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Clayton Kershaw at 30: A decade of dominance as seen by the pitcher and those who know him best

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CLAYTON KERSHAW CRACKED open a window into the future on May 25, 2008. One minute, Vin Scully was introducing the television audience to the 2006 first-round MLB draft pick from Texas with the smooth cheeks and slight hesitation in his delivery. Thirty-two pitches later, Kershaw walked off the mound having struck out the side against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning of his major league debut.

While the crowd of 46,566 at Dodger Stadium exulted in the possibilities, the fans had no idea how deeply the blips between, “Good morning, good afternoon and goodnight” would resonate with Kershaw. A decade later, he recoils at the notion he made things look easy by whiffing Skip Schumaker, Ryan Ludwick and Troy Glaus in that Sunday matinee.

“Yeah, and I walked the second guy and gave up a double to Pujols,” he said.

The box score is a testament to his annoyance. Kershaw walked Brian Barton on four pitches before allowing a double to deep left-center by Albert Pujols for his first big league run. That is his biggest takeaway from the inning.

Kershaw recovered from that indignity to go six strong, and he has encountered very few blips since. If he handed the ball to manager Dave Roberts after his Opening Day start this week and kept on walking, he would go straight to Cooperstown on the first ballot.

Kershaw turned 30 years old March 19 and has three Cy Young Awards, an MVP, three ERA titles, four strikeout titles and seven straight All-Star Games on his résumé. He’s paid like an ace, with three years and $98 million left on the mammoth contract extension he signed in 2014. Kershaw has to decide by November whether he’ll exercise an opt-out clause in the deal. Based on his 21 1/3 scoreless innings and 23-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Cactus League, he’s not exactly stressing it.

With his 10-year anniversary in the majors approaching, Kershaw talked to ESPN.com about his evolution as a pitcher and a professional. How did he get here, and how does he plan to maintain the level of performance he has established? The best pitcher in baseball and some fellow passengers on his journey reflect on the pivotal moments, revelations and attributes that have helped make Kershaw Kershaw.

‘The slider was the separator’

Kershaw’s rookie year was a mixed bag. He logged a 4.26 ERA in 22 appearances and walked 52 batters in 107 1/3 innings. Command of the strike zone was a problem, and the issues spilled over into April 2009. After Kershaw got clobbered by the Astros and Rockies in back-to-back starts, manager Joe Torre and hitting coach Don Mattingly summoned him to the office for some straight talk.

“Joe and Donnie were in there and basically said, ‘Look, if you’re not throwing your curveball for a strike, you have one pitch,'” Kershaw said. “They told me, ‘You need to figure something out.'”

Kershaw has always found spinning a ball more natural than mastering the arm speed and grip required to make a changeup work. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt showed him a slider grip, and he began tinkering with input from bullpen catcher Mike Borzello. In 2009, he threw the slider about 7 percent of the time. Last year, his slider usage was a whopping 35 percent. Among elite big league pitchers, only Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer made more liberal use of the pitch.

“The curveball was working well, but it wasn’t a pitch you could call,” said Mark Sweeney, a member of the 2008 Dodgers. “It was so nasty, it was a swing-and-miss pitch, but you couldn’t drop it in for a strike. It had so much depth to it, but it had that arc to it where you weren’t going to get the call. And a lot of hitters tried to stay off it because they couldn’t do much with it. The slider really was the separator. That took him to a different level.”


‘The hitters will tell you what you need to do’

Kershaw’s pitch usage through the years reflects his ability to read situations and adjust. His fastball usage peaked at 72 percent in 2009 and gradually declined to 47 percent in 2017. Even with 2,057 innings’ worth of big league wear on his arm, Kershaw’s velocity has held firm at a tick under 93 mph. But he threw fastballs last year at the same rate as Jason Vargas, whose 85.6 mph was the slowest in the majors by a pitcher not named R.A. Dickey.

“None of this is on purpose,” Kershaw said. “It’s just a matter of what’s working — what you feel like you need to do to get guys out. I never go into a season thinking I’m going to use a certain pitch one way or the other. The hitters will tell you what you need to do.

“It just happens. You start learning other pitches and figuring out different ways to get guys out. There aren’t too many guys who can get away with throwing a fastball 72 percent of the time, especially as a starter. You have to figure something out.”

Through time, Kershaw has discovered that a well-placed fastball complemented by an 88 mph slider and a 73 mph curveball can bring success even with negligible use of a changeup. His two breaking balls live in blissful harmony and complement each other wonderfully. Lefty hitters have a .190/.243/.308 career slash line against him. Righties are only a tad less overwhelmed, at .210/.266/.306.

