Mets-Dodgers NLCS Game 4: Predicting Clayton Kershaw’s Performance on Short Rest

By: Brian Mangan

Let us begin with a few things that are self-evident.

  • Clayton Kershaw is already an all-time great. Sure, his postseason track record isn’t the best — but as most savvy fans know, talent will trump small sample sizes.
  • Starters are worse on three days rest.

The question facing the Mets and Dodgers is: how much worse can we expect Clayton Kershaw to be than his usual brilliant self?

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Overall Numbers for Starters on Three Days Rest

Over the last 15 years, there have only been 26 starts by National League* starters on exactly three days rest in the Postseason. To put it frankly, these starters have not fared well, despite being, for the most part, very high-caliber pitchers. Here’s the complete list of names: Penny, Backe, Carpenter, Kershaw 2x, Schilling 2x, Kile, Lowe 2x, Maddux, Beckett, Millwood, Lynn, Redman, Morris, Hampton, O. Perez, Clemens, Oswalt, Ortiz, Hudson, Lincecum 2x, Glavine 2x.

Sure, there are a few Brandon Backe’s in there, but of that 26 start sample, a good 14 of them were from guys you could call legitimate aces like Kershaw, Schilling, Beckett, Lincecum, and Clemens. Here is the composite average line for the 26 starts overall:

short line

You only have a 38% chance that the starter will go six innings, and the average number of pitches thrown is only 87. Only 8 of the 26 teams starting their pitcher on short rest won those games, a .307 winning percentage. The good news for the Dodgers? Over half of the starters (14 of 26) managed to allow 2 earned runs or less, although half of those guys completed less than six innings.

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Starters on Short Rest Struggle, Walking More Batters

Compare the 5.20 ERA for short-rest starters to the 3.71 ERA for all NL starters who have pitched in the postseason over the last two years (48 starts) and you’ll see that the guys on short-rest are demonstrably worse. The average postseason start is also longer, averaging about 5 2/3 innings each. But, interestingly enough, starters on regular rest don’t throw many more pitches than starters on short rest, averaging 89 pitches per outing compared to 87 for the short-rest guys.

The biggest difference that I can find between starters on regular rest and on short-rest that might account for the difference in performance is the walk rate:

rest compare

Starters on short rest still strike out plenty of batters, averaging 9.4 K/9 compared to regular starters, but their walk rate balloons to 4.0 per 9 as compared to 2.5 walks per 9 for regular starters. This is why starters on short rest, although they face the same number of batters as their counterparts (both groups average between 22.8 and 23.6 batters faced per start) give up more runs and don’t go as deep into games.

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So What Can We Expect from Kershaw?

This won’t be Kershaw’s first rodeo on short rest, having done it twice before. Kershaw has pitched well both times, throwing six innings with no earned runs against the Braves in Game 4 of the 2013 NLDS and a quality start (six innings, three earned) against the Cardinals in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS. Kershaw’s peripherals remain strong on short rest, with a 15-3 K-BB ratio, and he’s averaged 96 pitches between the two starts.

Kershaw should be no slouch against the Mets tonight, but it is fair to expect that he will not be his usual, dominant self. His three double-digit strikeout games in the postseason have all come on regular rest (all in NLDS Game 1s) and the Mets may benefit from having seen him pitch only a few short days ago.

Kershaw faced 28 batters each in his three most recent NLDS Game 1 starts, striking out 39% of them and walking only 8% of them. I expect that Kershaw will walk one or two more batters than usual, and will stick around to face only ~24 batters (he faced 23 and 24 his last two starts on short rest).

The Mets lineup may be able to get him for a few runs before knocking him out. Look for Kershaw to turn in another very strong effort on short rest, although it may not be enough for his Dodgers to stave off elimination. My guess at his final line: 5.2 innings, 5 hits, 2 earned runs, 2 walks, 9 strikeouts.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney from New York City, and will be there tonight.

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*I limited the sample to National League starters to account for the fact that they are likely to be pinch-hit for earlier in the game, etc.