Clayton Kershaw, the Control Freak Pitcher
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s no such thing as too much control if you’re a big-league pitcher.
It’s best to keep your distance from Clayton Kershaw on days he’s scheduled to pitch. Most of the time, the Los Angeles Dodgers hurler and three-time Cy Young winner, seems gentle and easygoing, spending his off days in shorts and flip-flops, and off-seasons building orphanages in Zambia. But every fifth day during the baseball season, the 27-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed Texan is a laser-focused bundle of talent and intensity. “Every start is so different,” Kershaw tells OZY, adding, “You need to be constantly improving and evolving with every part of your game.”
Every start might be different, but Kershaw, who became the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history last year with a seven-year, $215 million deal, is also ruthlessly superstitious with his pregame ritual. 6:20 p.m.: Enter dugout and drink a cup of water. 6:23: Stretch, run, punch center field wall once with fist. 6:40: Start throwing with catcher A.J. Ellis. “Sometimes I joke with him, ‘6:38 today?’” Ellis tells sportswriter Molly Knight in her new book, The Best Team Money Can Buy. “I don’t think he finds it very funny.”
But aside from the occasional rookie or team exec who wanders unsuspectingly into Kershaw’s cocoon of concentration, teammates have learned to give the left-hander his space. It may sound like trying to play alongside Rain Man, but what Kershaw, like every ballplayer, is really looking for is control — control in a game that can be cruel and capricious. It’s just that Kershaw happens to be better at it, and a lot of other things, than the rest.
I learned the slider… out of necessity. I wasn’t pitching particularly well and … I needed to start getting hitters out.
And that starts with the best curveball in baseball. At least according to legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, who dubbed it “Public Enemy No. 1” after the then-19-year-old Kershaw broke one off in a 2008 spring training game that seemed to fall from batter Sean Casey’s head to his knees in a matter of feet, freezing the veteran for strike three. In his first five seasons in the big leagues, Kershaw threw 1,688 such curveballs, and only one left an opponent’s bat for a home run. Complementing his curveball, which averages 74–76 miles per hour, is a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider that is also among the best in the game — a pitch he had not even attempted until he reached the major leagues.
Indeed, despite a phenomenal run over the past four seasons, which has seen Kershaw lead the league in earned run average each year and an MVP award, the 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pounder was not always as dominant. After Public Enemy No. 1’s stellar debut, Kershaw struggled during his rookie 2008 season as hitters laid off the curve and sat on his fastball. He needed a third pitch, something that many pitchers must return to the minor leagues to develop. The first slider Kershaw threw in his life was at a bullpen session between starts with Ellis and others looking on; by all accounts, it needed little developing — it was just born nasty. “I learned the slider at the big-league level … out of necessity,” Kershaw reflects. “I wasn’t pitching particularly well and … I needed to start getting hitters out.”
Things did not always come so easily for Kershaw, who’s 10–6 this season with a 2.34 ERA, and part of his deep desire for control over his circumstances on the field likely stems from some of the instability he felt growing up. Kershaw was raised in a wealthy Dallas suburb, but after his parents divorced when he was 10, his mother worked multiple jobs and took out small loans from friends to afford to stay there so her only child could benefit from top-notch schools and sports teams. As a result, Kershaw had a bit more “blue collar” — and hunger — in him than most area prospects, says local Dallas coaching legend Sam Carpenter.
Kershaw’s faith and his wife, Ellen, whom he started dating in the ninth grade, have also played a big role in structuring his life and helping in his quest for control. Ellen, whose passion for aiding vulnerable children in Africa sparked Kershaw’s own, has been there throughout, from the perfect game Kershaw threw in the high school playoffs in which he struck out every single batter to his first pro contract and the $2.3 million signing bonus he used to retire his mother’s loans.
There still are a few things that Kershaw has not managed to master or command. His hitting, for one, which is understandably excused. But he’s paid to deliver on the mound when it counts, and thus far Kershaw has struggled to do so in the playoffs, at least against the St. Louis Cardinals, who bounced both Kershaw and the Dodgers from the postseason the past two years. It’s “just bad déjà vu all over again,” Kershaw told The Washington Post after his latest playoff loss.
Of course, that poor performance combined with that mega contract amounts to considerable pressure. “He knows he should be paid and what he’s worth,” Knight tells OZY, “but this is a guy who lives in the free clothing that his sponsor [Under Armour] sends him and is not that into material possessions.” Knight suspects that Kershaw has big plans for the money, and will likely give most of it away and become a “world-class philanthropist” after his playing days are over.
But the cause most in need of Kershaw’s time and energy right now are the Dodgers themselves, who have not won a championship since their star left-hander was born in 1988. Such a feat is a lot to ask of any player, and may be beyond even the talented Kershaw’s control — just don’t tell him that.