Friday, October 16, 2020

I am not a Sadist but Clayton Kershaw Getting Lit Up in the Playoffs is Baseball’s Most Endearing Recurring Bit

There is a certain way that Joe Buck says the words “and taking the mound for the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw” joebuckishly that has become one of the most eerie sounds in baseball, a chilling declaration that is like the phone call whispering “seven days” to the people in The Ring who are normally going about their day until a nightgown ghost lady crawls from their television to tear them apart.

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers we’ve ever seen; there’s a case to be made that he is the greatest pitcher of all time. And yet when the playoffs roll around, Kershaw at some point goes onto the mound and serves up a barrage of hits or a home run at the worst time and then slinks off to the dugout where TV cameras isolate on his anguished face for the rest of the game while Joe Buck says “you just hate to see that” but obviously we don’t because there will be approximately 5-10 minutes of footage during the rest of the game of Kershaw staring off into the distance alone in a dugout strewn with discarded gatorade cups and spit up sunflower seed shells.

The disparities between Kershaw’s playoff and regular-season statistics are glaring. In 2,330 regular-season innings, Kershaw has an astonishing 2.46 ERA. In 177.1 playoff innings, he sports a 4.31. His average of .7 home runs per nine innings in the regular season doubles to 1.4 in the postseason. And it is not that Kershaw is consistently terrible-- he has pitched absolute gems in the postseason-- but it is precisely because he is so otherworldly good that he tends to pitch in the biggest moments, and because of that burden he appears to have trapped himself in a psychological prison where his inner torment is annually on display for an audience of millions.

Kershaw’s predicament is not entirely of his own making. Baseball’s cruel scoring system has left Kershaw responsible for baserunners that his bullpen mates invariably let in. He has spent the last several years fighting off recurring back injuries to the point where it is not clear how healthy he is in the postseason (he only started Game 4 this season after missing several starts because of back pain). Kershaw has lost World Series games two years in a row to teams brazenly cheating: the 2018 Boston Red Sox, and the 2017 Houston Astros who we later learned spent the entire season beguiling pitchers by hitting garbage cans with a stick.

Last night, Kershaw got outdueled by a person named “Bryse” who looks he could be Mitch Williams’s rowdy son who travels the country with his father trashing golf course pro shops after shooting fireworks at driving range balls retrieval cart and threatening to blast other golfers with “fart fireballs.”

There is a haunting pathos to those shots of Kershaw, but also, if I am being honest here, a strange sort of comedy. Kershaw reminds me of a straight man in a Three Stooges short who has unwittingly hired the Three Oafs Caterin’ Company for his swanky affair where he must impress the wealthy dowager on The Board, and while everyone watching knows what mayhem lurks around the corner it is the straight man’s job to pretend nothing is wrong and to be confounded and horrified when the pies invariably start flying. 

Kershaw, normally a stoic figure on the mound, has adopted a series of theatrical expressions for when things go awry. Consider his most painful collapse, when manager Dave Roberts inexplicably and I would say almost cruelly put him into the decisive Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS in the eighth inning with the Dodgers clinging to a 3-1 lead. Kershaw gave up a home run to Anthony Rendon then the game-tying shot to Juan Soto on the next pitch. He whirls around, his mouth agape. He wears an almost vaudevillian expression, the type of face you might see a professional wrestler make when they play a theme song that belongs to a rival professional wrestler. He looks like a Punch Out character who has been hit in the stomach. 

Kershaw has become a hobgoblin to the broader analytics community. Year after year they point to his ludicrous numbers and point out the weird sample size from the playoffs and fight against the Kershaw playoff narrative and every year Kershaw ends up blowing up in their face and sports radio caller maniacs who scream about how he is a choker while weaving through three lanes of traffic bellowing that he should be traded end up being convinced they are right, and while that itself is not funny the idea of spreadsheets enthusiasts who have helped mathematically prove that it is not smart baseball for delightful wiry mustache guys to drag bunt and recklessly steal bases and it is far more efficient for people with no visible neck to either walk or hit a home run or strike out or foul 75 consecutive pitches off of a bearded 6 foot 7 person named Brantley or Trantley who throws 97 with movement get frustrated every season while a doofus who has been screaming to Earl The Maniac’s Sports Zoo about how Clayton Kershaw should be sent to a maximum-security space jail while doing doughnuts in the parking lot of a protractor factory is at the very least, kind of amusing.

