The Clayton Conundrum
There is something that I like to call "Schottenheimer Consciousness," which is the surprising and unhappy realization that no matter how talented you are and no matter how hard you work and no matter how clearly you seem to see the future, your story will not turn out the way you planned.
Marty Schottenheimer was a great football coach. He was not a good football coach. He was a great one. Schottenheimer unknowingly had spent all his life preparing to become a great football coach. He grew up in the heart of steel and football country, Canonsburg, Pa., McDonald, Pa., places like that, just outside of Pittsburgh, where football gets into your lungs, where Lujack and Namath and Blanda and Unitas and Ditka and Marino and Kelly played, where coaches like Chuck Knox and Bill Cowher and Marvin Lewis and Mike McCarthy grew up on the game. Schottenheimer went to Pitt. He was a linebacker and a special teams madman in Buffalo. He became the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants when he was only 33 yeas old.
He intended to win championships as a coach, that's why you do that stuff, and Schottenheimer knew he had it in him, knew that he had the talent to motivate and the empathy to understand how players felt and the raw power to make a team play together as one.
He took over a Cleveland Browns team that was a mess, a team that had missed its brief window and had lost its way. He took that team and molded it into a tough unit that made few mistakes and won on special teams, and they made consecutive AFC Championship Games. They lost both in utterly heartbreaking fashion.
But, this is important, this was before Marty had achieved Schottenheimer Consciousness. He still thought of himself as a great young coach who would win championships. He got into a nasty conflict with Browns owner Art Modell -- as people did -- and left for Kansas City, a team that had made the playoffs once in 17 years, a city that had lost all interest and all hope. There were officially 30,000 people at the last Chiefs home game before Schottenheimer was hired.
He and general manager Carl Peterson built a winner, not just on the field -- the Chiefs had winning records in Schottenheimer's first nine straight seasons and made the playoffs in seven of them — but in how they turned Kansas City back into a football town. Suddenly, every game sold out. Everyone wore red. A waiting list for season tickets was rumored to be 50,000 deep. The Chiefs home game experience -- with the parking lot tailgating and extraordinary noise at Arrowhead Stadium -- was overwhelming; Schottenheimer's teams almost never lost at home.
And then -- in 1995 and 1997, when the team was at its peak, 13-3 both years, best record in the conference both years, smashmouth Martyball both years, favored to reach the Super Bowl both years -- they lost heartbreakers in the playoffs. At home.
And now, he was gaining Schottenheimer Consciousness, beginning to realize that he might not be the hero of the story after all. Maybe he wasn't a championship coach. Maybe he was the guy who, in the end, could put together good teams but couldn't win it all. That punched a hole in his gut, and in 1998 -- in an effort to counteract the storyline -- he changed everything about the way he coached, he backed off his old-fashioned discipline, he renounced his conservative ways, he talked about getting yards in “chunks.” He let his players express themselves in ways that would have made the old Schottenheimer lose his mind. On paper, it seemed sensible enough; you have to change and keep up with the times.
It wasn’t sensible. The team melted down, utterly melted down, and when the season ended, Schottenheimer quit football to spend more time with his family.
He gave it a couple more tries, spending a year in Washington, then taking over a Chargers team that had become a fiasco. He did in San Diego what he had done so often before. He molded a great team. He led the Chargers to a 12-4 season. They promptly lost to the Jets in overtime. He led the Chargers to a 14-2 season, best record in football, LaDainian Tomlinson set the touchdown record, everything was lined up. And they lost to New England when one of their players didn't have the good sense to just go down after intercepting a pass.
And that was that. Schottenheimer was 63 years old, and that Patriots game was the last he would coach. He won 200 regular-season games, seventh all time, He's the only one of the top eight not in the Hall of Fame, and he probably won't get there, even though his 61% winning percentage is better than Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Marv Levy and other Hall of Fame coaches. He was a great coach. But as his career went on, he came to realize that his story, fair or unfair, was exactly what he did not want it to become, the story of the coach who could not quite win when it mattered most.
