Dodgers Clayton Kershaw rediscovered himself in 2020 - Sports Illustrated

Clayton Kershaw's Journey to Rediscover Himself

Over the past year, the best pitcher on the planet began to consider that he doesn't have it all figured out.
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Six weeks ago, Clayton Kershaw went looking for his slider. He had just retired the first three Diamondbacks in order, but the breaking ball felt wrong. So he loped down the steps of the Dodgers’ dugout, turned right into the tunnel and faced the wall that players use for target practice—throwing baseballs when they are satisfied with their performance and stray equipment when they are not.

In his left hand, Kershaw cradled a blue weighted “plyo ball.” These training tools have become popular throughout the sport over the past few years, but until recently Kershaw disdained them. This one weighed 450 grams, more than three times as much as a standard MLB ball. He fiddled with his grip. He fired a half-dozen sliders at the wall. Something clicked. He darted back up the stairs in time to begin the second inning. He tossed six one-hit frames that day and struck out eight.

“It was ridiculous,” says Rob Hill, who is in his first year as Los Angeles's pitching coordinator. “No one does that. That’s just not something that anybody does.”

Especially not Kershaw. The greatest pitcher of his generation is almost as famous for his rigid fidelity to routine as he is for his dazzling results. He adheres to a pregame regimen measured to the second: attach heat packs to his arm at 5:58 p.m., drink a cup of water at 6:20, begin warming up at 6:23. Between innings, he wraps a towel around his arm and sips water and Gatorade from jugs preloaded with exactly the amount of fluid he intends to ingest.

Kershaw has always found comfort in control. He believes that God has given him talent he does not deserve, and he is determined to spend his career living up to it. Colossians 3:23 tells him, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,” and so he does. He perfects the process and trusts that the results will come.

For the most part, they have. At 32, he is a three-time National League Cy Young award-winner. He won an NL MVP award. He owns the lowest career ERA (2.43) for a starting pitcher in the live-ball era.

“There was a time when he just wouldn't even try something new,” says righty Ross Stripling, Kershaw’s teammate for five years before an August trade to the Blue Jays. “Because I mean, he was the best pitcher on the planet for 10 years. Why would you change anything?”

But over the past year or so, the best pitcher on the planet began to consider the possibility that he doesn’t have it all figured out. He began a journey that would take him across the country, and that he hopes will end with a trophy. At 32, as the weapons in his arsenal should be dulling, Clayton Kershaw is pitching better than he has in years.

“The one piece of advice that I wish I would have followed earlier in my career is: Being stubborn is good, because it's what got you here, and having a routine is important,” he says. “But just be open to different things. It doesn't hurt to try.”

Overhead shot of Clayton Kershaw throwing

***

Almost exactly a year ago, Kershaw went looking for his fastball velocity. His search took him to a locked Seattle warehouse, where he stood on a mound, covered in dozens of sensors affixed to his body with firm grip, throwing a bullpen session in his underwear.

When he debuted in 2008, at 20, Kershaw’s four-seamer averaged 95 mph. But the chart has sloped downward every season since ’15: 94.2 … 93.6 … 92.8 … 90.8 … 90.3. In 2018, he snapped a streak of seven straight All-Star Game selections. In ’19, he finished with an ERA of 3.03, his worst since his rookie season. He did not need to throw 95 regularly. But his slider hovers around 88 mph. If he could not create some separation between those two pitches, he essentially offered batters a slider and a flat slider.

Kershaw has battled back problems for years. The injuries have sapped him of his strength and left him in agony. He grew used to the idea that he might never pitch without pain again. He could abide the pain. He could not abide the results.

“I cannot imagine what he was going through,” says Dodgers strength coach Brandon McDaniel. “To reach back and for it not to be there the way it was …” He trails off.

For a decade, young pitchers who could pluck up the courage have begged Kershaw for information while they played catch. But over the past year, Stripling noticed that the questions were headed the other direction. Kershaw wanted to know more about the new methods of training.

Kershaw prefers not to discuss his velocity. Sometimes he goes so far as to insist it has not changed, denying the numbers on the radar gun. Kershaw has always seen himself as an old-school gunslinger who only cares about one stat: the win column. So when he asked McDaniel to make him an appointment at Driveline Baseball, the data-driven facility popular with many of his teammates, Kershaw did not announce that he was searching for a few extra ticks of speed. He did not need to.

