Ever since the Dodgers selected Clayton Kershaw with the seventh overall pick in 2006, a spotlight has shone brightly on the lefthander. And to this point he’s
looked like every bit the star the Dodgers hoped he would be.
And Sunday the 20-year-old Kershaw gets a chance to deliver on his promise when he makes his major league debut against the
Cardinals. In the last 40 years, the only Dodgers pitchers to make
their major league debuts at a younger age than Kershaw are Edwin
Jackson (2003) and Fernando Valenzuela (1989).
Entering the 2008 season, Kershaw ranked as the No. 7 prospect in baseball. Among pitchers, he ranked behind only current major league righthanders Clay Buchholz and Joba Chamberlain.
“For me what makes him so special is his ability to command his fastball,” said Dodgers pitching coordinator Marty Reed. “At a young age, it’s very rare that you have a kid that throws that hard that has as good command as he does. What we’re trying to get him to do is to learn how to mix in some of his other pitches so that he can be successful in the major leagues.”
Kershaw attacks batters with a fastball that sits at 93-94 mph and regularly touches the high 90s, a 71-77 mph curveball that ranks among the best in the minor leagues and a promising changeup that could develop into a third above-average pitch. Kershaw isn’t particularly quick to the plate, but he has a clean delivery with smooth, fluid arm action of his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame.
Signed to a $2.3 million bonus, Kershaw was the first high school player selected in the 2006 draft, out of Highland Park High in Dallas, and became the first prep player from his draft class to reach Double-A when the Dodgers promoted him to Jacksonville last season as a 19 year old.
“I don’t think he’s ever satisfied,” Jacksonville pitching coach Glenn Dishman said. “You go out on the mound and he’ll punch out the side with a pretty good fastball, a bunch of breaking balls or a changeup, and he’ll come in and think about the next inning, how he’s going to pitch even better that. It just seems like every outing he tries to do better than he did the last time. Even in his bullpens, he’s trying to make three pitches—for a 20-year-old, it’s kind of unheard of.”
Kershaw’s best secondary pitch would rank as the best pitch for most youngsters. That pitch is his curveball, a knockout pitch with tremendous break and depth.
“It’s more of a 12-to-6 (break),” Reed said. “You’re trying to catch up to that 96, 97 (mph fastball) and he drops that on you? You don’t have a chance. It’s over. When he starts being able to command that, then he’ll do what we expect him to do and what he wants to accomplish in the major leagues.”
“When it’s going well, it comes out of my hand like a fastball,” Kershaw said. “Obviously it’s a lot slower and it’s got a bigger break, but I throw it four-seam so it looks just like my fastball. When it’s going well it’s pretty much a straight up-and-down curveball, just a 12-to-6 break.”
That hammer curveball vaulted Kershaw into the national spotlight this spring in big league camp when he buckled the knees of Sean Casey with the pitch, prompting replays on highlight shows and thousands of downloads on YouTube.
“It was one good curveball,” Kershaw said. “Hopefully I have more than that in my career. It was great that it got all that recognition or whatever, but it was just one curveball, just one pitch, just one strike. That’s pretty much what you have to think about. You’re going to have to throw another one sooner or later, and you’re going to throw plenty of bad ones down the road, too.”
It’s that humility that elicits rave reviews of Kershaw’s makeup from members of the Dodgers organization.
“Some of the intangibles the kid has are a tremendous work ethic, humility—he doesn’t run around like he’s a big shot,” Reed said. “He’s just a regular guy, but he’s one of the hardest-working guys in the whole organization. He takes pride in everything he does every minute that he’s on the field. That’s hard to find in a 26-year-old, forget about just a 20-year-old kid. For me that’s what makes him special. Obviously he has special talent, but put the whole package together and that’s what sets him apart from a lot of other guys.”
The package that Kershaw has delivered so far includes 264 strikeouts in 202 1/3 minor league innings, a rate of 11.7 per nine innings despite always being one of the youngest if not the youngest pitcher in his league. Last year with low Class A Great Lakes in the Midwest League, Kershaw had a 2.77 ERA in 97 1/3 innings with 134 strikeouts.
