On Saturday, something of an annual tradition took place on a field in Chicago: Clayton Kershaw got rocked in a playoff game. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace pitcher gave up four earned runs over five innings pitched in Game Six of the team’s 5-0 elimination loss to the World Series-bound Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series.
Kershaw is among a select group of athletes who occupy a strange but recognizable space in sports culture. Despite being universally lauded as the best pitcher in baseball, Kershaw likely has an asterisk permanently attached to his resume — he doesn’t perform well in the playoffs.
That statement is objectively based in statistical fact. Over the 89 innings Kershaw has pitched in the postseason, the southpaw has accrued a 4.55 ERA, a number that screams “average to below-average pitcher.”
The problem with those numbers is that they represent just five percent of the innings Kershaw has pitched over his MLB career. In the other 95 percent, or 1,760 innings, of regular season performance, Kershaw has posted a 2.37 ERA — a number that, if upheld over the rest of his career, would be the best ERA ever accumulated by a MLB pitcher with over 1,000 innings since the live ball era began in 1920.
We know that Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, but because of just 89 poor innings, we toss 95 percent of his career aside and argue that he’s not at the top of his sport. Just as Kershaw has been objectively bad in the postseason, that logic is flawed and based on the irrational value historically placed on the cornerstone of American sports — the playoffs.
The playoff system is great as long as everyone involved understands that the winner of an arbitrarily set up tournament with a tiny sample size is not always the best team. The playoffs, as they are currently constructed, are not designed to have the best team win or the best players shine. They are designed to be entertaining so that as many people as possible buy in to drive interest and, more importantly, TV ratings.
Greats across sports have had their reputations tarnished by their inability to win within the framework of this arbitrary setup. Players like Dan Marino, Alexander Ovechkin, Barry Bonds and Charles Barkley deserve to be treated with more respect than Robert Horry, a largely average NBA player who piggybacked his way to an astonishing seven NBA Championships riding the coattails of actual legends Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
Here’s the thing — I love the legend of Robert Horry. And believe it or not, I love the playoffs. Watching teams and players duke it out over a short period of time for a disproportionately large prize may be misleading, but it’s fun as hell to watch. The postseason is essential to the well-being of all four major American sports leagues.
When it comes to valuing players and teams based solely on their performances in the playoffs, however, enough is enough. It’s time to stand up to the playoff narrative by using wild concepts like logic and rationality, because it’s time for players like Kershaw to get their due.