Now, finally, we can talk about Clayton Kershaw.
* * *
Last week, Clayton Kershaw delivered what was, by game score, his best pitching start ever in the postseason. He was crazy efficient against Atlanta, jamming eight innings, two hits, three strikeouts and 85 pitches into a tight Dodgers' 3-0 victory. He was pulled from the game because starters don't finish games anymore, certainly not in the playoffs, but a surprising fact emerged afterward.
That was the first time that Kershaw had ever thrown more than seven innings in his 20 postseason starts.
That's just weird, right? True, starters don't throw complete games. True, the great task of the modern postseason is figuring out EXACTLY when your pitcher has lost effectiveness and to take him out two batters before that happens. But Clayton Kershaw, the pitcher of our generation, already one of a handful of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, had never pitched into the eighth inning of a playoff game? So weird.
That said, he'd had some interesting seven-inning outings before. One of them was impeccable, a two-hit suffocation of the Cubs at Wrigley Field in 2016. The others were very good. In Game 1 of the World Series last year, he struck out 11 and allowed a single run on an Alex Bregman homer. He struck out 12 Braves in Atlanta back in 2013. He gave up three hits and one run in New York against the Mets in 2015.
[caption id="attachment_23340" align="aligncenter" width="452"] The Dodgers are just 12-9 in Kershaw's postseason starts.[/caption]
He had a good six-inning start at Wrigley last year where the only run he allowed was a Kris Bryant homer. And then he had a couple of odd six-inning starts that look pretty good on paper but didn't turn out all that well in real life. He threw six innings without giving up an earned run against Atlanta in 2013, but he gave up two unearned runs by pitching sloppy baseball -- he gave up two hits and threw a wild pitch to make a mess of Adrian Gonzalez's error. The Dodgers came back to win that game late.
And he threw six innings without giving up an earned run against St. Louis. But again he gave up an unearned run that he sort of earned. He gave up a leadoff double to David Freese, who moved to third on a passed ball (that's what made it an unearned run). He then allowed the sacrifice fly. The Cardinals won that game 1-0.
Anyway, those seven starts before last week made up the good part of Clayton Kershaw's postseason work, and they're just not that good. They'd be good for mortals, yes, but for Clayton Kershaw? No. We who admire him try to play those games up -- see, Kershaw is sometimes Kershaw in the playoffs. The bad stuff is small sample size. It's bad luck. It's poor defense. It's bad managing. It's the quirky nature of the game. Just wait til his next outing.
But Schottenheimer Consciousness is slowly coming over us. This is a guy who has led the league in ERA the last five times he has thrown 175 innings in a season. This is a guy who has won three Cy Young Awards, finished second twice more, has led the league in wins (three times), WHIP (four times), strikeouts (three times), ERA+ (four times), shutouts (three times), complete games (two times), Fielding Independent Pitching (two times) and the complicated but very revealing Situational Wins Saved (six times). This is the legend, the modern day Koufax, the modern day Gibson, the modern day Grove ...
And even when he's been GOOD in the playoffs, he hasn't been all that good.
And then there are the bad times. There have been a staggering number of bad times. I was in Los Angeles, Game 1 of the 2014 Division Series, when Kershaw gave up a home run to the Cardinals' second batter, Randal Grichuk, but then settled down, retired the next 16 in a row. Yes, that's Kershaw, that's the force, but then he gave up a homer to Matt Carpenter with the Dodgers up 6-1. OK, fine, whatever.
The next inning, Clayton Kershaw got rocked like I've never seen a great pitcher get rocked. He gave up four hard-hit singles in a row. What the heck was happening? He struck out Pete Kozma. OK, he's back, but no, he gave up a single to Jon Jay. Another strikeout. Up came Matt Carpenter with the bases loaded. Kershaw gave up a rocket double that scored three runs; Kershaw was then mercifully pulled from the game (Pedro Baez came in to complete the farce by giving up a home run that smacked the loss on Kershaw's back).