McDaniel and Driveline scrambled to accommodate him. Bill Hezel, Driveline’s director of pitching, called Hill, at 24 the most senior pitching analyst, and told him to clear his schedule. They closed down the research lab for the two days Kershaw would be in town, locked the doors and asked employees not to gawk at the windows. They stripped Kershaw down, covered him in sensors and had him throw in front of cameras as part of their biomechanical analysis. Then they tried to pinpoint inefficiencies in the way his body moved.

No one will reveal the details of what they found, but the gist seems to be that he was compensating in minute ways for his weakened back. The injuries and their fallout made it difficult for him to rotate his pelvis and use his lead leg to blunt his forward momentum. The program they created for him involved mobility drills and work with the plyo balls. It also included flexibility: If he felt strong, he might do a few extra reps in the weight room. If he felt tired, he might focus more on recovery.

When he arrived, the plan was to throw harder. By the time he left, the plan was to move differently. Throwing harder would be a byproduct.

Kershaw bought into the plan. It helped that this was the first time in years he did not spend November rehabbing an injury. He flew home to Dallas, where a few years ago he had McDaniel design him a home gym that exactly replicated the one at Dodger Stadium. He did the mobility drills and threw the plyo balls. And one day, he threw a bullpen session in flat shoes on a plastic mound. He sent McDaniel a photo of the radar gun. McDaniel remembers that he was two ticks ahead of where he should have been at that point in the winter, but he does not remember the exact number. Hill does: 90 mph.

The team grew more excited as that second digit climbed. Every year, Kershaw’s first appearances of spring training register as events at Dodgers camp. His early bullpens can draw a dozen players and staffers. Most of the time, they demonstrate his metronomic greatness. This February was different. News of his first live batting practice session buzzed through Camelback Ranch: “Did you hear Kersh hit 92?” became an acceptable greeting.

This year, he averaged 91.6 mph. In 2018 and ’19 combined, 54 starts in all, he touched 93 mph four times. In 10 starts in ’20, he did it 20 times. He finished the season with a 2.16 ERA, his best in half a decade.

Much of what Hill assembled was not so different from what the Dodgers had been telling Kershaw. And Hill is quick to deflect credit. But Kershaw has been with the Dodgers for nearly half his life. Hill’s voice was new, and it cut through the noise. Los Angeles hired him shortly after Kershaw departed.

“It’s so freakin’ cool,” says Hill. “[For him] to go from a situation that you're at your lowest, show up at a new place and listen to some 24-year-old kid about how you can potentially get better—in my opinion, it speaks a lot of who he is as a person. I mean, he’s the GOAT for a reason.”

Clayton Kershaw walking with a teammate

***

This month, Kershaw will go looking for a championship. He will try once again to solve the puzzle that most vexes him: Why does the GOAT from April to September become the goat each October?

A week before he flew to Driveline, Kershaw stood in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, his eyes red, his broad shoulders slumped. Los Angeles had taken a two-run lead into the eighth inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Nationals. Pitching in relief, Kershaw had allowed home runs on consecutive pitches to tie the game. Washington won in the 10th inning. Kershaw did not allow the go-ahead runs. But he was certain the loss was his fault.

“Everything people say is true right now, about the postseason,” he said. “It’s a terrible feeling, it really is.”

This might be his best chance yet to chip away at his legacy of postseason failure. The front office has assembled a juggernaut around him. The Dodgers stormed to a 43–17 record this year, a pace that would put them at 116 wins in a full season. The lineup includes the man who won the 2019 NL MVP award, center fielder Cody Bellinger, and the man who might win it in ’20, right fielder Mookie Betts. The rotation is among the best in the game.

And this year Los Angeles boasts a resurgent Kershaw. Dodgers players and staffers have noticed a change even more jarring than the numbers: Once or twice, Kershaw has smiled on the mound.

In the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NL wild card series, Kershaw had allowed three hits and struck out 12 when he allowed a one-out walk. He immediately turned toward manager Dave Roberts, grinned and shook his head. Don’t come out here. Roberts stayed put. Kershaw picked off the runner at first and struck out the batter to finish the best start of his playoff career.

If the Dodgers are to win the World Series, Kershaw has two or three more starts ahead of him, beginning with Game 4 of the NLCS against the Braves on Thursday. The man who will start that game understands his body better and throws harder and just might be less stubborn.

Or maybe not.

“Maybe it’s just semantics,” McDaniel says. “But stubbornness is why he’s doing this. He’s so stubborn to be great.”