The Dodgers' vision of the perfect pitcher was always ambitious—part Clemens, part Koufax—and seemingly unattainable. Then along came Clayton Kershaw, who over a historic four-year run has made hyperbole seem understated. Now he's chasing the last big prize to elude him: October glory
This is an article from the Oct. 6, 2014 issue
THE IDEAL PITCHER stands 6'4" and weighs 225 pounds, with the thighs of a fullback and the balance of a ballerina. He throws a 95-mph fastball offset by a knee-melting breaking ball, and he unleashes both from the same over-the-top arm slot. If he is righthanded, he recalls Don Drysdale or Roger Clemens; if he's a southpaw, Sandy Koufax or Steve Carlton. He is broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, but he's no stiff. He probably played at least one other sport in high school. His delivery is a full-bodied expression of his athleticism. He lifts and lowers his hands in concert with his front leg, but as the leg slides forward down the slope of the mound, his upper body hangs back, like the strap on a slingshot. While many of his contemporaries shun the rubber, he lodges his back foot against it at a 45-degree angle and pushes his weight forward. He propels himself down the mound, his throwing arm simply along for the ride, and lets fly. Then he does it again, about 100 more times, every fifth day from Easter to Halloween.
The Ideal Pitcher exists only in the imagination of Logan White, a man who has spent more than 25 years scouring suburbs and barrios for the best baseball players in the world. "When you're looking for somebody to marry, you look for the perfect person, and then you eventually realize that nobody is perfect," says White, the Dodgers' vice president in charge of amateur scouting. "So you look for that person who is as close as you can possibly get." During organizational meetings every winter, White hands all Dodgers scouts a written description of the Ideal Pitcher, outlining optimal body type, makeup and mechanics. "I'm not saying we don't want a guy who is 5'4", 130 and throws 95 with great command," White says. "We aren't eliminating anyone. But whether you're an architect or a scout, you need an ideal, something to work off. This is ours."
In the spring of 2006, Dodgers Texas-based scout Calvin Jones summoned White to a high school game 45 minutes outside of Dallas. Jones wanted White to see a burly lefthanded pitcher whose name sounded snatched from the credits of an old Western. When White arrived at the dusty park, he immediately spotted the lefty in the bullpen: 6'3", 220, with legs like sequoias. His delivery was explosive—the protracted stride toward the plate, the violent launch off the rubber. He threw directly over the top, uncorking a fastball that touched 95 and a curve that plunged from the eyebrows to the kneecaps. The sound the ball made when it smacked against the catcher's glove reminded one local coach of a hunter shooting skeet. "I felt greatness," White says. "He was the easiest player I ever scouted. I told myself, Oh, my gosh. Here he is. This is the guy. This is the Ideal."
WATCHING Clayton Kershaw throw a baseball compels otherwise reasonable people to say seemingly outrageous things. When Kershaw was at Highland Park High in Dallas and no-hit a team from nearby J.J. Pearce High, some of the batters mentioned that they were "happy with their foul balls." When Kershaw made his professional debut with the Gulf Coast League Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla., teammate Preston Mattingly told his father, Yankees hitting coach Don Mattingly: "We've got a guy who'd beat you all right now." And when Kershaw was at Class A Great Lakes, Dodgers minor league pitching coordinator Marty Reed wrote in his annual evaluation, "I can't sit here and say he's the next Sandy Koufax. But he's about as close as you're going to get."
Early in spring training in 2008, Kershaw's rookie season, manager Joe Torre went where Reed wouldn't, making the Koufax comparison out loud and in public. "I don't want to put that kind of pressure on him," Torre added, fully aware it was too late. In Kershaw's first MLB full-squad game that spring, he faced the Red Sox, and first baseman Sean Casey strode to the plate. "I didn't even know his name," Casey remembers. "The first pitch he threw was a curveball that looked like it was going to hit me in the head but dropped in for a strike. The second was 95 on the outside paint. Unhittable. The third was another curve that I swear started off behind me and finished for strike three. I ran out to first after the inning, completely abused, and looked inside the Dodger dugout. Joe Torre was laughing."
