St. Louis Cardinals: Clayton Kershaw’s postseason Cardinals’ curse

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 12: Clayton Kershaw
ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 12: Clayton Kershaw /

Despite picking up another playoff win for the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw’s struggles in the postseason are still alive and well. It’s baffling a pitcher of Kershaw’s caliber struggles so mightily in the postseason, but look no further than his games against St. Louis

Clayton Kershaw‘s mightiest struggles have been against the St. Louis Cardinals in the postseason, and these reflect the problems Kershaw has in the playoffs. The stakes are higher, so mistakes are examined under a microscope, and one miss can cost you everything.

This is no more evident than with Kershaw against the St. Louis Cardinals, as it only took an inning for his night to completely unravel, no matter how lights out he had been before. Here are three flaws in Kershaw’s pitching exposed by three Cardinal postseason uproars.

Trouble with First Pitch Strikes

Example: 2013 NLCS Game 5, Inning 3

Usually, Kershaw is very good at keeping things under control. However, he suddenly lost that control in the third inning of the 2013 NLCS.

2013 NLCS Game 5 Inning-by-Inning: 0-0 Count
InningPitches in InningStrikes in InningStrike% in Inning

Challenging hitters from the first pitch and dominating the count and at-bat are key parts of Kershaw’s game. He throws the fastball 78.7% of the time as either the first pitch or when he falls behind, which takes away his best tools and gives the average hitter a much better chance, on average, when they can get ahead early in the count.

In the playoffs, Kershaw paid for it. The Cardinals scored four runs in that third inning and ripped away control of the game from Kershaw. Michael Wacha ran away with it.

It isn’t just an isolated occurrence; he consistently has more trouble locating the first pitch in the at-bat in the postseason.

Kershaw First Pitches in ABRegular SeasonPost Season
FB Strike %38.57%32.66%
SLD Strike %43.50%41.49%
FB Ball in Play %12.11%13.58%
SLD Ball in Play %8.26%12.77%
FB Whiff %5.66%5.49%
SLD Whiff %18.19%19.15%

As I mentioned before, the fastball is his first pitch a majority of the time. The decreased overall effectiveness of the fastball to open an at-bat seems to be hampering him significantly.

More Swings at Fastballs, Less at Sliders

Example: 2014 NLDS Game 1, Inning 7

While people laud and praise Kershaw’s leg-buckling curve, he doesn’t utilize it nearly as much as his slider.  He throws the slider almost 25% of the time, and primarily relies on mixing up the fastball with the slider to get through an at-bat.

In Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS, the Cardinals were all over the fastball. Of the sixty-six fastballs Kershaw threw that game, the Cardinals swung at forty of them for a 60.6% swing rate. Kershaw’s fastball normally has a 46.2% swing rate.

The most memorable play of the game was Matt Carpenter‘s two-run double, and the at-bat that got him there. Here is a look at the pitch log and strike zone of that at-bat.

Kershaw vs Carpenter 2014 NLDS G1 Inning 7 (via Brooks Baseball)
TypeCountStrikes/%Swings/%Whiffs/%BIP(No Out)
FA (Fastball)55 / 100.0%5 / 100.0%1 / 20.0%1 (1)
SL (Slider)31 / 33.3%1 / 33.3%0 / 0.0%0 (0)

While Carpenter did technically whiff on a fastball, it was a foul tip, showing Carpenter and the St. Louis Cardinals saw the pitch. Carpenter was able to see everything Kershaw was doing, and he fended it off with a double to right off the eighth pitch of the at-bat. He was aggressive on the fastballs in the zone, and didn’t look at the breaking balls outside it.

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It also helps that Kershaw wasn’t able to locate the slider particularly well in this at-bat. Whether fatigue played into it or not, it will forever be a mystery.

However, Kershaw overused the fastball and neglected the curve ball either way, especially considering there were only two balls in the at-bat.

With the decreased effectiveness of the fastball early in counts in the playoffs, it is only natural that teams will start to plan around any weakness they can find, especially against a talent like Kershaw.

Teams in the playoffs are simply seeing the fastball and slider better, and are having success against Kershaw in part because of it.

Talent, with a sprinkle of Luck

Example: 2014 NLDS Game 4, Inning 7

Sometimes, it is truly hard to explain exactly how a collapse happened, and that’s exactly the case with this inning. While there were reasons to really pinpoint in the other examples, the only mistake Kershaw made in this game was an unfortunately fatal one.

Here is Kershaw’s pitch chart in the seventh inning, and note that he was hitting spots better than the at-bat against Carpenter, but the St. Louis Cardinals simply had his number. It just happens that way, no matter what their ability or performances against others may indicate.

While the hanging curve ball to Matt Adams, circled in red, was over the plate, the other two pitches put into play were well located. The balls in play ended up being hit just inches out of the fielders hand BOTH times, and the rest is history.

Sometimes, luck is a big part of baseball, and Kershaw simply didn’t have it on those two hits. When the talent floor becomes lower, these little things can be what tips the scales, and this game is a demonstration of that fact.

Next: 12 Potential Cuts for Opening Day 2018

Kershaw is one of the greatest regular season pitching talents that we have ever seen, but if he wants to be known as more than that, he must somehow emerge from the shadow the St. Louis Cardinals have cast over his postseason career.