When Rob Manfred finally issued his punishment to the Houston Astros earlier this week, he certainly must have hoped it would sweep the matter under the rug. His implementation of an effective gag order on teams and players commenting on the matter only made that effort more transparent.
No such luck. With Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran quickly joining A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow in the unemployment line, and resurfaced allegations of Jose Altuve concealing an electronic buzzer as he celebrated his pennant-clinching 2019 homer, the whole affair is ratcheting up to new levels of paranoia and embarrassment for the game. Alex Wood and Cody Bellinger cranked up the heat by breaking the code of silence.
AMEN!!! The fact that there hasn’t been any consequences to any players up to this point is wild. https://t.co/zjgsJuuQlK
— Alex Wood (@Awood45) January 16, 2020
There is so much to consider (and reconsider) as this scandal unfolds. It will literally take a professionally written book to thoroughly chronicle the full impact it has on Major League Baseball. In my view, it’s already more deleterious to the game than the 1919 Black Sox and Pete Rose. It will have ripple effects for a long time, and never be forgotten.
For us Dodger fans, the first thing that comes to mind is how much we were likely deprived of in 2017. All the legacies and narratives that were forever altered, the celebrations and closure lost to time, etc. In the first department are the long-derided World Series goats Yu Darvish, Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen.
For two years, these three in particular bore the brunt of Dodger fan ire over what could have been. Darvish couldn’t survive two innings in games 3 and 7, being accused of tipping pitches as the Astros destroyed him both times. Kenley Jansen served up a cutter in game 2 that Marwin Gonzalez pulverized for a game-tying home run. Kershaw, after a brilliant game 1, coughed up 4-0 and 7-4 leads in game 5, exiting in the fifth inning and facilitating a chain reaction that led to a dizzying 13-12 walk-off win for Houston.
As I had often stated on social media and in my writing, I long considered Kershaw’s downfall to be the key culprit in determining why the title slipped away from the Dodgers. It was a view echoed by plenty of others, with Andy McCullough writing a staggering account that posited much the same. Especially after many prior Octobers rife with struggle, it was all the worse to see another meltdown from him, this time on the biggest stage possible.
My ire was initially magnified by the circumstances of life itself. I had been through hell in 2017, taking solace in the Dodgers’ title hopes as a source of salvation. After the team’s emotional win to tie the series in game 4, it felt like fate that he would purge his playoff demons and seal a 3-2 series lead. The team would thus clinch at home, and put a happy ending to a miserable year. I wouldn’t be able to watch what Kershaw seal his legacy, as my good friends Hallie and Tyson were married that day and had a reception in the evening. But as I walked out the door with the Dodgers up 4-0, victory seemed all but assured.
Then, in the middle of the reception, I checked my phone to see the game was 8-8. I stood there, stunned, and then started to think: “I know exactly what happened.” When the reception was over, I saw the final score of 13-12, and learned of Kershaw’s consequential meltdowns. I couldn’t comprehend it, and was officially done defending him in October.
Even in the immediate aftermath of Darvish’s second meltdown of game 7, I didn’t really focus on him. My mind lingered on Kershaw’s disaster in game 5, a frustration only exacerbated by his throwing multiple shutdown innings in relief in game 7 no less. “Where was that in game 5???” I thought to myself. Darvish and Jansen’s misfires were uncharacteristic, but Kershaw’s was painfully characteristic. I felt angry that after years of blow-ups in the NLDS and NLCS, he had to have yet another in the first World Series of my lifetime.
In the two years that followed, my opinion didn’t change. No matter how many pitch tipping references or lamentations of game 2 filled my Twitter feed, I could never get past game 5. The crushing home run given up to the hated Yuli Gurriel, the exhausted walks to George Springer and Alex Bregman that kicked open the floodgates for a nightmarish hellfire of a game…it boggled my mind that the best pitcher of his generation couldn’t at least turn in a quality start with so much at stake.
That is, before the past few months anyway. Needless to say, everything that transpired in Houston in 2017 is now suspect. That’s even more the case for any postseason results, where every moment counts and a technological edge like the one utilized by the Astros could make all the difference.
So with that, I hereby reverse my long standing position of blaming Clayton Kershaw for game 5 of the 2017 World Series, and thus the series as a whole.
To be clear, MLB’s official report confirmed the sign stealing system continued in the 2017 postseason. Throughout that October, Houston went 8-1 at home, and many of their key players had suspiciously disparate splits between their home and road stats. In addition to Kershaw, the team ambushed a who’s who of the best pitchers of the era at Minute Maid Park, including Chris Sale, C.C. Sabathia, and Darvish.