“Two completely different grips,” Kershaw said of the slider and curve. “Two completely different thought processes, so that really helps me to differentiate between the two. I have to have both of them. I can’t just live off one or the other. I have to have both.”


‘He couldn’t believe it was happening’

When Kershaw arrived 10 years ago, the Dodgers didn’t have a Roy Halladay or Chris Carpenter type to school him on the finer points of pitching and life in the majors. Brad Penny was on his way to posting a 6.27 ERA and was upset that the team hadn’t signed him to an extension. Derek Lowe was still logging 200 innings a season, but he was in his free-agent walk year and on his way out of Los Angeles. So Kershaw quickly figured things out on his own.

“He had kind of a youthful swagger about him that a lot of us fell in love with,” Sweeney said. “It was almost like he couldn’t believe it was happening. He had the ability to have fun all the way leading up to the day he was pitching, and then he was locked in. You don’t usually see that from kids. Plus, Rick Honeycutt was perfect for him. They had a real good relationship that I felt was essential for him. When you don’t have veteran guys, you need a confidant, and I think Rick was that. Which was really cool.”

When Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti acquired Greg Maddux in 2008 — the second time he traded for Maddux in three seasons — he envisioned a bit of the Jedi master rubbing off on the prodigy. Maddux was 42 years old and in the final weeks of his brilliant career, but he could still be a positive influence on a budding staff ace.

“Half of bringing Greg in was I knew he would be a positive influence on everybody — including the hitters,” Colletti said. “I knew how Greg thought and processed information. He was at the end of his career, but the wisdom was still razor-sharp. Greg might be the smartest pitcher I’ve ever been around on a daily basis. To me, he borders on genius. I would always want somebody like that around somebody like Clayton.”


‘He has the ability to be Koufax’

From the day Kershaw emerged as the top prospect in the Dodgers’ system, one comparison was inevitable. Torre finally dispensed with caution and said what everyone was thinking — that Kershaw had the ability and stuff to make the Sandy Koufax comparisons legitimate.

Koufax made annual appearances at spring training in Vero Beach and was accessible to all the Dodgers. But everyone took notice when the two lefties from different generations began bonding through baseball.

“The day he came in, no one announced it,” Sweeney said. “No one said, ‘Hey, Sandy is coming into camp.’ But I walked out of the clubhouse, and the bullpen is tucked in there in the corner and they’re sitting there having a conversation. If it wasn’t the first time Clayton met him, it was pretty close. And I’m like, ‘That’s what you want.’

“I remember seeing them in the bullpen and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ That was like me talking to a Tony Gwynn, who would have that type of impact you need as a young guy. It was pretty special. At the beginning of his career, everybody was like, ‘He has the ability to be Koufax,’ and you’re like, ‘Come on. Stop. Look at the numbers.’ Having him try to meet that challenge, that was tough. But he’s getting pretty damn close.”

The relationship deepened over time. In the spring of 2010, Kershaw and Koufax appeared together at an event for Torre’s Safe at Home Foundation in Los Angeles. They shared a ride back to Arizona on a private plane and spent an hour talking pitching and other assorted topics. Kershaw later observed how much the conversation meant to him and how much knowledge he filed away from it.

“It reminds me of Barry Bonds and Willie Mays, which I saw in San Francisco,” Colletti said. “It’s a younger player understanding the walk and the history of somebody who came before them and was obviously stellar in the same career — in the same city, too. And there’s a respect back, from Willie to Barry and from Sandy to Clayton, because they recognize and understand the craft. It’s like a student and a teacher. There’s a reciprocal gift both ways.”


‘You have to be a tremendous athlete’

Kershaw’s windup is inimitable and distinct. He raises his arms unusually high and drops his landing leg almost to the ground before beginning his momentum toward the plate. The slight pause in his delivery and arm angle create deception and throw off the hitter’s timing. The motion isn’t exactly the same as it was upon arrival, but the basic tenets are in place.

“You have to be a tremendous athlete to have the unique mechanics he has and the ability to repeat them,” said former Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis. “Those are the building blocks of his command and his ability to execute. He works tirelessly on the repeatability of his mechanics. When he was able to find that slider and implement it right away, it just worked with his natural arm slot. He had a tremendous [grasp] for what the pitch was supposed to feel like in his hand and how it was supposed to be executed.”

