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Why the Dodgers' season could be on the line tonight

From ESPN - September 12, 2017

Five days ago in the middle of the Dodgers' inexplicable sputter, Clayton Kershaw, of all people, failed. His outing -- 3 2/3 innings, nine baserunners and four runs allowed -- put the Dodgers in a hole they would not climb out of. It was loss No. 7 in a team losing streak that's stretched to 11 entering Tuesday.

What happened? "It's not my job to diagnose it," Kershaw told reporters. "Just to see the results, and not like it."

OK, fine, but seriously -- what happened? What ever happens in a bad start? Kershaw starts again tonight, and for the Dodgers -- not just tonight, not just this month, but potentially throughout October -- that question might be the key to the season.

There are three ways a good player can be bad: (A) He can actually perform as well as he always does but suffer to circumstances, luck, timing or a simply better opponent having his own great day; (B) he can be genuinely quite bad, but in the way that all of us have bad days and move on; or (C) he can be genuinely terrible, in a way that reflects an actual change in who he is, who he will be going forward -- sore elbow, irreversible aging, etc.

The scary one is C, but in most cases, the answer to a bad day is A or B. For pitchers, I suspect, a far larger percentage of bad starts than we realize are As. Philip Humber, the former major leaguer who once threw a perfect game, once told it to me like this: "To be honest, there's never much difference. The difference between a home run and a swing-and-a-miss is, what, an inch and a half? You can throw a great pitch, the guy makes a great swing. And if it's at a guy, it's an out." (In a blind test, most smart baseball fans could not really tell the difference between a pitch that leads to a hit and one that leads to an out.)

So we re-watched Kershaw's bad start against the Rockies from last Thursday, then we watched Kershaw's excellent start against the Rockies from June 24. We wanted to diagnose this bad start. What we saw is not great. In fact, most of what we saw showed up in the very first at-bat of the game, between Kershaw and Charlie Blackmon:

The first pitch was a fastball spiked in the dirt. The second was supposed to be outer half and sailed way outside. Two easy takes. The third was supposed to be low and away, and Kershaw missed up and over the plate. (It was fouled off.)

The fourth pitch was perfect. It was as fine a pitch as any Hall of Famer has ever delivered. Swung on and missed.

The fifth was supposed to be like the fourth, but it ended up less than half an inch from the exact center of the strike zone. (Foul.) The sixth, a slider, is not on that plot, because it landed in front of the plate. The seventh was a fastball on the outer half. Charlie Blackmon singled.

A very generous reading of this at-bat -- and some others throughout the game -- might suggest we are talking about explanation A, the one that says Kershaw actually pitched well but got unlucky. On 2-1, he threw a perfect pitch, 92.1 mph right to Yasmani Grandal's target, right on Blackmon's hands, and right where a slider or a curve might have started if Blackmon had been looking for either of those pitches. He got a very good hitter to swing and miss on a 2-1 fastball. That's the good stuff. Kershaw threw a bunch of great pitches in this game. I promise.

And, though he allowed a hit to Blackmon, it was on a pitch arguably in a good spot, down and on the outer half, where Kershaw had tried to locate the first three fastballs of the game. The hit was just a ground ball that happened to be hit where nobody was standing. You could say the same about Mark Reynolds' weak single in the first, or Jonathan Lucroy's shallow sacrifice fly down the right-field line in the third.

But this explanation does not really hold up. The "arguably in a good spot" pitch Blackmon hit was supposed to be inside, and Kershaw missed all the way across the plate. The single Reynolds hit came on a pitch that was supposed to be away but ended up in the middle of the plate, belt-high. The Lucroy sacrifice fly came on a pitch that was supposed to be inside and missed over the plate:

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