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The Growing Legend of Clayton Kershaw

It started with a meaningless pitch in spring training and just might end with a plaque in Cooperstown

Clayton Kershaw was 19 years old the first time he took over the baseball world. It was a spring training game against the defending world champion Red Sox, March 9, 2008, and Kershaw was wearing no. 96, the telltale sign of a prospect with no shot at going west with the big club. He’d throw a few innings, impress a few folks if he was lucky, then get sent back to the minors, where he could continue to toil away from the eyes of the masses. Then came the pitch

The Curveball

Kershaw got ahead of Sean Casey 1-2. Down went the sign for the curve. Kershaw reared back, fired … and we’ll let Vin Scully take it from there:

“Ohhh, what a curveball! Holy mackerel! He just broke off Public Enemy No. 1.”

In his 64 years calling Dodgers games, Scully has never been prone to hyperbole. When a truly special moment happens, sure, he’ll deliver as stirring a description as you’ll ever hear. But he understands context. A random pitch in a random spring training game isn’t usually going to make him jump out of his chair. But this was no ordinary pitch. Kershaw’s curveball was a masterpiece, falling out of the sky and turning Casey’s knees into spaghetti.

Jon Weisman was watching the game at home. The proprietor of the excellent blog Dodger Thoughts, Weisman was excited to see Kershaw’s first TV appearance in a Dodgers uniform. The moment that pitch landed for strike three, Weisman knew he had to watch it again. And again. Over and over, he kept rewinding, then rewatching, rewinding, rewatching. Finally, he decided to post the clip on YouTube. Dodger Thoughts had a healthy audience at the time. But Weisman wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter. All he had were his blog readers, this one pitch, and Vin Scully’s call.

As the day wore on, people started to notice. Yahoo picked up the clip and gave it some play. The views started piling up. A medium-quality recording off a blogger’s TV of a random pitch in a random spring training game, and 659,000 people had watched it. In two days. By the time Major League Baseball pulled the clip for copyright violation (as has been their wont), it had racked up more than 750,000 views.

“It was this great showstopper, this coming-out party,” Weisman recalled. “This was still early enough in his career that ‘There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect’ and all of that was in play. It was almost like, if he does nothing else, at least we’d have this.”

At least we’d have Public Enemy No. 1. At least we’d have that one glimpse of a pitch that reminded the baseball world, if only for a moment, of you-know-who.

The Slider

Kershaw made his major league debut on May 25, 2008, two and a half months after mesmerizing Vin Scully, less than two years after being drafted out of high school. He was a two-pitch pitcher at that point, mixing mid-90s heat with that incredible 12-to-6 curveball. The early results were mixed. He’d dominate at times, blowing hitters away with the fastball, then throwing that filthy Uncle Charlie that no one could touch. Other times, he’d have no idea where the ball was going. He racked up deep counts, lots of walks, and high early pitch counts. Partly because of that lack of command and partly because of the Dodgers’ extreme care with pitch limits, Kershaw made it through six innings just once in his first nine starts, and didn’t pick up his first major league win until his 10th. All in all, it wasn’t a bad rookie season: 21 starts (and one relief appearance), 107⅔ innings, 4.26 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 21.3 percent strikeout rate, 11.1 percent walk rate, no injuries.

He made his first career start against the archrival Giants on April 15, 2009, his second start of the new season. It was an evisceration. Kershaw carved through San Francisco’s lineup, fanning 13 batters in seven innings and allowing just one hit. Through his first two starts, Kershaw had allowed just two runs and three hits in 12 frames, striking out 19 batters and looking ready to take the league by storm.

He wasn’t ready. The Astros and Rockies combined to score 15 runs in Kershaw’s next two starts, knocking him out in the fifth inning both times. Though the results improved after that, Kershaw’s two-pitch repertoire (with very occasional changeups mixed in) was starting to waver. Hitters began laying off his curve altogether, figuring they had little chance of making good contact if they swung. Kershaw’s fastball was the single most valuable fastball thrown by any pitcher in the majors that year, which allowed him to compete nearly every time out. Still, Dodgers management and Joe Torre worried that Kershaw’s success might not last if he were forced to become more or less a one-pitch pitcher. There was even talk of a brief demotion to the minors to work on other pitches.

