For Kershaw and the Dodgers, 2018 Will Be Legacy-Defining
2018 will be a defining year for the Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers. Will they be just another perennially good team or can they ever achieve greatness?
Even after Clayton Kershaw gave the Los Angeles Dodgers four shutout innings in Game 7 of the World Series, it was too late. History had been cemented.
The Houston Astros would win that game-and the series- despite Kershaw’s gutsy effort, leaving both the southpaw and his club with a sour taste in their mouths despite a historic season in which Los Angeles won 104 games. Kershaw finished the World Series with an underwhelming 4.02 ERA and 17 strikeouts to 5 walks in 15 2/3 innings pitched. The Dodgers finished as runners up.
Now, Kershaw and this iteration of the Dodgers are in danger of being remembered similarly by history- as the player and team that were great, but could not finish the job in the postseason. This is not a desirable place to settle down. Just ask the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
It’s undeniable that Kershaw, when healthy, is the greatest regular season pitcher on the planet. In posting a 2.31 ERA last season, Kershaw notched his best total since 2012 when he marked a 2.53. Kershaw’s ERA has risen above 3.00 just once, when he had a 4.26 in 2008, his rookie season.
Kershaw has not just been a model of consistency, but also of dominance. The lefty is a three-time Cy Young Award winner and two-time runner up. He has finished in the top-five of voting in every year since 2011. He has struck out at least 200 batters in each season that he’s started 25 games or more. And often, Kershaw accumulates around 250 innings in a season.
Simply put, Kershaw is the ultimate ace. Putting his numbers into a Hall of Fame perspective even further highlights his awesomeness.
Baseball Reference sorts through the statistics of past and present Major League players and compares them against one another, allowing us to place them side by side and determine what a typical Hall of Fame career looks like.
The first measure that Baseball Reference uses is the Black Ink test, first developed by Bill James in his book, The Politics of Glory. The Black Ink test measures how often a player led the league in important statistical categories. For pitchers, the test gives four points for wins, ERA, or strikeouts. It gives three points for innings pitched, win-loss percentage, or saves. It gives two points for complete games, lowest walks per nine innings, or lowest hits per nine innings. And lastly, the Black Ink test gives one point for finishing first in appearances, starts, or shutouts.
The average Hall of Famer finishes his career with a 40-point Black Ink score. At just 29 years old, Kershaw’s score is 65.
Baseball Reference also provides us with the Gray Ink score, which is essentially the same test but accounts for appearances in the top ten of the league.
The average Hall of Fame pitcher finishes with a 185-point gray ink score. Kershaw currently has a 159, and should shoot well beyond 185 in the next two or three seasons.
Bill James also introduced the concept of similarity scores, which allows us to compare current players to past players based on where they are in their careers. The list of pitchers that Kershaw compares too at the age of 29 is staggering.
Kershaw’s similarity scores put him into an elite category. At this age, his numbers compare most similarly to Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, and Juan Marichal. Kershaw’s 912 similarity score surpasses the marks that Sandy Koufax and Greg Maddux had at the same age.
But in the postseason, Kershaw’s performance takes a turn. We now have a large enough sample size to draw a conclusion about the way Kershaw pitches in the postseason without any hesitation. The results are not pretty.
Kershaw has appeared in the postseason in seven different years and twelve separate series in his career. In that time, he has amassed a 4.35 ERA and 1.098 WHIP. In the regular season, Kershaw averages a 2.36 ERA and 1.002 WHIP.
It’s often one backbreaking moment within the postseason games that hurts Kershaw as opposed to a combination of events (see: St. Louis Cardinals), but the evidence is clear: he gives up more runs in the playoffs.
In the regular season, Kershaw is pitcher of his generation. In the playoffs, he’s hardly a number one starter.
This calls for a career defining season in 2018 for both Kershaw and the Dodgers, who have won five consecutive National League West titles but have failed to win a World Series championship.
The Dodgers are a team with all the assets in the world and a roster full of superstar talent. If they continue to disappoint in the postseason, it will define their legacy as a team that was good, often even great, but could not break through the glass door.
For Kershaw, the narrative is the similar. Show us the same dominance in the postseason, and history will remember you fondly. Continue to fail and feel the pressure.