No matter how apocryphal the anecdotes, how preposterous the projections, Kershaw makes them seem almost understated. This season he captured his fourth straight NL ERA title—at 1.77 he was nearly half a run better than his closest competitor—and is a virtual lock for his third Cy Young Award in the past four years. Kershaw is the only qualifying starter in the live-ball era besides Greg Maddux with an earned run average under 1.85 in consecutive seasons, and his career ERA is 2.48, the lowest since 1920 for a pitcher with at least 100 starts.
His historic jag dates back to 2009 and an awkward conversation with Mattingly, who by then was the Dodgers' hitting coach. Mattingly was assigned to study Kershaw and share what his game plan against the lefty would be. "I called Clayton in and said, 'You are a fastball-curveball guy, and the umpires don't call the curveball,' " Mattingly, now L.A.'s manager, recounts. " 'I'd tell my hitters to lay off the curve and make you a one-pitch pitcher.' "
Less than a month later, during a workout at Wrigley Field, then Dodgers bullpen catcher Mike Borzello showed Kershaw how to throw a slider. He picked it up in 45 minutes. So began what L.A. catcher A.J. Ellis terms "the Clayton Era." Kershaw alternates between a fastball in the mid-90s, a slider in the mid-80s and a curve in the mid-70s, all hurled from an identical angle with impeccable control. "He might go down as the greatest pitcher ever," says a rival scout, as if the Koufax comp is no longer lofty enough.
What sounds like hyperbole, in Kershaw's case, is often prophecy. "There's an aura when he takes the mound," says Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford. "It feels like we can't be beat." During one stretch of this season, Kershaw won 11 straight decisions while recording 41 consecutive scoreless innings and no-hitting the Rockies on 15 strikeouts without a walk. "I don't try to compete with him," says Dodgers pitcher and former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, "because I don't think it's possible." No team loaded the bases against Kershaw this season until his 22nd outing. No lefthanded hitter drove in a run against him until his 23rd.
Mattingly witnesses Kershaw's pitching clinics and is transported to 1986, when he batted .352 for the Yankees and won a Gold Glove at first base, but finished second in the AL MVP voting to Clemens. Mattingly could not fathom how a pitcher, who appeared in 130 fewer games, could be deemed more valuable. "Managing Clayton has changed my opinion," Mattingly says. Despite missing the first five weeks of the season with a strained muscle in his back, Kershaw has completed eight or more innings 15 times this season. When he works, relievers rest, allowing Mattingly to use them more liberally on the days before and after his starts. The specter of Kershaw will loom especially large in the playoffs, as rotations shorten and he chases the only prize that has evaded him.
Two-hundred-forty-one million dollars have bought the Dodgers much talent, but no team sparks more conversation about arrival times and cutoff men. Players privately lament a lack of leadership among their ranks. Clubhouse discord may eventually doom the Dodgers, but there is a better chance it won't matter at all, as they unite behind Kershaw and let him take care of the rest. "Shut up and compete," he likes to say, a useful October slogan. For Kershaw, baseball is less craft than combat. He can seem bored by stats and strategies—"I'm not a big thinker," he claims. "The less thinking the better"—but is consumed with confrontation, every at bat another opportunity to express his will. He hates that starting pitchers get so many days off. He wonders if he'd have preferred a different position.
This fall is shaping up to be Kershaw's personal showcase. When the Dodgers win the World Series, they are traditionally built around at least one dominant starting pitcher in a defining season: Don Newcombe in 1955, Drysdale in '59, Koufax in '63, Koufax and Drysdale again in '65, Fernando Valenzuela in '81 and Orel Hershiser in '88. Those names echo through Chavez Ravine, sources of nostalgia but also inspirations for the ideal.
IN OCTOBER 2001, Dan Evans was hired as general manager of the Dodgers. "I believe in tailoring a club to where they play the bulk of their games," Evans says. "Between Dodger Stadium, Petco Park in San Diego and AT&T Park in San Francisco, we were going to play 100 games a year in stadiums that suppress offense. So I thought we should emphasize pitching, like the Dodgers of the 1960s."
