Tonight, the Chicago Cubs have a chance to do something they haven’t done since the end of World War II, and you know exactly what it is.
While it’s not exactly the end goal of the season – that would be actually winning the World Series (with Kyle Schwarber in tow?) – you have to admit that getting there is one heck of a big step.
In fact, reaching the World Series 71 years after their last appearance would be a huge, historic accomplishment. But, like most huge, historic accomplishments, it comes with one huge, historic challenge, and his name is Clayton Kershaw.
Clayton Kershaw broke into the league as a 20-year-old lefty back in 2008, and hasn’t looked back. In his first eight full professional seasons (up to and including 2016), Kershaw has been worth an astounding 53.5 fWAR, has been named to six consecutive All-Star Teams, has won three NL Cy Young awards (he finished second and third in the other two years and was well on his way to winning it this season before injuries zapped him of innings), and was the 2014 NL MVP.
I’m sorry to break the news to you, but Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher of our generation, and is on his way to becoming one of the best pitchers of all time.
But that doesn’t mean the Cubs can’t beat him.
In fact, through his 13 postseason appearances (10 starts) before 2016, Kershaw developed something of a “bad in the postseason” narrative. In fact, he didn’t just become a human in October, he turned into a pumpkin. During that 64.2 innings stretch, for example, Kershaw allowed 33 earned runs (4.59 ERA), primarily because he walked batters at a far greater clip (8.7% walk rate) than he ever has in his career (6.9% walk rate).
Unfortunately, that trend has not continued into 2016.
We already took a look at Kershaw before his Game 2 start of the NLCS against the Cubs, so you’ll want to check that out first, but I will give you an updated reading of his 2016 postseason performance, before digging into something new (and promising!).
Through four appearances (three starts), Kershaw has now recorded a 3.72 ERA, allowing opposing batters to hit just .230/.263/.257 in the process. And although that may even look promising on the surface, he’s only gotten better in each successive start (most recently, you may recall, he threw a seven-inning shutout over the Cubs in Game 2). Worse, he’s been striking out batters at a 31.3% clip, while walking them at just a 5.0% rate. He’ll also be pitching tonight having had plenty of rest.
So is that it? Are the Cubs, you know, screwed? Not so fast!
While racking my brain for an angle against Kershaw, my mind wandered to the Cubs. After all, they too have a say in the outcome of this game – despite what the internet and television may frequently suggest – and hey! they just faced him the other day …. bingo! Although Kershaw is almost entirely cut from another cloth, he’s still a pitcher, and nearly all pitchers share one common weakness: the more they face a lineup (in close time-proximity) the worse they tend to fare. [Brett: Everyone should completely ignore the fact that Kyle Hendricks has to pull off the same trick tonight. Ignore it!]
So, does that hold true for Kershaw? It seems like it.
By my eye, Kershaw has faced the same team within a (subjectively) short time frame four times in 2016: the San Francisco Giants (6 days between starts), the New York Mets (17 days between), the San Francisco Giants again (11 days between starts), and the Washington Nationals (4 days between starts).
What I found from his performances, was rather encouraging:
Kershaw faced the same team in a short period four times this season. His ERA increased in the second start every time (avg. of +1.64 ERA).
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) October 21, 2016
In every single start, Kershaw allowed either more runs, or the same amount of runs in fewer innings, meaning that his ERA went up every single time. And while you and many may joke about the Cubs’ ability to score somewhere between one and two runs against Kershaw tonight, I’ll remind you that two runs would have been enough to beat him last time.
The truth is guys like Kershaw are very, very good at what they do, and because of that, there aren’t usually many reasons to be encouraged. So, when you find a legitimate trend (even one over an exceedingly small sample), it’s worth holding on to.
The Cubs don’t have to win tonight to advance into the World Series, but they are certainly going to try. And now, you have at least one more reason to believe that history – whether it’s a 71-year-old drought or a 28-year-old pitcher – can be beaten.