Former Dodgers star Orel Hershiser, now a team broadcaster, compares Kershaw to Jim Furyk, Hubert Green and other successful golfers whose swings would never appear in an instructional book. But at the key points in the process — at the height of the backswing, on point of contact and at the top of the follow-through — everything is in sync.

“You wouldn’t teach it,” Hershiser said, “but it sure works.”


‘You can’t stay stagnant’

When defensive shifts came into vogue, Kershaw was not especially enamored by the concept, and he made his feelings known. He’s not big on analytics or taking deep dives into the numbers, but he has gradually embraced new-age thinking if it might help steal an out or win a game.

“I was a little against it at first, but our guys here do a real good job, especially infield-wise,” Kershaw said. “They study it and know it a lot better than I do. I’ve grown to trust it a little bit. For every ball that finds a hole when it’s not supposed to, I bet they catch two or three that they shouldn’t. I saw it a lot in the playoffs last year, actually. There were a lot of balls in that short-right-field area where we had our second baseman. It was a nice feeling.”

Injuries to his back and the wear and tear of aging have prompted Kershaw to embrace new training methods and changes to his diet and nutrition. He also understands the importance of proper sleep — although he jokes that a good night’s sleep is a more elusive proposition now that he has a 3-year-old daughter and a 17-month-old son.

Kershaw is not the type of celebrity who revels in sitting courtside at Lakers games, but he has crossed paths with enough athletes from other sports to learn that something can always be gained from a casual conversation.

“You can’t stay stagnant,” Kershaw said. “You can’t just assume you’re going to be good this year because you were good last year. You can’t assume your stuff that worked last year is just going to magically appear this year. You’ve got to continue to work and gain knowledge.

“I don’t get the opportunity often, but I like talking about different routines guys have. How many shots do they have to put up to feel like their jump shot is good, or how much time in the weight room do the football guys have to put in? It’s a small fraternity of people who play professional sports, and you’ll see guys in the clubhouse sometimes. I love hearing that stuff.”


‘I need to be there for my guys’

“He’s unmatched as far as competitiveness goes,” Ellis said. “I know that’s a cliché. Everybody wants to be a great competitor. But Clayton is unmatched with his ability to mentally push himself through situations. For me, what makes him so special is his ability to pitch at the highest level in a 1 o’clock game, on a getaway day, when there are 1,100 people in the stands and the players on both teams are tired of playing a day game after a night game. He has the ability to get to a level that no one else can match in that moment because of what he does mentally to prepare.”

Kershaw’s checkered postseason history inevitably comes up as a blot on his résumé. He’s 7-7 with a 4.35 ERA in 24 October appearances. But the numbers are skewed by his 0-4 record and 7.15 ERA in back-to-back postseasons against St. Louis in 2013 and ’14. Kershaw has made four postseason starts on short rest, and last year, he came out of the bullpen on two days’ rest to throw 43 pitches of shutout relief against Houston in Game 7 of the World Series.

Like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Madison Bumgarner and Chris Sale, to name a few accomplished peers, Kershaw lives for going deep on days when the bullpen is gassed and each batter retired lessens the load on a reliever in need.

“I know his mindset is: ‘I need to be there for my guys,'” Sweeney said. “That’s why everyone absolutely loves him. He’s not doing it for himself stat-wise. He doesn’t look at it that way.

“When he’s getting taken out and he hands the ball to the manager, that next step in him being bummed out about it is real. There are some guys who are like, ‘I want to show I’m mad.’ He’s literally mad. It probably goes through his mind as he’s walking to the dugout, ‘Why did I walk that guy’ or, ‘Why did I give up that double?’ He’s thinking that because he’s a perfectionist.”

‘Chasing his own perfection’

Brandon McCarthy signed a four-year, $48 million contract with the Dodgers in December 2014 and spent three seasons in L.A. marveling at Kershaw’s borderline maniacal attention to detail. McCarthy now trains in Orlando, Florida, as an Atlanta Brave. During a recent morning in the Grapefruit League, he envisioned precisely what Kershaw’s day would look like as it unfolded roughly 2,100 miles away.

“I can tell you in two hours exactly where he’s going to be based on what day it is and his routine,” McCarthy said. “It’s clockwork, and he just does it and does it and does it. It doesn’t matter if he’s just gone nine innings with 15 punchouts or the alternative — six innings with two runs and eight punchouts. You know, the bad starts. He just does it and does it and does it.”

McCarthy recalled how Kershaw would mill around the outfield in batting practice the day before starts, enlist a stray teammate to get down in a squat and casually spin a few breaking balls. If the last two weren’t right, he might seek out another teammate or keep spinning balls against the outfield wall to capture the precise feeling he wanted to take into the next day’s game.

