The pitch that Clayton Kershaw hasn't yet mastered
"Whaddya workin' on?" I'd ask, every February, from the time Clayton Kershaw was a name on a list of prospects. The most promising name, but still.
He would shrug and say this and that, nothing very specific, early on because there was so much to come and then, as the springs passed, because the explanation likely would be way over my head and the man had only so much time.
We'd bat it around a little – fastball command, an emerging slider, a tighter, more obedient curveball – and then as the conversation was ending, over his shoulder, he'd say, "Changeup."
He'd smile because he'd been thinking about that changeup for what seemed like forever – chasing it, ignoring it, recalibrating it, throwing it, shaking it off.
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He'd go out and lead the league in strikeouts and ERA. He'd win a Cy Young Award, post a sub-1 WHIP, win a bunch of games.
Then, spring would come again, the routine reborn, the challenges still out there. He'd smile again and say it again, "Changeup," because there was just something about that pitch and what some pitchers could do with it that wouldn't let go of him. Oh, he has a changeup. He threw about 80 of them last season, according to fangraphs.com, out of something like 3,400 pitches. So maybe 13 a month. Two or three per start. Barely enough to warrant mention in a scouting report.
On Friday, I asked his catcher, A.J. Ellis, to describe Kershaw's relationship with his changeup.
"I say they are still in the courtship phase," he said.
Shouldn't they, by now, be common-law wed or something?
"They've taken many breaks," he replied. "I think they're in it for the long haul, but taking it slowly."
The Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday made official Kershaw's new contract, which will pay him $215 million over seven seasons. In a news conference at Dodger Stadium, president Stan Kasten and general manager Ned Colletti often referred to Kershaw as the best pitcher in the game, and nobody was in the mood – or had the ammunition – to bicker.
At 25, he became the highest-paid pitcher ever. Few have done more with their first 1,200 major-league innings than Kershaw has. Fewer, I'm guessing, have done more with their first million dollars than he has.
"Clayton," Kasten said, "is as good as it gets."
Kershaw called the organization's commitment to him, "Incredible."
"It's pretty cool," he said, "to know they believe in me so much."
In turn, he added, "Obviously there's going to be a lot of expectations, as it should be. You're going to be expected to be one of the best players in the game. That's fine with me."
He said seven years were plenty.
"I always want to be able to see the end," he said. "Anything longer than that I would have been a little overwhelmed."
He and his wife, Ellen, already have had conversations about what their new riches could mean for other people, the people they help in Los Angeles, Dallas, Lusaka, Zambia, and other places.
"A tremendous responsibility," he called it.
He's fine doing what he's been doing, of course. None of this has required a changeup. Given the choice of his best, or second-best, or third-best pitch, or a changeup, well, there is hardly a scenario in which Kershaw would opt for fourth-best. It's what's made him this kind of pitcher, this kind of man. And it's how he's gotten here so fast.
You've seen it. The rare walk. The bad pitch. And then Kershaw is at the front of the mound, right arm extended to Ellis, glove flapped open, his eyes hard and his jaw taut. Gimme the ball, he's saying, because that's not happening again. Gimme the ball 'cause we're getting out of this right now.
And so I am boundlessly curious about the changeup, the mystical less-is-more pitch, and Kershaw's curiosity for it, and the evolution of Kershaw as a pitcher and if there is room for another pitch along the way.
Pitchers like to say the hitters will decide. So far, hitters aren't suggesting Kershaw needs another pitch. One or two fewer, maybe.
Asked Friday what he's working on leading into camp, what he might be thinking about improving, Kershaw said, "Consistency." He rested for six weeks following the playoffs and began throwing again in early December. He threw from a mound recently and will again three or four more times before he reports to Camelback in Phoenix. His arm feels good, he said. A hundred percent, he said.
So, this and that. Nothing specific, nothing more than the usual. Then, a soft chuckle.
"I might not even say ‘changeup' anymore," he said. "Because I say it every spring training and nothing ever happens."
While that may be true, the changeup perhaps knows better. Kershaw's only playing hard to get.