That’s when the Dodgers suggested a change.

“We’re at Wrigley Field and Kersh and I are getting ready to do a bullpen session between starts,” recalled A.J. Ellis, the Dodgers catcher who first caught Kershaw at Double-A in 2007 and is now his best friend on the team. “Our bullpen catcher at the time, Mike Borzello, says, ‘We’re going to try something new today.’ They want to see if he can throw a slider. The very first one he throws is just perfect. No one can believe it. Right away, Borzello says, ‘If he throws it like that, that’s a pitch he can throw for a strike, and as a strikeout pitch.’ This was the first time Kersh had ever thrown a slider off a mound in his life.”

Kershaw immediately started throwing the pitch in games and finding success with it. From that Wrigley bullpen session till the rest of the year, Kershaw’s numbers were obscene: 115 innings pitched, 130 strikeouts, 59 walks, 79 hits, two homers, 2.03 ERA, with opponents hitting just .196/.298/.253. By 2010, the slider supplanted his curve as the go-to breaking pitch. Per PITCHf/x data, Kershaw’s slider was the second-best in the game in 2010, and the best in 2011. If Kershaw’s supernatural talent wasn’t blatantly obvious before, it certainly was now. A pitch he’d never thrown in his life just two years earlier was now his best offering.

The Maddux

Kershaw’s numbers improved with each passing season. His strikeout rate surged to 26.4 percent in 2009, sixth-best in baseball. The next year, Kershaw shaved more than a walk an inning off his BB rate. But something was still missing from Kershaw’s game. Due in part to the Dodgers’ continued pitch limits but also to Kershaw’s high-strikeout, high-walk, deep-counts approach, he wasn’t lasting long in games. By the end of the 2009 season, Kershaw still had no career complete games, and had made it through eight innings just once. He finally bagged his first complete game on September 14, 2010, with his big breakthrough again coming against the Giants, this time with a four-hit shutout and a 1-0 victory.

By 2011, the Dodgers had removed the last of his pre-planned pitch limits, and Kershaw was ready for another change.

“We talked about getting easier outs, being more efficient with his pitches,” Ellis said. “It got to the point where in his mind if he could get through eight or nine innings with two or three strikeouts, that was much better than six innings striking out 10.”

This was Kershaw trying to become less like Nolan Ryan and more like Greg Maddux. His strikeout rates never really went anywhere. But Kershaw did start going deeper into games thanks to a steep drop in his walk rate (13 percent in 2009, 9.6 percent in 2010, 5.9 percent in 2011). In his final 19 starts of the year, he went seven innings or more 14 times, with four complete games.

On September 20, 2011, he went for his 20th win of the year. His mound opponent? Tim Lincecum, the pitcher who’d claimed the crown as the NL’s best pitcher with back-to-back Cy Young wins in 2008 and 2009. Lincecum’s performance had slipped some since, but his matchups with Kershaw remained must-see events, two supreme talents who waged a series of incredible battles. Kershaw had bested Lincecum three straight times earlier that season. This time, he allowed just one run in 7⅓ innings, pacing the Dodgers to a 2-1 win.

Kershaw earned his first Cy Young that season, finishing with a 21-5 record, a 2.28 ERA, a 2.47 FIP, and an average of more than seven innings per start for the first time in his career. Baseball blogger Jason Lukehart tracks a pitching efficiency stat called, appropriately enough, the Maddux. The concept of a Maddux is simple: Toss a nine-inning shutout, and do it while throwing fewer than 100 pitches. Actually getting a Maddux isn’t simple: In the past 25 years, the league has averaged about 10 Madduxes per season. Though Kershaw pitched more like him than ever before in 2011, he couldn’t claim a Maddux in his Cy Young season. By the time he finally threw his first Maddux on Opening Day of this year, there could be no more debate: Kershaw was now, at age 25, clearly the best pitcher in the National League. And while few had dared to do it overtly at first, you began hearing at least a few direct comparisons at this point to … you know who.