Baseball is innately cruel. There is so much baseball every year, and a team that dominates for  162 games only earns the right to have a bad week and get eliminated in an increasing number of playoff rounds that commissioner Rob Manfred would like to keep adding for teams that come in second in the division or win one of dozens of Wild Card berths or manage to get in by solving the beguiling Riddle of Manfred. There are few worse positions to be in as a team or a fan than an overwhelming favorite baseball team entering a crapshoot postseason where a few rough outings or a hot opponent or a manager who has ingested several hallucinogens and had visions of Tony La Russa before the game can fuck the whole thing up and invalidate months and months and months of grueling baseball. For a team with World Series expectations like the Dodgers, the baseball playoffs are not an emotional climax to the season but feel more like being hunted for sport. 

The fact that Kershaw pitches for the Dodgers also does not help. The Dodgers boast one of the very few ownership groups willing to spend money on good baseball players, a model front office, and a propensity for unearthing discarded players who either are refrigerator-shaped guys who put on a blue hat and discover effortless 30 home run power or pitchers who throw an easy hundred. This offseason, they added to the best team in the National League Mookie Betts, a former AL MVP who might be the second-best player in the entire sport because the Red Sox did not want to pay him. The fact that the Dodgers keep getting better almost every year winning absurd numbers of regular season games (a near-record 106 in 2019, a league-high 43 in this shortened season) only to continually to fall short of a World Series victory is also funny in the same way that it is funny to watch Wile E. Coyote purchase faster and more elaborate ACME equipment only to end up under the same rock in an accordion shape, but I imagine Dodgers fans find this less enjoyable.

The brutal cycle of playoff futility certainly is no fun for Kershaw, who inevitably looks shocked and wrung out. It is not particularly pleasant to watch Kershaw suffering again and again on that bench, certain that he has let down his teammates, despondent that he will once again not achieve the one thing in baseball he has not accomplished, and aware that as he sits there a million internet goofs are photoshopping his head onto unflattering objects. Who knows at what point the repeated meltdowns have snowballed psychologically, creating almost an expectation in the back of his mind that this could happen and opening the door to it in an ouroboros of baseball failure. 

And yet there is something strange and almost soothing about bizarre, recurring sports phenomena. One appeal of sports is the unexpected, some team triumphing over seemingly-impossible odds, a previously unheralded player doing something special. And yet, there is also the delight of something happening a few times, becoming a cliché or, in 2020 terms, a meme, and then actually happening. The English national soccer team does not always lose in a penalty shootout, but it is enjoyable when it happens. The Minnesota Vikings do not always lose with a painful missed field goal (sometimes they lose on an egregious Brett Favre interception) but you can bet that each time they do it factors into the Lineage of Painful Missed Viking Field Goals. And while it is not particularly fun for me to watch generations of incredible Bears defenses attempt to win games because every single quarterback they try ends up going 17/28 for 176 yards and 2 interceptions, I can admit that in a way it is kind of satisfying and hints at some sort of order to the universe. 

As of this writing, the Dodgers are down 3-1. They can still come back and win the NLCS and even the World Series. Clayton Kershaw may have a couple of heroic performances in him that he deserves, and he could finally lift that trophy and then drive over to my house and bash me over the head with it like I richly deserve. But if the Dodgers end up going out like this, another wasted postseason, another inexplicably premature loss for baseball’s best team, then I appreciate that Kershaw went out there and confoundingly coughed up a lead. In a year of upheaval, at least one thing remained dependable.

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