This story originally appeared in Sportsnet Magazine
Kenley Jansen leaned back in his chair and rubbed the spot on the inside of his right thigh where Clayton Kershaw left his first mark in professional baseball. It was a rookie-ball game in June 2006, played between the Gulf Coast League affiliates of the Florida Marlins and the L.A. Dodgers, who were eager to debut the 18-year-old left-hander they’d taken seventh overall in that year’s draft. He was lanky and shy and he barely looked old enough to drive, but the kid had a hard fastball and the makings of one hell of a curve that the Dodgers couldn’t wait to start working on. Jansen, just 18 himself, was in his second year of rookie ball and was tasked with catching Kershaw. They met briefly before the game to go over the signs: one finger for a fastball, two for a curve, and a wiggle of four for a changeup—not that they had any intentions of throwing one.
Maybe the nerves distracted him (Kershaw spiked two curveballs for wild pitches and walked a batter in the outing) or maybe Jansen’s fingers were moving too fast, but with a runner on first, the catcher put down two fingers for a curveball and Kershaw saw only one. Jansen, sitting on his heels, expecting that big, slow breaking ball, could only wince as Kershaw unleashed a 98-mph heater directly into the meat of his inner thigh. “I’ll never forget that. I missed the next four games because I could barely crouch,” Jansen says. “I go to the mound and he’s just laughing, like, ‘Oh geez, sorry.’ I caught his next start, too. So we went over the signs very carefully.”
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Of course, it was hard to stay mad at Kershaw because it was clear even then that he was going to be special. The Dodgers held him to just 37 innings that first season of pro ball, but in that limited time he put up a 1.95 ERA and 54 strikeouts. He was a few months out of high school and making hitters look foolish with just two pitches. “You could tell right away he was going to be great; he wasn’t going to be in the minors for long. He was so advanced,” says Jansen, who’s since converted to a pitcher himself and now serves as the Dodgers’ closer. “That’s how it goes sometimes. He has a God-given talent that a lot of people will never have. That’s why he’s the best pitcher on the planet right now.”
That’s not an exaggeration. Kershaw’s led the National League in ERA and WHIP each of the past three seasons, and through his first 17 starts of 2014, he was leading again—except this time he was posting career bests in those categories (not to mention his 11.3 K/9 through early August, another career high and league best). He’s won two of the past three NL Cy Young awards, and a week after the 2014 all-star break, he was the clear front-runner to win another. He’s struck out more batters (859), pitched more complete-game shutouts (8) and accumulated more wins above replacement (23.1) than any pitcher in baseball since 2011. He allowed three hits or fewer in 25 percent of his starts between 2011 and 2013. Even scarier is that through his first 17 starts of 2014, Kershaw was allowing three hits or fewer 35 percent of the time. Somehow, the best pitcher in baseball is still getting better.
Clayton Kershaw first started messing around with a curveball when he was a kid in Highland Park, an affluent suburb about 10 minutes north of downtown Dallas. What he didn’t know at the time was that the childhood pal he was throwing it to—an exuberant, animated boy by the name of Matthew Stafford—would one day be a star himself. Yes, by some strange twist of fate Kershaw and Stafford, the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions, grew up together, playing sports with or against each other throughout their youth. By the time they were 12, they were playing on the same little-league baseball team, and by 15 they were in high school and forming an impressive battery for the Highland Park Scots. Kershaw already had great control of his fastball and a terrific curveball, but Stafford wouldn’t call the breaking pitch often enough for Kershaw’s liking, spurring the pitcher to begin calling his own game from the mound, shaking off pitches until he got to the hook. The two switched places on the football field, with Kershaw playing centre in front of Stafford, who led the team to a state championship that season. Kershaw, a slightly goofy, timid kid away from sports, was never afraid to mix it up on the gridiron. In one game, when Stafford was hit late, Kershaw went after the offending party, earning himself an ejection.