The Bat

Though most of Kershaw’s game improved dramatically over his first three seasons, one element did not: his hitting. In his debut season, Kershaw went 2-for-29, with no walks, no extra-base hits, and 13 strikeouts. In his second year, he hit .104/.157/.104, managing three walks but still seeking his first extra-base hit. In his third season, he somehow got worse, hitting an abysmal .055/.071/.055.

A few weeks after that 2010 campaign ended, Ellis called his buddy and battery mate to see what he had planned that offseason. “I asked him if he’d started throwing yet,” Ellis said. “He said he hadn’t picked up a ball at all. But he was going to this batting cage owned by a high school buddy of his, and he was taking swings, all the time.”

This was consistent with Kershaw’s approach to other elements of the game. He’d practiced bunting extensively, with the stated goal of leading the league in sacrifice bunts; he did so in 2010. He’d worked on his defense, with the stated goal of improving his ability to prevent base runners and also curbing base stealing; he won a Gold Glove in 2011, and has allowed just 41 stolen bases in 82 attempts in his five-plus major league seasons.

In 2011, after that offseason filled with batting practice, Kershaw’s batting line jumped to .225/.267/.225. He still didn’t have an extra-base hit in four big league seasons. But he was no longer an automatic out, either, working more counts in his favor and making far more contact than he had in the past. Kershaw’s natural ability probably helped improve his hitting results. But there was more going on there. Teammates had teased him about his lousy hitting. It was all good-natured, of course. But it drove the pathologically intense Kershaw nuts, made him determined to improve. Put simply, Ellis said, “He just got tired of being a bad hitter.”

During his Opening Day masterpiece this year, Kershaw spent most of the game locked in a scoreless tie. The person who finally broke the tie was Kershaw himself, blasting a home run over the center-field wall to give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead in the eighth, collecting just the second extra-base hit of his career, and his first home run. One of Kershaw’s stated goals when he started working in earnest on improving his hitting was to convince his manager to leave him in games, not just because he could continue to pitch well, but also because the Dodgers wouldn’t be losing that much at the plate if they let him hit for himself. Mission accomplished.

The Tunnel Vision

Talk to Ellis, other Dodgers teammates, beat writers, and everyone else around the team, and they’ll all describe Kershaw as pathologically determined to win.

We sportswriters have a tendency to equate such intensity and focus with success. But while you’d certainly like to see athletes try hard and pay close attention to detail at their given sport, there are plenty of maniacally determined players in every sport who just aren’t that good. You can flip it around, too. Ever see Larry Walker play baseball? Then you know that a laid-back approach can foster a spectacular career.

So we’re not going to mythologize Kershaw’s intensity here. In his mind, it makes sense to be a beloved, happy-go-lucky teammate four days out of five, only to bite teammates’ heads off on days when he’s starting if they bring up anything — movies, dinner plans, anything — that doesn’t relate to that night’s start.

We bring this up to tell the Josh Lindblom story. As anyone who’s ever watched an Adrian Beltre head-touching GIF knows, baseball players love nothing better than to mess with teammates who are off-the-charts, crazy intense. For Kershaw, the Dodgers started a pool. If you’ve ever watched a Kershaw start, there’s a good chance you’ve seen an image of him on the bench between innings, his arm wrapped, cap tugged low over his eyes, a thousand-yard glare beaming out of his eyes. Ellis and a few teammates issued a challenge: The first person to go over to Kershaw and ask him their hand-picked goofy question during one of those between-innings scenes would win the entire pot. For several games, no one had the guts to do it, so the bounty grew.

The Dodgers traveled to San Francisco, where relievers sit in the dugout instead of beyond the outfield wall or down the line, because of the configuration of AT&T Park’s bullpen. This, then, was the first time the Dodgers’ relief corps had heard of the Kershaw Bet. When Lindblom got wind of it, he figured he’d try it.

