On perception versus reality, and the ‘playoff Kershaw’ narrative

Clayton Kershaw may have felt like the loneliest man on Earth yesterday, but he’s not alone in his playoff struggles.

by Paul West

There’s an old expression, which I first encountered as a young man studying geopolitics: perception is reality. Perception does not, of course, actually equal objective reality as we know it, but the message is thus: the reality and outcomes of a situation are often heavily influenced by the perceptions, narratives, and opinions which prevail. Mostly for the worse, the actual facts of a matter are often overshadowed by whatever passes for public opinion or conventional wisdom at the time. Often, these are based on gross misperceptions and/or factual inaccuracies, but that matter is often left for historians and other scientists to sort out in the future. In sports–largely for the worse, but not entirely as much so, as I’ll address–perception can affect reality in similar fashion. Winner-take-all elimination games, usually at the ends of odd-numbered series, are a crystallization of this essential aspect of sports.

Winner-take-all games take all forms, and are renowned for their flukiness; in fact, they’re often referred to as crapshoots. Sometimes, they’re surprise blowouts, as in yesterday’s lopsided Cardinals win; sometimes, you get games that are spoken of for generations, like the NHL’s 1987 Easter Epic. They’re decided by household names and roleplayers alike, and home teams don’t always have an advantage: counterintuitively, home teams have an aggregate losing record in MLB’s history of winner-take-all games. Home teams fare better in NBA games, where the impact of individual players matters more because of the structure and dynamics of the game–for example, John Starksinfamous 2-18 day in Game Seven of a 1994 NBA Finals in which his hot shooting helped get the Knicks to that point. In the NHL, flukiness is enhanced by puck bounces and the ability of goaltenders to steal games virtually on their own, as Ron Hextall nearly stole a Game Seven against the Edmonton Oilers dynasty (also in 1987). But next to goalies, few individual players are seen as having a greater impact on their teams’ fates than starting pitchers. Which brings me to the matter of maybe the worst two-pitch sequence of Clayton Kershaw‘s career: the home runs that, to many, cemented his status as a postseason ‘choke artist’ whose playoff struggles will frame his legacy.

“Playoff Kershaw” is a narrative which has dogged the Dodgers’ ace for years, and not without reason: the dropoff from his career regular season ERA to his career postseason ERA is precipitous, and his sample size is larger than that of many. He’s had great playoff moments, to be sure, but he’s never quite been the dominant force fans have hoped for in any one postseason. Compared with the exploits of Randy Johnson or Madison Bumgarner, Kershaw’s playoff struggles loom even larger–and are thusly magnified in the court of public opinion. It bears noting here that he’s not the only ace who’s endured postseason struggles: the elimination game ERAs of Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez are not what you might expect, and the likes of Dwight Gooden and Andy Pettitte have ghastly playoff appearances on their resumes. The aforementioned issue of sample sizes means that most players’ postseason careers don’t really bear close examination; averages swing too wildly on the basis of a game’s worth of at bats or innings pitched. Of course, aside from memory (not always reliable) and visual recording (not entirely comprehensive), numbers are the best we have in terms of arranging our individual and collective memories into something like a historical record. This isn’t to deny the magnitude of last night’s collapse–the Dodgers had a three-run lead with six outs to go and maybe the greatest lefty of his generation on the mound–but elimination games aren’t won or lost by single players, nor are they as simple as their attendant narratives can imply.

Clayton Kershaw’s career narrative was blemished by maybe the worst two-pitch sequence he’s thrown as a Dodger.

The defining characteristic of an elimination game is pressure. Pressure to perform under the spotlight; pressure to ‘win or go home;’ pressure to come up big when it seems to matter most. And for all the talk of ‘rising to the occasion,’ it’s more generally true that those who do well in clutch moments don’t become better versions of themselves–they simply find a way to remain something of the version of themselves that got them to that point. The key to surviving moments of exquisite pressure isn’t to seek to rise to them, but rather to embrace them for what they are: the reason you play in the first place, the heart-pounding combination of fear and hope that can validate every hour spent practicing, playing, or cheering. Under the weight of such pressure, it’s a failure of perspective to act like it’s ‘just another game;’ in a very real sense, it’s quite the opposite. But at the same time, acting like life or death hinge on the outcome is the best way to tighten up and shrink from your best self at the worst possible time. You could argue that, in this context, pressure is both real and imaginary: the aggregate effect of the perceived, and situational, importance of a game can have real effects on player performance, and hence outcomes; but said pressure can only be overcome by understanding it as an intangible phenomenon. ‘The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat’ are real, weighty, and consequential emotions; but failure on one pitch, in one at bat, on one shot, or in one forty-or-sixty-minute period, cannot define a career, a franchise, or a human being any more than they can keep the sun from rising the next day. Of course, there are times when the stakes are actually concretely high in an elimination game: draft slots, recruitment, money, and other real-life outcomes could actually be on the line. None of this was the case with Clayton Kershaw, who has already done more for the Dodgers’ franchise than all but a fairly short list of starting pitchers. Teammate Rich Hill pointed out in the aftermath of last night’s loss, “we wouldn’t be here without him,” and he was absolutely right.

Yes, Clayton Kershaw failed spectacularly and embarrassingly with his team’s immediate future on the line; yes, he’s done it before. He’s not the first to do it, nor will he be the last; and while it’s indeed part of his legacy as a player, it would be absurd to let it overshadow one of the greatest careers most of us have witnessed on a pitcher’s mound.

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