Kershaw wasn’t built like a football player—or an overpowering pitcher, for that matter—until the summer between his sophomore and junior years, when he grew several inches and lost much of the baby fat he’d carried throughout his young life. That added several ticks to his fastball, and suddenly he was throwing in the 90s. He went 13-0 with an ERA of 0.77 during his senior year, striking out a ridiculous 139 batters in 64 innings. In a playoff game against Northwest High School, Kershaw pitched a perfect game, striking out all 15 batters he faced in a five-inning, mercy-rule-shortened contest. He was one of the most highly regarded pitching prospects in a major-league draft loaded with them, including Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer and Brandon Morrow. So far, that 2006 draft class has collected five Cy Young awards.
Still, the Dodgers weren’t entirely sure what they were getting in Kershaw when they gave him a $2.3-million bonus in order to dissuade him from attending Texas A&M on a full scholarship. They knew he’d be good, but not this good. Gilbert Bodet, a Dodgers scout and national cross-checker, was at a game Kershaw started in March 2006, just three months prior to the draft. While he came away impressed, Bodet graded the high schooler’s curveball as only a 45, which falls into the below-average category on the scouting scale of 80, and offered a mark of 55 as his potential upside, which would make him firmly average. The only area of Kershaw’s game that he graded highly was the 17-year-old’s fastball velocity, which Bodet clocked at 94 mph that day.
Part of the reason Kershaw was underestimated in those days may have been because he was still very limited. He threw just two pitches, plus the rare changeup, and struggled to command his looping curve. Russell Martin, who was drafted by the Dodgers in 2002 and now plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates, first caught Kershaw at spring training in 2008 after the then-19-year-old’s first full season of minor-league baseball. He was behind the plate when, during a Grapefruit League game against the Boston Red Sox, Kershaw introduced himself to the world.
The game was being televised, and it was called by the legendary Vin Scully, which meant there were many more eyes than usual on the still-unknown Kershaw when he entered to pitch the fourth inning. The kid quickly earned two outs and then got ahead 1-2 on Red Sox first baseman Sean Casey, a man with more than 1,000 games in the majors and a career batting average over .300. Martin flashed down those two fingers and Kershaw reached back and tossed the nastiest curveball you’re ever going to see. It looked like it was going to sail about five feet above Martin’s head, and Casey reacted accordingly, buckling his knees and watching the ball fall perfectly into the centre of the zone for a strikeout. The gasps from the crowd were audible on the television broadcast and were only covered by Scully’s own disbelieving reaction. “Ohhh, what a curveball. Holy mackerel,” Scully said. “He just broke off public enemy No. 1.” Scully still calls it that to this day.
At field level, the reactions were similar. “I remember Casey looked at me and was just like ‘Whoa, what is this?’” Martin says. “We got back to the dugout and all the guys were losing their minds. Then Nomar Garciaparra goes to Joe Torre, saying, ‘Can we get this guy in the rotation right now? Seriously, let’s get him in the rotation now.’”
Naturally, the Dodgers were wary of that. Kershaw wasn’t even old enough to drink in the U.S. and he’d thrown fewer than 160 professional innings. But when he went to double-A Jacksonville and put up a 1.91 ERA in his first 13 outings, striking out nearly a batter an inning and not giving up a single home run, the Dodgers had no choice. They called him up to the bigs straight from double-A and immediately put him in the rotation as the youngest player in the majors. Initially, Kershaw struggled with his control, walking four batters in four of his first seven starts and making it into the sixth inning just twice. It took him 10 starts to earn his first win, because he wasn’t pitching deep enough into games. But he still had that curveball. Martin remembers the leftie throwing it to right-handed batters and watching the life drop out of their legs as it reached the plate. “If you’re a left-handed hitter, his curveball can look like it’s coming at your head and then drop in for a strike. So if you buckle on a pitch you think is gonna hit you in the head, I get that,” Martin says. “But if you’re right-handed and you’re buckling at a left-hander’s curveball—that’s a hell of a curveball. That’s intense.”