“He starts to make his way over to Kersh, and we’re all fired up because we think it’s going to happen,” Ellis recalled. “By this point the pot had grown to $500. All Lindblom needed to do was tap him on the arm and ask him if he thought the ending of Inception was real. At the last minute, he chickened out. After the game, Lindblom told Kersh about the bet — he had no idea before, since none of us had ever told him. He took one look at Lindblom and said, ‘You should be glad you didn’t do it … because I would have strangled you.'”

The Stats

For his career, Kershaw sports a 2.74 ERA that’s the best in baseball since 2008. His 2.99 FIP trails only Cliff Lee over that same span. His 25.6 percent strikeout rate since ’08 trails only Lincecum, his 0.59 home runs per nine innings rate sitting behind only Josh Johnson.

To drill down to how he amasses those numbers, let’s turn to our brainy friends at ESPN Stats & Info.

First off, Kershaw is a beast in tight spots, per these tables:

Lowest Opponents’ AVG With RISP for SP, Last 30 Years (Min. 750 Batters Faced)
Clayton Kershaw: .194
Pedro Martinez: .209
Sid Fernandez: .211
Matt Cain: .211
Roger Clemens: .211

Most Strikeouts Per Batter Faced With RISP for SP, Last 30 Years (Min. 750 Batters Faced)
Randy Johnson: .294
Pedro Martinez: .293
Clayton Kershaw: .272
Hideo Nomo: .261
Curt Schilling: .251
Nolan Ryan: .246

Lowest Opponents’ OBP With 2 Outs for SP, Since 2011 (Min. 750 Batters Faced)
Clayton Kershaw .249
Justin Verlander .256
David Price .260
Matt Cain .269

He’s also developed a keen sense of when to throw his curveball and when to throw his slider. Following that in-season epiphany in 2009, Kershaw’s slider usage rate and value soared until it lapped that of his curveball. But in 2012, his slider suddenly became far less effective. So the lefty upped his curveball frequency to its highest level in three years, and found great success doing so. Though that curve isn’t quite the classic over-the-top offering it used to be during the Public Enemy No. 1 days, it still breaks sharply and can freeze even the league’s best hitters. It’s nearly unhittable if a hitter’s gearing up for Kershaw’s big fastball.

Highest K Pct. on PA Ending in Curveball, Since 2011
Clayton Kershaw: 58.5
Yu Darvish: 52.5
Felix Doubront: 48.3
Stephen Strasburg: 46.8
Cole Hamels: 46.6

Clayton Kershaw Curveball Ranks Among SP, Since 2012
Opp BA: .103 (1st)
Opp OBP: .107 (1st)
Opp Slug pct: .132 (2nd)
Opp OPS: .240 (1st)
K/PA pct: 59% (1st)

Since 2011, Kershaw’s curve has produced 120 strikeouts and yielded just four extra-base hits. Per the Dodgers’ internal metrics, Kershaw’s curve generated the lowest percentage of hard-hit balls of any pitch by any pitcher in 2012.

Most Strikeouts on Curveball and Slider Combined
Since 2011
Clayton Kershaw: 359
CC Sabathia: 297
A.J. Burnett: 268
Madison Bumgarner: 251

Kershaw’s no traditional crafty lefty, either. Since 2011, the only lefty starters with a higher average fastball velocity than Kershaw’s 93.5 mph are David Price (94.9 mph) and Derek Holland (94.1 mph). Kershaw’s fastball also has the second-most vertical break of any other lefty’s heater (per PITCHf/x data) trailing only J.A. Happ.

How good has this run been overall? Dig these numbers: Only three lefties in major league history have ever racked up more strikeouts before age 25 than Kershaw’s 974 — Sam McDowell (1,101), Fernando Valenzuela (1,032), and Frank Tanana (1,074). In a franchise that includes such pitching greatness as Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser, Don Sutton, Don Drysdale, and you-know-who, Kershaw’s 974 strikeouts were the most for any Dodgers pitcher in his first five big league seasons.