The Dodgers skipped Kershaw over the hitter-friendly California League last August by sending him to Jacksonville, where Kershaw had a 3.65 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings. Among his five starts with the Suns last year were a six-inning, two-hit shutout with eight strikeouts against Mississippi, followed by a seven-inning, two-hit shutout performance with 10 strikeouts at Mobile.
“In terms of the expectations for him, we probably don’t have as high of expectations for him as he does for himself,” Reed said. “I think this maturity thing with him, this happened a long time ago. This happened with the way he was raised, how he was brought up. Those are things that are set in stone that are a part of this kid. We got him after he was that way. We’ve just continued to build on that. That’s what makes him such a special kid—there’s not a lot of kids who walk in with that kind of humility.
“You know, for a kid who walks in with $2.4, $2.7 million, or whatever he signed for, you wouldn’t know the kid had a quarter to his name. That’s the way he was raised, the type of kid he is, and everyone here loves him. The players love him, the staff loves him—there’s really not anything that you can say about him that isn’t positive.”
Even though Kershaw came fully equipped with prodigious talent when the Dodgers drafted him, he still has made strides in his development as a pitcher since signing. That doesn’t mean, however, that Kershaw didn’t immediately dominate in his first taste of professional baseball. The Dodgers sent Kershaw to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2006 after he signed. Kershaw only threw 37 innings, but he still had 54 strikeouts and just five walks en route to a 1.95 ERA.
“I’ve come a long ways since I’ve been drafted,” Kershaw said. “Physically I’ve gotten a little bit stronger and I’m throwing a little bit harder than I did in high school. All the breaking pitches, all the offspeed stuff has come a long way, too. In high school I didn’t throw a whole lot of changeups, but I really started throwing the changeup a lot. The curveball’s gotten a little tighter, a little sharper. It just goes with experience, with every pitch you get.”
The confluence of Kershaw’s talent and dedication to his craft has made him one of the best pitchers in the Southern League this year. In 43 1/3 innings, Kershaw’s 2.28 ERA ranks fifth in the league, and he also has 15 walks and 47 strikeouts.
“When he was in high school, he could just throw fastballs anywhere around the plate and guys would swing that them,” Dishman said. “Now he’s actually learning that, even though he’s throwing 97 miles an hour, he’s still going to have to be around the zone, mix his pitches up and throw his changeup in there, that he can’t just come in and throw a 100-pitch outing with 98 fastballs and have a good outing. He’s going to have to mix his stuff and work and think a little bit while he’s out there, and I think that’s the difference that he’s made between last year and this year, that you can see him processing pitches while he’s out on the mound.”
Change For The Future
While the curveball remains his primary offspeed pitch, Kershaw and the Dodgers field staff have focused on the development of his changeup. Kershaw throws a circle changeup that scouts believe will eventually grade out as a plus pitch.
“He never really had one when we first got him in the instructional league and in his first year in the Gulf Coast League,” Reed said. “He just blew fastballs by guys. When we got him in instructional league, we forced him to throw changeups. You have to go out, and two out of every three pitches has to be a changeup. So you know, he goes out and he starts walking guys, and he gets a little worked up about it, like, ‘I’m not used to walking guys like this.’ That’s OK. It’s part of your development, this is for down the road.
“(Dishman’s) not preparing him to pitch in Jacksonville; he’s preparing him to pitch in the major leagues. And that’s the same approach that we’ve taken with him from the first day he got out there of instructional league. You’ve got to learn to have this changeup, you’ve got to get this thing to where it’s good enough to pitch in the major leagues. If you don’t have this, you’re going to become a two-pitch pitcher, and it you don’t have your curveball, you’re finished. He’s latched on to it, grasped what we’ve tried to tell him, and he’s taken it from there.”
Perhaps that changeup quota was responsible for what from afar might have seemed like some mild control problems last year. Kershaw walked 50 batters with Great Lakes and another 17 in Jacksonville, an average of 4.9 per nine innings. But scouts believe that Kershaw will have above-average command, and his walks—15 in 43 1/3 innings, or 3.1 per nine—are already down from last year, even though Kershaw was the second-youngest pitcher in Double-A.
Kershaw has bought into the Dodgers developmental plan for him, knowing that even if throwing his changeup more frequently results in a few more walks to minor leaguers, that doing so will have positive long-term ramifications when he faces major league hitters.
