GLENDALE, Ariz. — High atop the Washington, D.C.-area Gaylord National Harbor Hotel, where all of baseball aroused itself from its brief winter slumber below, the game’s best pitcher gave a nod to his newest subtle change.
Nothing major, Clayton Kershaw admitted. Just an adjustment to his between-seasons routine, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace said at baseball’s winter meetings. Nobody would have known the difference had it had not been asked.
Kershaw denied it was related to the back injury that interrupted his 2016. More than anything, he revealed, the alterations were done as an acknowledgement of his nine major league seasons, his 1,760 innings pitched and his approaching 29th birthday on March 19.
“The routine has been a little different, but it’s not drastic changes, which is great,” Kershaw said upon reporting to spring training last week. “I feel like I am able to still get in the work I need to get in. I just am a little more aware of just pushing through stuff, and things like that, just a little more aware. But I would say, for the most part, not a lot has changed. I feel good.”
Locked into every season, every game, every inning and every pitch, Kershaw has worked himself into a baseball giant. He has elevated the art of pitching, and his place at Cooperstown already seems secure. He might be one of the best to ever kick the clay atop the mound, but even he is always tinkering with his formula for greatness.
During his first full season as a major leaguer in 2009, 71 percent of Kershaw’s pitches were fastballs. Nearly every year since, he has relied on his fastball less, which means his breaking ball usage has gone up. In 2016, his fastball/breaking ball usage was nearly identical at 51 percent to 49 percent.
“If people get hits on stuff, you have to change stuff,” Kershaw said. “I’ll stay the same until I start getting hit hard, and then I’ll have to make adjustments.”
While hitters continuously try to catch up to Kershaw, he’s always been able to stay a step ahead to maintain his elite level.
He essentially developed his slider at the major league level after arriving in L.A. as more of a fastball/curveball pitcher. In 2012, Kershaw’s slider truly arrived and from 2012-13, while throwing it in the 85-mph range, opponents batted .195 against it, with a .334 slugging percentage.
At the start of the 2014 season, though, Kershaw threw his slider harder, at an average of 87.5 mph, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In 2015, he was throwing his slider at 88 mph, and last season he threw it 87.8 mph.
What kind of difference did a harder slider make? In those three seasons (2014-16), opponents hit .157 against the Kershaw slider, with a .232 slugging percentage.
If Kershaw has his slider complimenting the rest of his arsenal in 2017, Cy Young consideration figures to be a foregone conclusion.
“I think we can all say we have never seen a player like Clayton both physically and mentally,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But I think there is something to staying ahead of things. But also he just has a way to execute — and consistently.”
Another spontaneous evolution that he integrated into his repertoire last season — refusing to stand still even upon returning from the disabled list — was a three-quarter sidearm delivery that he had not used since high school. He was inspired to do it after watching new teammate Rich Hill.
“I think when we talk about success, you talk about the creativity that guys have and the passion they have for whatever it is they do. It doesn’t matter what they do in life, but if you have the creativity and the passion to go out there and do what you’re doing, then you’re going to be successful,” Hill said. “And I think that is the perfect example of a guy like Clayton, who is creative out there on the mound and loves what he does.”
So what changes could be in store this year?
“Every offseason I say my changeup is getting better, so maybe I’ll throw one this year,” Kershaw said. “It looks great in the bullpen, and then I don’t throw it in the game.”
Will he really use it?
“I don’t know. Who knows? We’ll find out.”