Much of Kershaw’s deception comes from his abnormal delivery—a series of pre-pitch motions that look like an imitation of the way kids are taught not to pitch. There’s an exaggerated arm extension when he comes to his set position; a point when he holds his glove on a bizarrely crooked angle while reading signs; a pause at the apex of his windup, when he seems to stop his motion entirely. He twists his body in such a way that the ball is hidden behind his rear end as he steps toward the plate, and then behind his head as he’s bringing his arm forward. As a batter, you can’t pick up the ball until it’s exploding out of Kershaw’s hand, well above his head. This robs hitters of precious milliseconds to make a decision on what Kershaw is throwing, where he’s throwing it and whether to swing. It’s less time than it takes to blink an eye, but an eternity when you’re trying to square up a 93-mph fastball. Kershaw has been clocked delivering the ball to the plate in less than a second; most pitchers take about one and a half.
Kershaw was incredibly polished at a young age, but something was still missing. In that rookie season, he threw just five sliders and 100 changeups, which represented a mere 5.6 percent of his pitches. The other 94.4 percent of the time he was throwing either the fastball or the curve, which made it easy for hitters to craft a successful approach against him. They could lay off the curveball altogether and wait for the fastball, looking for it in one part of the zone and hitting the hell out of it when it arrived. It was easy to identify which pitch was coming because there was a 20-mph difference between his fastball, which he was throwing at 93.7 mph, and his curveball, which came in at 72.8. No matter how good your hook is or how overpowering your heater, it’s next to impossible to survive as a major-league starter with just two pitches.
So, in May 2009, when Kershaw went out for a between-starts bullpen session at Wrigley Field, the Dodgers bullpen catcher at the time, Mike Borzello, told Kershaw the team wanted him to try throwing a slider. So he did. And it was nasty. He threw another one: nasty again. And then another and another and another, the ball staying tight as it approached the plate before breaking dramatically out of the zone. “We were just seeing if he could throw it in the beginning. And then it just kept getting better,” Martin says. “It breaks off the same plane as the fastball, which makes it so useful. Now hitters can’t just sit fastball on him. They have to be thinking slider as well.”
Within days, Kershaw was perfecting the pitch. He threw 293 of them in 2009, primarily against right-handers, and earned a swinging strike on 15.4 percent of them, making it his most whiffable pitch. Batters swung at it 35.2 percent of the time that season, managing just seven hits, good for a .146 batting average.
If there has been a turning point in his career, adding the slider was it. After developing the pitch at Wrigley, Kershaw finished the year on a phenomenal run, putting up a 2.03 ERA with 130 strikeouts in 115 innings. Opposition batters hit just .196 against him and mustered only two home runs. He threw the slider even more the following season, using it as his second pitch after the fastball. He threw it 655 times, earning a swing on 44.6 percent of them. And in spite of how often opponents tried to hit his slider, they batted just .103 against it. “He pretty much took off from there,” says A.J. Ellis, the Dodgers’ current starting catcher. “It’s funny how that pitch just opened everything up. Now he’s a true pitcher. He can do a lot of different things out there.”
Ellis has been catching Kershaw for three years now, coinciding with Kershaw’s evolution from a merely great pitcher to an astonishingly dominant one. About an hour and 15 minutes before every one of Kershaw’s starts, Ellis will sit down with him and Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to go over the game plan. Ellis watches video meticulously and is one of the most deft catchers in the game when it comes to attacking hitters. Honeycutt, too, is a fountain of knowledge, having pitched in the majors for 20 years and served as the Dodgers’ pitching coach for nearly 10, surviving two managerial changes. When he and Ellis sit down with other Dodgers starters, they do most of the talking, going over hitters’ weaknesses and coming up with ideas on how to exploit them. Not so with Kershaw. “When we go in, Clayton leads it. He goes from batter to batter to batter. “Honey” and I might get a little nugget or two in here and there. But that’s it,” Ellis says. “That meeting is always very serious, very brief. He has no room for anything that’s not important to the game plan. That’s his whole day—focusing on that game plan.”
