What Does the Kershaw Playoff Narrative Mean?

After his most recent postseason start—a loss to the Braves in Game 4 of the NLCS—the Kershaw Playoff Narrative discourse has surfaced again. Whatever that means.
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“The history, it has no bearing on anything,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “This is a new year, and he’s shown what he can do in the postseason. So I don’t think anybody in the clubhouse cares about that narrative.”

This was 2016—Roberts’ first year with the Dodgers—after a brilliant playoff start by Clayton Kershaw. The ace had pitched seven shutout innings for a 1-0 win over the Cubs in the NLCS, and Roberts, though he surely didn’t realize it at the time, had entered a new line onto the record: He’d issued one of the first quotes ever to explicitly tie the idea of “narrative” to Kershaw in October.

The narrative lived on. In his next start, Kershaw gave up five runs in five innings, and the Dodgers lost their chance to advance to the World Series. The use of “narrative” was abundant in the recaps of that one. And, well, you probably know where we are now.

Kershaw’s performance against the Braves in Game 4 of the NLCS on Thursday hit all the familiar notes. He pitched capably through the first several innings. And then he began to falter. A logical opportunity for the manager to pull him passed on by. So did another. And then, by the time it actually happened, it was all but too late. The broadcast went on to offer gratuitous shots of him looking forlorn in the dugout.

The discourse followed in its usual fashion: It was Kershaw. No, it was the back issue that had troubled him earlier in the week. No, it was Roberts, for neglecting to pull him sooner. No, it was the offense, for failing to give him more of a lead. No, it was the cruel hand of fate, twisted in delight at such a display of human impotence. And so on. But it all swung on one hinge: The Kershaw Playoff Narrative.

Oct 15, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) walks to the dugout after being removed from the game during the sixth inning of game four of the 2020 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves at Globe Life Field.

The term is used so frequently to describe what is going on here that it has begun to feel like a proper noun. The words alone—Kershaw Playoff Narrative—can seem like a weird meta-referential joke: There are people who make fun of the idea of the narrative, and people who make fun of the prospect that anyone can make fun of the idea of the narrative, and now the term itself seems to come with its own little eye-roll. And all that is only possible because the phraseology is so fixed. Kershaw’s performance in October is generally not referred to as a history, or as his record, or as an experience, yet neither is it a story or a fiction. It is a narrative.

It’s highly particular language. It lives in a gray area—a narrative is neither truth nor non-truth. It suggests a cohesive account that is bigger than any of its constituent facts.

And the facts here go something like this: Kershaw is among the greatest pitchers in living memory. But his ability is not a fixed quantity; he has needed to adjust, with mixed results, as he has aged. He has had some excellent playoff performances, and, quite obviously, some far less excellent ones. Those in the latter category, Thursday’s included, have often been made worse by managerial decisions and by the bullpen—but that does not make them any less his. You’re left with the certitude that Playoff Kershaw is not and cannot be Regular Season Kershaw, except, you know, when he actually is.

It’s not a very satisfying set of facts. It lends itself to serious-minded analysis—what, specifically, has gone right or wrong in each individual instance—rather than those forlorn close shots of the pitcher alone in the dugout. And so there is not much discussion of the record here. There is instead this talk of narrative.

A narrative can be edited. It might bear some sort of relationship to the truth, but it does not have to be close, and it does not have to be fixed. It is so very often personal. Look at the language used to describe it—a physical thing, to exit or enter, to impose on something else. I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I never asked to be a part of, since 2009. (Kershaw’s first playoff loss: Oct. 15th, ‘09.) We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. (The “narrative” invocations here at first came most often from writers—in service of, quite literally, telling a story—but now seem to come from everyone in service of everything.) You’ve lost the narrative flow. (Can you find it again?)

All of which is to say: The narrative is malleable. It is not fixed, and it does not even have to be true. But this does not mean that it is not real.