People said that Kershaw was tipping his pitches. Maybe he was, but as others have pointed out, you don't have to tip hanging breaking balls and middle-middle fastballs. They get crushed no matter what.
There was the shocking World Series game last year against Houston, when Kershaw was staked to a four-run lead, blew it after giving up a three-run homer to Yuli Gurriel, was promptly staked to a three-run lead, which he helped give back by walking back-to-back hitters in the bottom of the inning before getting pulled. Kenta Maeda gave up a three-run homer -- it's true that Kershaw's teammates never seem to bail him out.
But why does Clayton Kershaw need to be bailed out so often?
He was, as mentioned, really good against the Cubs in Game 2 of the 2016 NL Championship Series; but you can't mention that without mentioning that he was blah in Game 6, when the Dodgers faced elimination. He gave up two in the first (one an unearned run but, again, kind of earned) and another one in the second and a home run in the fourth, and the Dodgers never stood a chance.
It's a staggering postseason life. The Dodgers are 207-109 in games that Kershaw has started in his regular-season career; they win two-thirds of the time that the guy pitches. From 2014 through 2017, those four seasons, they won 83 of the 108 games he started, that's 77% of his starts, more than three-quarters of the time.
In the playoffs, the Dodgers are 12-9 in his starts, 13-13 overall when he pitches, and here's the craziest part of all -- the later the series goes, the worse it gets.
Dodgers record in games when Kershaw starts:
Game 7: 0-0 (0-1 overall)
Game 6: 0-2
Game 5: 1-1 (2-2 overall)
Game 4: 3-1 (3-2 overall)
Game 3: 0-0
Game 2: 3-1 (3-2 overall)
Game 1: 5-4
He's never started a Game 7 (he pitched well in relief in last year's lost World Series Game 7). He's 0-2 and had two un-Kershaw starts in Game 6. He was not good in one of his Game 5 starts.
Small sample sizes all, but ... well, we just saw Hamilton again on the National Tour. It was somehow as amazing an experience as the first time around, I'll tell you about that later, but Hamilton ends with those haunting words:
Let me tell you what I wish I'd known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who tells your story
On Friday night, Kershaw was awful. He was, as usual, hurt by his defense, particularly the defense of his catcher, Yasmani Grandal. But he was given a one-run lead, and he somehow allowed a bomb of a home run to a relief pitcher named Brandon Woodruff, and then he pitched uneven, unhappy baseball -- hits, walks -- he was pitching such haphazard baseball that the Dodgers had to get him out of there in the third inning.
And by now, he knows. He has achieved Schottenheimer Consciousness. This is his story. He's an all-time great regular-season pitcher. That phrase "all-time great regular-season pitcher" is as hurtful as it is complimentary. But he knows it now, and this is why it will be tough to change the story. He likely will never again take the mound in the playoffs without that history being in the foreground, all those postseason failures chasing him like something in a nightmare. If he has a great postseason outing, there will be the "Has Kershaw finally stared down his postseason demons?" question, and then if he has another great postseason outing, maybe the question will become more of a statement, and then if he has ANOTHER great postseason outing ...
But does he really have THREE great postseason outings in him? He's 30 now, his arm is older, he hasn't thrown 200 inning since 2015, his stuff isn't nearly as electric. And what is a great postseason outing anyway? Will six shutout innings really change Kershaw's story? How about seven? As good as Kershaw was against Atlanta last week, he only struck out three, and mostly just mesmerized a shellshocked young Braves team that was still trying to get its arms around the notion that they're actually good. After all, Hyun-Jin Ryu was even more dominant the day before.
Point is: I’m a Kershaw guy, and I don't want there to be a Schottenheimer anchor weighing down the memory of Clayton Kershaw's awesome career. But I didn't want it weighing down Marty's career, either. This is where we are. Kershaw's greatness doesn't transfer to October. Why? Many people are happy to guess. The rest of us hope that it turns, but more and more we realize that it probably won't.