You knew it was coming.
You knew it was coming as soon as soon as the ball left Matt “Patch” Adams’ bat. As soon as that 0-1 pitch — Clayton Kershaw’s famed curveball, no less — snuck over the right field fence of Busch Stadium and put the Cardinals up for good, it solidified Kershaw as the goat of the series. The Dodgers played four games against St. Louis, and Los Angeles’ legendary lefty was on the hook for two of its three losses.
Watching Kershaw implode in the seventh inning of Game 1 and get taken deep by the Cardinals’ chunky first basemen in the clincher was jolting for anyone who paid attention to the regular season. Kershaw, of course, had wrapped up his unprecedented fourth-straight ERA crown mere weeks ago while leading the National League in WAR; his third Cy Young is inevitable, and the MVP award remains probable. He is the undisputed best pitcher on the planet, perhaps the first to possess that reputation since Pedro Martinez in the early aughts.
But the splits in his regular season resume and his playoff précis are jarring. Kershaw’s 2.49 ERA — the lowest among live-ball era starters with at least 1,000 innings pitched — balloons to 5.12 in 11 postseason appearances, and his rubber arm is nowhere to be found. Kershaw has logged seven innings just once in those 11 games, and to put that in perspective, he went at least that far in all but five of his 27 starts in 2014.
The solemn post-mortems of Kershaw’s latest stinker were penned and posted by next morning, with the Washington Post thinking it was necessary to regurgitate ESPN Stats’ entire Twitter feed.
Pretty grim. The response from the masses was even more reactionary. These gems were all posted within five minutes of each other (courtesy of a random Twitter search).
There’s a lot of high-level analysis to be found here, but the last one is especially insightful. In a sense, Kershaw is Peyton Manning.
Actually, let’s amend that. Kershaw could be Manning one day … i.e., the best player at his position in the history of his sport.
Given that baseball is 100-some-years-old in terms of recorded stat-keeping and has been home to several pitchers worthy of the Greatest of All Time claim, that sounds like a ridiculous thing to speculate on, but look at Kershaw’s resume. At 26-years-old, he will be the fastest in history to win three Cy Young awards and can become just the 11th pitcher to win MVP since 1956 (when the Cy Young was introduced). The closest live-ball starter to him in ERA is Whitey Ford’s 2.75, a full quarter of a run behind Kershaw’s mind-blowing mark of 2.49.
He’s young, he’s amazing, and he’s unbelievably durable. And as even the casual community distances itself from pitcher wins in favor of non-useless tools of player evaluation, Kershaw could conclude his career among the greatest modern-era hurlers to ever grace a mound as his ERA plummets and the hardware piles.
Kershaw’s cross-sport soul mate resides one time zone to the right. Manning is in his third season of conducting the most remarkable encore in NFL history, surpassing the feats of other old-age gunslingers like Elway and Gannon and Tittle. That encore is the capstone to the greatest quarterbacking career the league has ever seen, one that will own the all-time touchdown mark by the end of the month and the yardage record at some point next season. The volume has come with quality, of course. Manning ranks at the top of the list in post-merger, league-adjusted efficiency, and given that he’s attempted more passes than his fiercest competition combined (Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young), it’s fair to say that he’s the king in that, too.
Another MVP season would give Manning six total, twice as much as anyone else — and the three-time winners are fellow NFL Mt. Rushmore candidates Jim Brown, Brett Favre, and Johnny Unitas, mind you. But it’s a lack of team trinkets that lead many to try and diminish the legacy of the best to ever spin a spiral.
To be sure, this was an inexcusable throw, as was the across-his-body prayer in the 2012 divisional round that sealed the deal for Baltimore. He looked overmatched and overwhelmed against Seattle’s blitzkrieg last February, and Manning remains the record-holder in career one-and-done postseason appearances.
But what is more representative of Manning’s talent level — the 8,610 passes he has thrown in the regular season, or the 889 he’s thrown in the playoffs? And what of Kershaw’s split — 1,378.1 innings versus a paltry 51-inning sample size?
It’s a controversial topic, but most don’t understand that the inherent variance in team-oriented sports can absolutely explain why the two best players at their positions can under-perform their regular season peripherals in a do-or-die format. Randomness is present in almost every play, let alone every game — a receiver slips, a lineman stutter-steps, a safety loses the flight of a ball — so it is inane to boil down legacies to moments that are often a hair’s breadth away from producing the opposite result.