Then there’s this: Over the past 30 years, only one NL pitcher sports a lower ERA in his first five big league seasons than Kershaw’s 2.79. That would be Dwight Gooden (2.62), who was probably the greatest pitching phenom of the past half-century before his career turned south.

The Fans

Though the Dodgers have a rich history of great players, teams, and tradition, the past 25 years haven’t been particularly kind to their fans. There’ve been a few playoff appearances, sure. But there have also been many disappointments, especially in terms of player longevity. Pedro Martinez came up through the Dodgers system and grew into one of the best pitchers in baseball history. Thanks to an ill-advised trade, his best years were spent in Montreal and Boston. Valenzuela and Hershiser did wear Dodger blue for a while, but both eventually buckled under the weight of ludicrous workloads. Hershiser being sent out for 11 innings and 169 pitches against the Braves on October 1, 1989, long after the Dodgers had been eliminated from the NL West race, remains one of the most puzzling decisions in recent memory. Mike Piazza probably came closest to being a true franchise player for the Dodgers over the past quarter-century … and he may well go into the Hall of Fame wearing a different cap, given he played more games for the Mets than he did for the Dodgers.

The Dodgers now have two franchise players, in Kershaw and Matt Kemp. But injuries have eaten into Kemp’s production, leaving fans to wonder if his best days might already be behind him, and leaving Kershaw as the face of the team. Weisman recalls Kershaw’s 2011 Cy Young season most fondly. That year, revelations of Frank McCourt’s improprieties as Dodgers owner and the ugly divorce battle between Frank and his wife Jamie turned off fans like Weisman in a way that hadn’t been felt in two decades.

“The only comparable time for me was ’92,” said Weisman. “They had a terrible team that year, and that was also the year of the riots. But even though they were terrible, Dodger Stadium was still a respite. It was the opposite in 2011. The team wasn’t terrible, but with everything that happened that year at the stadium and everything going on around the team, it wasn’t a good place to be. The only time I really enjoyed myself at the ballpark that year is when Kershaw was pitching. When he was out there, at least for a little while, you could forget everything else that was going on.”

With Kershaw due to start Wednesday against the Diamondbacks, he sits just 7⅓ innings away from 1,000. After all the quick exits and downfalls of other would-be Dodgers-for-life, the hope here is for Kershaw to hit 2,000, and maybe 3,000, in an L.A. uniform. Which brings us to …

The Contract

Kershaw’s signed to a two-year deal that’s due to expire at the end of this season. He’s under team control for one more year after that, then could become a free agent after the 2014 campaign. He and the Dodgers have reportedly had talks about a long-term pact, but those talks haven’t led to anything yet. Kershaw has since deflected questions about a deal, saying he doesn’t want to talk about that during the season, and referring all queries to his agent. Though that could sound like double-talk coming from other players, Ellis insists it’s just Kershaw being Kershaw, so locked in on his starts that he won’t talk about the weather, let alone the nine figures he stands to make when he eventually puts pen to paper.

The Dodgers have, for all intents and purposes, what seems like unlimited funds available, given the resources of their ownership group and especially their new TV deal, expected to fetch $7 billion or more. Given the Dodgers’ willingness to break the bank on players with less talent and far dimmer futures than Kershaw, there would seem to be no earthly way they’d let him test free agency.

The open question is what Kershaw figures to make when he does finally sign. Felix Hernandez landed a seven-year, $175 million contract while nearly two years older than Kershaw is now. That age gap, as well as a known elbow problem that briefly cast the deal into doubt, held King Felix’s asking price back a bit, even if his performance to that point did rival Kershaw’s, and even if it was the largest for a pitcher in major league history at the time. Seven weeks later, Justin Verlander agreed to a contract extension which, if all options are triggered, will pay him $202 million. Verlander’s track record beats Hernandez’s, and arguably might top Kershaw’s by a small margin, too. That said, Verlander was 30 years old when he inked his new deal.