“He’s chasing his own perfection,” McCarthy said. “Sometimes the situation is demented. He just wants to be as good as he can be at all times. For the best of the best of the best, there has to be a screw loose, and you hope it’s in a way that’s contained there.

“For Clayton, it absolutely is. He’s a great guy away from all that. But when it’s time to go, this is it. The only thing that matters right now is, ‘How do I spin this curveball? How do I spin this slider? Everything else can go away. How do I fix this?'”


‘There’s Kershaw, but there’s also Clayton’

One of Kershaw’s most impressive traits is his ability to compartmentalize. He’s the resident social director in spring training, the man in charge of the brackets for the clubhouse pingpong tournaments and a regular fantasy football participant.

“He’s very relatable,” McCarthy said. “Once he puts the weights down or he’s done throwing, he breaks mentally and you can talk to him again. There’s Kershaw, but there’s also Clayton, the normal guy. He has all the attributes you’re looking for in a model ace teammate.”

Kershaw’s generosity knows no bounds. In early February, Ellis, his longtime pal, told him he might be signing with the San Diego Padres. Kershaw told him a spare room was waiting at the Kershaw family condo in Arizona, and that’s how events unfolded. Each morning, Kershaw would head for Dodgers camp in Glendale and Ellis would drive to Padres camp in Peoria. They would return in the evening, and Kershaw and Uncle A.J. would play with the kids before retiring to the golf green out back for some chipping, putting and baseball talk.

“Clayton is like an Academy Award-winning character actor,” Ellis said. “On the day he pitches, he transforms into this role where he brings a level of intensity to the ballpark and he’s able to maintain it. Then you come off the field after the game, and inevitably he’s won the game, because he’s Clayton Kershaw, and he’s gone eight innings and he’s punched out 13, and he’s goofing around in the clubhouse or laughing about something that’s happened in the game, and you’re able to make fun of him because of something he did or said on the field.

“For the next four days, he’s the best teammate in the clubhouse, with the way he’s in tune with what’s going on or pushing guys from the bench. And then that fifth day comes along, and he’s walking around stalking the clubhouse like a man on a mission again. The rest of the guys are all staying out of his way, but everybody knows the team is going to win that day. It’s a great feeling.”


‘I want to earn everything they’re giving me’

Kershaw was 25 years old and coming off his second Cy Young Award in three years when the Dodgers signed him to a $215 million extension in January 2014. The deal surpassed Verlander’s $180 million contract with the Detroit Tigers and made Kershaw the highest-paid pitcher in history.

He has tried to earn each dollar in ways that transcend statistics and awards. Kershaw has won the Branch Rickey and Roberto Clemente awards for his humanitarian work and traveled to Zambia with his wife, Ellen, in conjunction with his efforts to raise money to build an orphanage.

To the people who have watched him grow and maintain a standard of excellence for a decade, the story of Kershaw recalling that first-inning blip against St. Louis in May 2008 is true to his character.

“He’s not one that really loves compliments,” Hershiser said. “A compliment doesn’t drive him to go, ‘Oh, I’m going to get more compliments.’ He’s more driven by, ‘You can’t’ than, ‘You can.’ That makes him special.”

So where does Kershaw’s 11th major league season take him? Will his opt-out clause be the prelude to a return home to Texas or to an illustrious second chapter in Los Angeles? Kershaw provides no clues which way he’s leaning. When the sky is still dark in the Cactus League and he arrives at Camelback Ranch to get a jump on the competition, he’s focused strictly on his craft and the quest to snap off the perfect slider. His health and ability to adapt will help dictate his performance on the field. But the quest for perfection never wanes.

“I admire consistency and guys who are able to go out there and perform year in and year out,” Kershaw said. “In basketball, there’s obviously LeBron [James]. But in my hometown, you have Dirk Nowitzki, who’s 40 and still going. I really admire and respect him. Obviously, there’s Tom Brady and what he’s been able to do. Baseball-wise, you look at Chase Utley, who’s still going at 39, and you’ve got Rich Hill, who sits right next to me. They’re older guys who continue to play and be consistent and grind it out, and that’s a special thing.

“If there’s one thing you can take pride in, it’s going out there every fifth day your whole career and maintaining that level of performance. The organization entrusted me with a lot of years and a lot of money to do that, and I don’t take that for granted. It’s a responsibility I put on myself. If I don’t feel like doing something or working out that day, you have to remember that. The bottom line is: I want to earn everything they’re giving me and continue to do that.”

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