Fans underrate the mental strain of a long regular season while placing disproportionate emphasis on postseason drama. Yes, the pressure is immense come playoff time, but just how attuned is the mind to this situation when in the heat of the moment? Was Manning sweating less on that masterful, last-minute drive against Seattle in week three than he was against them in the Super Bowl? When he was down seven on the road from the 26-yardline and there were just 20 seconds on the clock, why did he nail Jacob Tamme down the sideline for the tie instead of placing it in Seahawk hands? Was this a simple task? A walk in the park since it was only the regular season?
What about the 2006 AFC Championship Game, when Manning — just 2-6 against Brady at that point in his life — led the Colts back from a 21-3 deficit to finally beat the Patriots in the playoffs? There were maybe a half-dozen people on Earth who would have bet money on Peyton after Asante Samuel housed an interception to put New England up 18, and that includes his immediate family members. Why was he so clutch in this instance — the gravest of circumstances for his legacy?
The truth is that … well … shit happens. Unexplainable shit. Hell, the all-time record for touchdown passes in a single postseason is shared by Joe Montana and Joe Flacco. Joe Flacco! But no momentum or “clutch-ness” carried over from Flacco’s magical title run, posting bottom-five efficiency across the board in 2013. If it was so easy for Flacco in the postseason against the likes of Denver and New England and San Francisco, why couldn’t he be consistently competent in the games that don’t really matter?
Bizarre events like Kershaw’s shellacking against St. Louis and Peyton’s little brother winning two Super Bowls should enlighten the masses to the chaos of small-sample playoff variance, but instead the narratives are only reinforced. One hung curveball was enough to do in Kershaw Tuesday night. One missed read has often been all it takes for Manning to go home a loser.
In a world where Manning and Flacco share the same number of Super Bowl MVPs and Kershaw owns a significantly higher playoff ERA than David Wells, logic dictates that we should at least be skeptical about using postseason success as the key determinant of a player’s reputation. But while it’s a long way down from the top when you are at the zenith of your craft, you’re the first one fans look to criticize when they expect perfection.
Mike Trout received a crash-course lesson in this over the last week.
The shoe-in AL MVP went 1-for-12 in his postseason debut, homering once into the Kauffman fountain in Game 3 before succumbing to the Royals in a sweep. His lack of playoff appearances in 2012 and 2013 probably cost him MVP awards in those seasons, and sensationalist headlines have cropped up since the Angels’ elimination.
The last entry is a real blog post written by a real person who really felt the need to pose that question. No, really.
At 23, Trout is already dealing with the lunacy that comes with being MLB’s best player. It will never quite be on a Manning or LeBron-esque level, where any season that doesn’t result in a championship is viewed as a complete and abject failure, but you better believe that he will be negatively compared to the reigning face of baseball if he doesn’t start winning soon. Derek Jeter won five rings, four by the time he was 27. Those stat nerds insist Trout is the Mantle of our generation, so why haven’t the Angels so much as won a playoff game since he arrived on the scene?
And what of Sidney Crosby, the “Next One” in hockey? Crosby won it all when he was 21, but where’s he been since? Although Sid the Kid’s been considered the NHL’s best player since he scored 120 points and won the Hart Trophy at 19, his Penguins have had countless flameouts in May — the phenom scored just one goal in 13 playoff games last season — and are on their third coach of the Crosby era. With just one Stanley Cup to his name, when are he and fellow über-wing Evgeni Malkin going to stop disappointing us?
Eventually one should realize that these “struggles” aren’t all coincidences; they’re systemic by-products of a miniscule sample size. It’s very possible that Peyton Manning wouldn’t outperform postseason deity Kurt Warner over an 800-pass sample, but what if you gave them both 9,000-some throws in a strictly single-game-elimination format? Who would you bet on to win more of those games over time?
As the uninitiated love to remind us, sports aren’t an exact science. Kershaw’s curve can fail him and Manning’s mind can stall at the worst possible time. But for this matter, I and other stat nerds embrace the fallibility of numbers with wide, welcome arms. Randomness strikes in swift and uncompromising fashion, and sometimes the victims can be the greatest players in the history of their sport.
Variance is a cold, cruel bitch. Learn it, live it, embrace it.