Kershaw’s focus on start days is intense. He’s become his generation’s Roy Halladay. You don’t talk to him on a start day; you don’t even want to go near him. But really, the work begins two days prior, when Kershaw pores over video of the team he’s about to face. He’ll watch their previous games against left-handed pitchers, especially pitchers with similar arsenals or mechanics to his. He’ll study how they fared against different pitches and what locations they’ve had trouble getting to. He’ll study their tendencies. The one thing he’ll never do, though, is watch film of himself. He can’t stand it. Kershaw is such a perfectionist that when he watches himself pitch he can only see his faults. He’s the best pitcher in the game, but all he’ll take away from watching himself throw is what he did wrong. “Clayton will never be content until he has a perfect season. And a perfect season is the Dodgers winning every one of his starts—going 34-0 when he’s on the mound and then winning the World Series,” Ellis says. “It’s an impossible goal to reach. But that’s what drives him.”
Ellis will tell you that his job is easy, because Kershaw can throw any pitch in any count to any batter. He throws his fastball whether he’s ahead or behind in the count, and he’s thrown his slider with exactly the same frequency to right-handers and left-handers (24 percent of the time to both) since 2010. When he has two strikes on a hitter, he uses his fastball and breaking pitches almost equally, the former slightly more often against left-handers and the latter slightly more against right-handers. But the difference is negligible. Add it up and it’s impossible for batters to predict what’s coming—and catchers love it when hitters guess. “You don’t ever feel like you’re put in a box behind the plate, like you have to throw a certain pitch,” Ellis says. “You always feel like you’re a little bit ahead of the batter. You can play the cat-and-mouse game. You can be creative. You can think two, three, four pitches ahead and really set up the hitter.”
Ellis and Kershaw will often use those opportunities to attack a hitter’s weaknesses and expose areas of the plate or pitches they can’t get to. But Kershaw is so good that Ellis won’t hesitate to go after a batter’s strength as well. Take Buster Posey, a catcher himself and one of the best hitters in the game against sliders. Posey earned nearly a fifth of his hits and a third of his home runs in 2013 against the pitch, and his production against sliders, according to FanGraphs, was sixth-best in the majors. Because of this, Posey saw sliders on just 15.3 percent of the pitches he faced in 2013, down from 20 percent the year before as the league adjusted to his clear strength against the pitch. But Kershaw didn’t follow suit. Of the 54 pitches he threw Posey in 2013, a whopping 24.1 percent were sliders. Posey had just one hit against those (a homer, of course) while whiffing or taking a strike on more than half. “It’s not just a slider; it’s Clayton Kershaw’s slider. It’s one of the best in baseball,” Ellis says. “We’re always going to throw it—Clayton’s stuff matches up with anybody.”
The culmination of everything Kershaw, still just 26, has worked toward in his first six years in the majors came in June when he no-hit the Colorado Rockies with one of the best games ever pitched. He faced just one batter over the minimum (the result of a Hanley Ramirez throwing error that robbed him of a perfect game) and struck out 15, with eight coming on the slider and six on the curve. Nearly 74 percent of his pitches were strikes, only one Rockie managed to work a full count and just three balls were hit out of the infield. Yet, to hear Ellis recall events, it was just another day for Kershaw. “He was no different; he’s always all business. Clayton could be pitching seven innings and giving up five hits and you’re still going to treat him like he’s got a no-hitter going,” the catcher says. In fact, the pair were so routine in the no-hitter that they even broke a cardinal unwritten baseball rule in the ninth, when Ellis talked to Kershaw about how he wanted to approach a pinch-hitter, Charlie Culberson, just before the start of the inning. You’re never supposed to talk to a pitcher when he’s got a no-hitter intact, especially that late in the game. “Totally against baseball code,” Ellis says. “But then Charlie swung at the first pitch and popped out. So we didn’t even get to do what we talked about.”
Watching Kershaw’s gem from the Dodgers’ bullpen, Jansen, now eight years removed from that 98-mph heater in the thigh, put up his feet and took it all in. As the Dodgers’ closer, he’s used to the rise of nerves around the sixth or seventh inning, when the game is on the line and his team may need a save. But that night, as on most nights Kershaw pitches, Jansen could be a fan like the rest of us. “What’s crazy is that he’s the same kid now that he was back then. Just this humble, great kid with nasty stuff,” Jansen says. “It was a lot of fun to catch him. But now it’s just fun to watch.”