Skeptics might respond that, well, the Astros are simply a fantastic team that was more than capable of drubbing all of those pitchers. Plus, they were playing with their hearts on their sleeves for Hurricane Harvey. These aren’t unreasonable views, as they were talented enough to win it all regardless. But said talent only makes the cheating more inexcusable. The Astros only have themselves to blame for their championship run forever being cast into murky doubt. Trite and obvious as it is to say: if they didn’t want their integrity questioned, they should have played fair and square.
I really don’t think it’s a stretch to say the Dodgers were cheated out of a title, or at least a fair contest. Granted, they ostensibly lost game 2 fair and square, as well as game 7 (although I truly believe that game 7 doesn’t happen if the Dodgers win at least one more in Houston, making the cheating far more impactful). But when even noted Dodger hater Grant Brisbee writes an entire article saying the Dodgers were unquestionably screwed, it’s safe to make the claim as a fan.
Most importantly, it has to be emphasized that Kershaw wasn’t just great in game 1. He was historically dominant. He was just as untouchable out of the bullpen in game 7, albeit with the game effectively decided. He cruised through the first three innings of game 5 before walks, key hits, and a three-run homer did him in in the fourth and fifth. While Kershaw has had plenty of mixed bag postseasons before and after, a gap that big between his efforts at Dodger Stadium and Minute Maid Park now seems all the fishier.
Clayton Kershaw in the 2017 World Series:
At Dodger Stadium:
11IP, 1ER, 3BBs, 15Ks, 0.82 ERA
At Minute Maid Park:
4.2IP, 6ER, 3BB 2Ks, 6.50 ERA pic.twitter.com/fFnSOXA11y
— Starting 9 (@Starting9) January 16, 2020
Another reason I feel it’s appropriate to surmise Kershaw was impacted by cheating is Alex Wood. It always struck me as bizarre that Darvish looked like he didn’t belong in the majors in game 3, Kershaw was only a hair better in game 5, yet Wood almost threw a no-hitter in game 4. I don’t mean that with disrespect…Wood was superb in 2017, going to the All-Star Game and boasting the best win-loss percentage in baseball. But he was still the team’s #4 starter…how could he outshine the GOAT (as well as Sale, Sabathia, and Darvish) by that much at Minute Maid Park?
As it turns out, it was because Wood and catcher Austin Barnes radically changed up the signals out of (now justified) fear of illicit sign-stealing. It was also ahead of the curve, as the Washington Nationals ended up adopting the strategy on a wider scale and won the 2019 World Series as a result.
One could ask: if it worked so well for Wood, and the Dodgers were on high alert from the shady rumors, why didn’t Darvish and especially Kershaw do the same? That’s…well, a good point. But in defense of the Dodgers, they didn’t know anywhere near the extent of what they were up against. Plus, remembering a complex set of signs is not only hard, but reflective of an inherently unfair playing field.
That onus is squarely on Houston’s shoulders. Opposing teams should always come prepared, and reasonably change their signs throughout a game. But they should not have to resort to unorthodox methods on that scale to have a chance at victory. It’s easy to take what we know now and retroactively second-guess, but that just feels like a stretch. As Max Kellerman has repeatedly emphasized on ESPN’s First Take, a system like Houston’s is one you truly cannot defend against.
Obviously, this reconsideration doesn’t change anything in the past or present. While I am all for an asterisk on Houston’s ill-gotten title, the events and statistics of game 5 still technically stand. We cannot go back in time and change it, and given Kershaw’s prime is clearly over, it’s not like he can lead the rotation back to the World Series as he did in ‘17. (After all, it is Walker Buehler who is now the staff’s true ace.)
The notion of giving Los Angeles a hand-me-down trophy retroactively, and thus any credentials for Kershaw, is absurd. Sadly, Kershaw still has a long history of postseason meltdowns that are very much of his doing, and were very costly for the team. The Narrative may very well be alive in his head, although for all we know it isn’t. On the surface, he remains competitive and dedicated to overcoming his struggles anew in 2020.
All Los Angeles can do is get him the ring he clearly deserves. The Dodgers have two years left on his contract to do it. They will still have to de-emphasize him rather than keep putting him on a pedestal in October, as they unwisely did in the 2019 NLDS. Moreover, he will have to continue to develop his offspeed stuff as he adjusts to the downside of his career. (Most importantly by adding a changeup to his arsenal.)
But going forward, I am done savaging him for the 2017 World Series. In light of all these revelations, it feels unfair and just a waste of energy to single out Kershaw. Perhaps it was unfair and a waste of energy when it seemed like a completely fair contest. He wasn’t the only source of blame on paper, of course. Regardless, with what we know now, the understanding of the series seems much different than what we once believed.
2017 is over and done with. Many players from the team have moved on elsewhere or retired. But we still have Clayton Edward Kershaw, as well as other key members from that magical squad. Kersh has given it his all since 2008 on the field as the best pitcher of the era, off the field in his charity efforts, and as a family man (welcoming his adorable third child this week). Now it’s time to make him a champion.