In Kershaw, the Dodgers have the best pitcher in the league, just past age 25, with a more or less unblemished track record of health (he had a minor hip injury last year), and the spendiest, most I-give-zero-f’s owners in the game. Though talent evaluators wisely weigh on-field performance and health above all other factors, they do consider off-field variables too. As Ellis and others have noted, Kershaw is a universally liked teammate, someone who gets a lot of support because he dishes it out himself. He’s building orphanages in Africa, for Pete’s sake.

Where all of that leaves the final numbers is tough to say. The bidding surely has to start at $200 million guaranteed. But it might very well go considerably higher, with some speculation that he could approach Alex Rodriguez’s record $275 million price tag. Kershaw is a pitcher, and pitchers are always one pitch away from disaster. Even with that enormous risk, no one who matters in this equation is going to care once this deal finally gets done.

The Koufax

There are those who still insist that comparing Kershaw to you-know-who amounts to blasphemy. That it doesn’t matter what Kershaw has done or will do from here, he’ll never match the guy who topped 300 innings pitched three times, who tossed 54 complete games in 82 starts over one two-year stretch and led the league in ERA for five straight seasons. That Kershaw on four days’ rest can never approach what he did on three days’ rest, or in the case of one famous pennant-clinching start, two days’ rest. That Kershaw can never, and will never, be Sandy Koufax.

There’s no disputing that Koufax’s peak is and always will be one of the best of all time; his five-year peak included ERA+ figures of 143, 159, 186, 160, and 190. But Koufax didn’t start his career the way he finished it. He was, in fact, a rather ordinary pitcher for the first six years of his career, with an ERA a tick worse than league average at 4.10 and major control problems (an average of 99 walks a year from 1958 through 1960). By contrast, Kershaw is entering his own sixth season, and he owns a career ERA 29 percent better than league average, with a FIP 23 percent above league average, after adjusting for league and park effects. We don’t yet know what Kershaw’s peak will look like, or what kind of longevity he’ll have.

But while Koufax put up otherworldly numbers in his prime that Kershaw almost certainly won’t touch, it’s worth asking if throwing from sky-high mounds and facing 150-pound banjo hitters one-third of the time in that run-prevention-first era might’ve impacted Koufax’s stats in a way that a straight time frame adjustment might not fully capture. Maybe throwing 300-plus great innings in a season is simply impossible now even if the four-man rotation were reinstated, because even middle infielders can be muscle-bound, 30-homer threats today, in a way they weren’t in Koufax’s time. Maybe there’s a cascading effect when you’re pitching under ideal, pitcher-friendly circumstances as Koufax did in the mid-’60s, where pitchers can exert less effort and thus go deeper into games and produce amazing numbers in a way that Kershaw and his contemporaries can’t. Though several smart baseball analysts have made a go of adjusting stats for different league effects over the years, it’s possible that at the extremes — such as in the case of Sandy Koufax at the height of his powers — there are complicating factors that make comparing players across eras trickier than it might look.

Here’s what we do know: Kershaw, like Koufax before him, is the best pitcher in the league, putting up gigantic numbers that still look great even after granting the benefit of Dodger Stadium’s pitcher-assisting confines. If he can stay healthy well through 12 seasons, many of his counting stats could become comparable to Koufax’s. Though he’ll never complete as many games or throw as many innings in a season as Koufax did, by the standards of a five-man rotation Kershaw still ranks among the superelite pitchers of his day for heavy usage and durability. And yes, you can watch Kershaw spin off his now-famous curve, and even without the benefit of PITCHf/x 50 years ago, still reasonably ask if Public Enemy No. 1 could’ve hung with Koufax’s heartbreaker for the ages.

Maybe Koufax’s peak years are so impossibly good that no one in today’s game can ever hope to match them. But at this point in his career, you can say Clayton Kershaw’s name in the same sentence as Sandy Koufax’s and not get dismissed with the swipe of a left hand. That’s a pretty damn good start.

Filed Under: MLB, Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers, Sandy Koufax

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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