One of his first meetings was with Frank Jobe, L.A.'s famed orthopedic surgeon, over dinner at a Denny's in the San Gabriel Valley. "He talked a lot about the common elements of an effective big league starter," Evans recalls. "He stressed the importance of size, strength and using the lower half of your body." Evans promptly hired two men who shared Jobe's perspective. White, the scouting director, was ordered to restock the organization with power arms. Rick Honeycutt, then the minor league pitching coordinator, was put in charge of cultivating them.
Honeycutt, now L.A.'s pitching coach, played for the Dodgers from 1983 to '87, where he was introduced to the team's pitching doctrine, passed down by Koufax and others at spring training in Vero Beach. "Sandy taught you to get into an athletic throwing position where the big muscles in your legs are doing the work and your arm is an aftereffect," Honeycutt says, dropping into Koufax's preferred posture: front leg extended toward the plate, back foot pushing hard against the rubber, shoulders tilted. "That's what guys in our system did." But when Honeycutt returned to the Dodgers more than a decade later, he found that many of the franchise's guiding principles had been abandoned. Young pitchers stood perfectly upright on the mound and forced the ball at a downward angle.
Evans lured Koufax to spring training in 2002 for the first time in years and watched him hold court on the back fields, captivating starstruck coaches and players. "We redeveloped our whole pitching model with Sandy's teachings in mind," Evans says. "The bigger-bodied guys, who could get that extension and power, became part of our blueprint. We drafted a slew of them." They didn't mind if a pitcher was coming straight out of high school, or had a hitch in his delivery, as long as he fit the template. In '02, '03 and '04, the Dodgers picked seven high school pitchers in the first and second rounds: Of those, Jonathan Broxton (6'4", 295 pounds), Chad Billingsley (6'1", 240) and Scott Elbert (6'2", 225) reached the major leagues. In '05 they snagged a college pitcher in the first round, Luke Hochevar (6'5", 225). But they couldn't sign him, so Hochevar returned to the draft pool, a footnote that helped transform the franchise.
In 2005, Kershaw was not the Ideal Pitcher. The high school junior threw from a three-quarter arm slot, didn't deploy his lower body and barely cracked 90 miles per hour. That fall he signed up for 16 sessions spanning two months with Navarro College head coach Skip Johnson, and together they reshaped his mechanics at a Dallas baseball academy. Kershaw raised his release point. He lengthened his stride. He kept his weight back, turning his body into a bow, as Koufax likes to say. "He got that fast-twitch explosion," explains Johnson, now the pitching coach at the University of Texas. Scouts started clocking him at 94--96 mph.
Five of the first six players picked in the 2006 draft were college pitchers, led by Hochevar, who went first to Kansas City. Teams were reluctant to assume the risk associated with high school arms. Kershaw slid to seventh. The Dodgers finally chose him over another college pitcher, Tim Lincecum (5'11", 170), who wound up in San Francisco. Two years later Lincecum won the Cy Young Award, and then he won it again in '09. A lot of people asked Ned Colletti, the Dodgers' general manager, why he picked Kershaw over Lincecum. No one asks that anymore.
Koufax is a regular at Dodgers spring training now, hanging out in the bullpen, showing minor league coaches different grips on curveballs and changeups. His theories permeate every level of the franchise. Koufax is a 78-year-old Jew from Brooklyn, Kershaw a 26-year-old Christian from Dallas, but they have found plenty of common ground. During their skull sessions, Koufax asks Kershaw how he throws his curve, and vice versa. But they rarely obsess over the details of mechanics. "We talk a lot more about the mental side of competition," Kershaw says. "Attack, attack, attack. Attack the whole time."
INSIDE BASEBALL'S best pitcher is the soul of an eighth-grade center rolling around on a middle school football field, going after the opposing nosetackle. "He may not remember that," cautions Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, whom Kershaw helped protect at Highland Park.
