was, yes, a flukey World Series. Ringer contributor Rany Jazayerli noted that 18 straight runs scored via either error or home run. Boston, which won 108 games in the regular season, the ninth-most in history, was never going to go quietly. And Kershaw’s postseason starts often look worse than they are: The relievers who’ve taken over for him have allowed runners who originally got on base with Kershaw on the mound to score at a rate much higher than the league average.

But at a certain point, it stops seeming like bad luck, chiefly because it doesn’t seem like luck should be part of the equation with Kershaw. How could it possibly be even odds between a gem and a dud for the person with a career ERA of 2.39 over an average of nearly 200 innings per season? He has four consecutive ERA titles, three Cy Young awards, a 2011 pitching Triple Crown, the 2014 NL MVP nod, the comparisons to Sandy Koufax, a 62.1 career WAR, an MLB-leading FIP. Also: October misery. He is rightfully celebrated as one of the greatest pitchers in history; increasingly, he is also a postseason punch line, and that part is not exactly wrong. What would Madison Bumgarner do? people are fond of asking. Not give up three home runs in the World Series, probably. But if we’re talking about probability—well, Kershaw probably wouldn’t blow it either, and yet here we are. October is a shadow on 11 stellar seasons. And like a shadow, it seems to be unshakeable.

Consider the collective sigh of relief from the baseball public when Kersh successfully pitched through a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS against the Nationals, propelling L.A. to the first of the team’s three consecutive NLCSes. Or consider manager Dave Roberts’s curious choice to deploy Kershaw in the ninth inning of Game 7 of this year’s NLCS—at which point the Dodgers had a roomy 5–1 lead and a less valuable arm would probably have sufficed. It seems absurd to think that Roberts might have been attempting to build up the confidence of his star. But is it less absurd than Kershaw actually needing the confidence?

Kershaw has spent the entirety of his professional career in Dodger blue. That now could come to an end: He has two years and roughly $70 million left on his contract, but can choose to opt out and enter free agency. The decision will come soon: He has until Wednesday evening—Halloween night, or what would have been Game 7, had the Dodgers managed to get that far—to decide. “I haven’t made that decision yet,” he told reporters Sunday. “We’ve got three days to talk, between us and the Dodgers, see what happens. And then we’ll go from there.”

Sunday, he went through 12 batters and 56 consecutive pitches without a swing and miss. He’s been dogged recently by a string of back and side injuries and a marked drop in velocity: Over the last three seasons, his fastball has significantly slowed. He’s now entering his age-31 season, which is not an age at which fastballs tend to bounce back, and it’s reasonable enough to suppose that Kershaw could indeed choose to avoid the uncertainties of the future and stay in Los Angeles, most likely in exchange for more money and years. If that’s the case, his hopes of ever getting a championship ring would rest definitively with the team that’s gotten him to the precipice of victory two years in a row.

“It might not be a personnel thing, it might just be a play-better thing,” he said Sunday. He was speaking about the team as a whole, one flush with talent throughout its roster and one that could, conceivably, return to these heights in another year. But that question, in particular, might be a bit of both. Will he be there next time? And if he is, which Kershaw will show up in October?