“You can’t be a two-pitch pitcher and be a starter,” Kershaw said. “So we started working on that immediately as soon as I got drafted. I started to throw the changeup, and it started to get better. It wasn’t very good in the Gulf Coast (League), and then last year it got a little bit better. This year they really kind of almost forced me to throw it in games, telling me to start some hitters off with it, get behind in the count, start throwing it a little bit. When they force you to do that stuff, it will definitely make you work on it. It’s there, just sometimes my confidence isn’t there with it, but it’s definitely a good pitch to have when I’ve got good confidence in it.”
But make no mistake—Kershaw will still be going after hitters with his power fastball, a pitch that has clocked in as high as 99 mph. Among lefthanders in the minor leagues last year, only White Sox 2007 first-rounder Aaron Poreda had a fastball clocked at a higher speed.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve also done is that we’re not trying to turn him into a thumber-type pitcher,” Dishman said. “He’s a power pitcher—these are just additional weapons that he can throw out in a game throughout a game to get that big out when he needs to. Obviously his No. 1 is going to be his fastball. But these are also other things that we’re going to put in the back of somebody’s mind that, hey, he might drop this little changeup on a righthander in a groundball situation or something like that. Or you lefthanders, watch out for this little breaking ball. He’s not a guy who’s going to come out here and throw 40 percent changeups; these are just little things that will help him.”
One thing that Kershaw and the Dodgers staff believe has aided in his development is the consistent philosophical instruction that Kershaw has received since signing. Dishman was Kershaw’s pitching coach during his first full season in Great Lakes in 2007. The Dodgers then promoted Dishman to Jacksonville this season, where he has again been able to work with Kershaw.
“We’ve got a philosophy and we stick with it, and it’s been pretty successful, and I think it’s aided in the transition for Clayton,” Reed said. “(Dishman) had him in Great Lakes, and I had him a lot in the Gulf Coast League and then instructional league, and now (Dishman’s) got him in Double-A. That helps a guy because you’re speaking that language, you’re not trying to figure out what it is with him; he knows what you’re talking about. It’s really helpful.
“Exposing him to Double-A was very important for me last year,” Reed added, “because Glenn had him (in Great Lakes) and I thought he did a great job of setting a solid foundation for him to build on. Then when he came up to Double-A, he learned a few things—that you’re not going to throw the ball by these guys like you did in the Midwest League. So he learned some things. He’s really beginning to learn to pitch a lot more and being able to utilize his weapons and learn how to use the weapons that he has.”
Both Reed and Dishman happen to also be lefthanded, but Kershaw said that having southpaws for pitching coaches is secondary to the quality of instruction he was able to receive from them.
“Dish and Marty are awesome pitching coaches,” Kershaw said. “Being lefthanded probably helps a little bit, but just the fact that Dish has been with me for two years has helped me immensely. When I’m going well, he just kind of sits back and watches, which is great. And then when I’m struggling he knows what to say to get me back on track. And Marty, when I first got here, he was one of the first guys I talked to. He’s really taught me a lot. He’s been really open about what they expect to do with me. Both of those guys are awesome. I got really fortunate to have both of those guys in the Dodgers system.
“Usually my struggles occur when I don’t stay back, when I started flying open. They can tell—they can see that pretty easily from the dugout. They know what to say to me, they know when I’m rushing a little bit, they know when I’m trying to overthrow. They really just try to get me to trust myself a little bit more, calm down a little bit on the mound. That’s kind of been an ongoing theme; when I’m missing, I’m missing up, and they know how to help with that, so it’s good.”
The last time Kershaw was around the major league club was in spring training, when Kershaw spent time in big league camp.
“I won’t forget that for awhile,” Kershaw said. “That was awesome, just getting to be up there with all those guys. I was pretty quiet at first, and then when I started to get to know some people I started to ask a million questions. I had some guys really almost take me under their wing, tell me what things were like, just from experienced pitchers and hitters. I think the main thing I took away from it is that it’s still baseball. It’s still the same thing; you can still get hitters out with good pitches. You just have to be a little bit more perfect—you can’t get away with as much stuff.”