"Oh, I remember it," Kershaw says. "The noseguard hit Matt late, and it made me mad. The next play I cut-blocked him, got him on the ground and gave him a sucker punch. I was ejected from that game." Kershaw was Stafford's center, and Stafford was Kershaw's catcher, in many ways a more punishing job. "We'd get in fights about what pitch he wanted to throw and what I was calling," Stafford recalls. "So we had a system where if he took a step from the mound and kicked dirt, he was throwing the curve. If he didn't, he was throwing the fastball."
Highland Park High is a particularly affluent public school, but Kershaw did not fit the mold. His parents divorced when he was 10, and his mother, Marianne, worked long hours as a graphic designer to keep a home in the district. "It wasn't easy for her," Kershaw says. "She protected me from the struggles we had. But I saw the houses and the affluence. I never took for granted where we were." He developed a sharp edge. As a senior, Kershaw strained his oblique before a playoff game, and coaches wondered if he could muddle through a few innings. He threw a no-hitter, striking out every batter.
The edge cut both ways. In the minor leagues, when Kershaw grew irritated, he'd take his fastball to ludicrous speeds. Once he stormed out of a Double A bullpen session, forcing pitching coach Glenn Dishman to pull him aside. "This isn't you," Dishman said. Kershaw discovered a technique that settles him in turbulent moments. When runners are on base and he works out of the stretch, he slowly raises his hands to the heavens. Then he pauses and brings them back down. "I've gotten to where I breathe with it," Kershaw says. "Inhale up, exhale down."
Kershaw now has a $215 million contract and a foundation he started with his wife, Ellen, that built an orphanage in Zambia. But he'd still throw a cut block if necessary. This season he nearly legged out an infield single in the eighth inning of his no-hitter against the Rockies, sprinted from first to third on a bouncer up the middle against the Nationals and made a diving catch to start a double play in the home plate cutout on an attempted squeeze by the Brewers. "You feel like a baseball player when you do stuff like that," Kershaw says.
Two days before his starts, Kershaw takes grounders at shortstop or second base, howling with every backhand in the hole. In 2009 he hurt his shoulder running into the fence at Dodger Stadium while shagging flies. He spends games he doesn't pitch perched on the top step of the dugout, where he once excoriated Arizona outfielder Gerardo Parra for pimping a home run, then plunked him on the elbow the next day. "He's up there harassing umpires, harassing opposing teams," Ellis says. In pregame meetings Ellis may mention that a hitter loves first-pitch fastballs. "Then let's give him a first-pitch fastball," Kershaw inevitably responds, always on the attack.
Last fall the Dodgers took a 2--1 lead over the Braves in the NLDS, and they considered starting Kershaw on three days' rest for the first time. Colletti called him into Mattingly's office and asked how he felt. "I work all year," Kershaw replied, "to be prepared for this." He contained the Braves and celebrated with Koufax afterward, a bubbly tribute to a bygone era when short rest was the only kind.
Kershaw cares about one stat. "If I don't go 200 innings," he says, "it's been a tough year." The last time Kershaw fell short of 200 was in '09, when he averaged 17.7 pitches per inning. He adopted extreme measures to suppress pitch counts, refusing to set up hitters and often inviting immediate contact. This year he averaged 13.7 pitches per inning, fewest in the majors. "Seventy percent of the time he's throwing a first-pitch fastball," Ellis says. "You know what you're getting. You have a chance to get a hit right there. But if you don't, you're probably looking at Clayton Kershaw for eight or nine innings."
Because of the injury that sidelined him early in the season, Kershaw fell just short of the 200-inning mark this year, finishing with 1981/3, a source of outrage for the pitcher and optimism for the Dodgers. Last year he logged a career-high 236 regular-season innings and looked fried by Game 6 of the NLCS, when the Cardinals tagged him for seven runs. This time around he should be relatively fresh, having carried the Dodgers and their quarter-billion-dollar payroll for five straight months instead of the usual six. He is positioned to win the Cy Young, quite possibly the MVP, and add an October capstone reminiscent of the immortals he has already joined in franchise lore. Koufax in '63. Hershiser in '88. Kershaw in '14.
That would be ideal.