When one thinks of elite power pitchers with the Los Angeles Dodgers, one usually thinks of Sandy Koufax. However, there is another pitcher arguing for your attention. His name is Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw grew up outside of Dallas, where he attended the Dallas Baseball Academy of Texas and Highland Park High School.
It was at Highland Park where the southpaw would have a tremendous senior year, where he posted a 13-0 record with a 0.77 ERA. He would record 139 strikeouts in 64 innings. His senior season would see him earn honors from USA Today and Gatorade as the National Player of the Year for high school baseball.
Lew Kennedy, his high school coach, spoke with me for a few minutes last week about his former pitcher.
“I could see potential,” Kennedy said over the phone. “He was a younger kid. All the way through high school, he was probably one of the youngest in his class. He was almost fat as a freshman but you could tell he definitely had the possibility, certainly from the left side. He threw the ball fairly hard as a freshman, and I said ‘Man, if anybody can continue to mature and change up a little bit.’ He just made great strides each year. By the time he was a senior, he was something else. He wasn’t one of those absolute phenoms as a freshman—big burly guy or anything like that—but he did keep making good progress, a good work ethic. He loved to compete. We knew we had a special one but he just continued to get better all the way through.”
“I figured he’d be draft choice probably during his junior year,” Kennedy said about Kershaw’s draft potential in high school. “Going into his junior year, toward the end of his junior year, and certainly in his senior year, it became apparent that he was going to be way up there.”
Cade Griffis is the CEO of the Dallas Baseball Academy of Texas. He was able to see early on what Clayton would be able to accomplish.
“There is many on the field comparisons between Clayton and Sandy Koufax, but the most glaring is the off the field comparisons,” Griffis said in an email. “Both are very strong believers in their faith, both are leaders on the field and lead by example off the field. I have had thousands of kids in my program and it’s rare to meet a kid that understands how important your character and ethics are in life and you can win on and off the field with those two things. Clayton believed that as early as 15/16 years old.”
Griffis went on to add that he thinks that “Clayton has a better curveball then Koufax.”
High praise for the southpaw pitcher.
What about Kershaw’s major league potential?
“With the draft being so volatile it wasn’t until about the end of his 17 year old summer when I said to another coach ‘This kid is becoming a big time prospect’ by his middle of his senior year is when it was pretty obvious he was going in the 1st round,” Griffis said about the time he realized that Clayton would be a first round pick.
I spoke to MLB Network analyst Larry Bowa last week about Kershaw. Bowa was the Dodgers third base coach from 2008-2010 so he saw firsthand what the lefty brought to the game for his first three seasons in a Dodger uniform.
Bowa agreed that “barring any injuries,” Kershaw is the second coming of Koufax.
“He’s got everything going for him,” Bowa said. “Got a tremendous arm, great attitude, work ethic. Not really into stats. All he cares about is winning. Very unselfish when he takes the mound.”
Bowa told me that he likes what Kershaw is able to bring with him to the game, day in and day out.
“Just the way he approaches the game for a young kid,” Bowa said of what he likes about Kershaw. “He’s had respect for the game from the day he put on the uniform—the very first time he was in a big league uniform. He understands the history of the game. Takes nothing for granted. He’s the same whether he gets beat one day or throws a no-hitter. His attitude is tremendous.”
Since being drafted as a first round pick by the Dodgers in 2006, Kershaw has been very impressive in his Dodger career. From his 2008 debut through the end of the 2012 season, Kershaw is 61-37 with an impressive 2.79 ERA and 974 shutouts. A two-time All-Star, Kershaw won his first Cy Young Award in 2011 and finished as the runner up in 2012 voting.
What’s the one thing that surprised Bowa the most about Kershaw?
“I think how quick he made adjustments,” Bowa said. “When he first came up, the one thing that he had a problem doing was throwing strikes on a consistent basis. He harnessed that real quick. He makes adjustments. He’s not afraid to make adjustments as far as whether it be holding runners on or going from a big curve ball to a cutter to a change up. He’s very mature for being a guy that hasn’t pitched that much in the big leagues.”
What about this season? What can fans expect of the Dodger ace?
“I think nothing but good things are ahead of him,” said Bowa. “Again, it’s hard to determine how many wins he’s going to get. You can go out there—a team can go through a drought where they don’t score many runs—but he’s going to keep you in the ball game. He takes you deep in a ballgame. Like I said, barring any injuries, this guy is going to have tremendous numbers at the end of his career.”
“I do think Clayton Kershaw is the best Dodger lefthander since Koufax and, astonishing as it is, has the opportunity to surpass him,” said Jon Weisman, author of Dodger Thoughts and 100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, in an email. “He will never have a peak like Koufax had, simply because baseball doesn’t use pitchers that way anymore, but that relative care and concern about pitch counts and all is what can allow Kershaw to have a career that might ultimately top the Hall of Famer’s. Turning 25 in March, Kershaw’s already well of Koufax as far as results, so the main thing is whether he can stay healthy. Certainly, the decline of someone like Tim Lincecum last year is a reminder of how quickly these things can turn. At any rate, I do like his chances to pitch in 2013 the way he has pitched the past couple of years — maybe a little worse, maybe a little better. He has the skills, the ethic and a growing intelligence and maturity — the whole package.”
Weisman is certainly not alone in comparing him to Koufax.
“For a young pitcher to be compared to Sandy Koufax is as unfair as labeling a cub reporter the next Hemingway or a fledgling stock trader the next Warren Buffet,” said ESPNLosAngeles.com baseball writer Mark Saxon. “And yet, when you are a phenom left-handed pitcher for the Dodgers, such comparisons are inevitable. Then there’s the fact that Kershaw just keeps validating them. In fact, in some ways his talents have emerged earlier than Koufax’s did. Kershaw won his first Cy Young award at 23, four years earlier than Koufax’s first of three. What Kershaw hasn’t done yet, of course, is stand the test of time. From 1961 to 1966, Koufax had arguably the greatest six-year run of any pitcher in the history of the game. Kershaw, still just 24, has only just begun living up to Koufax’s legacy, but he’s got a running start.
“He won the 2011 Cy Young with 92 percent of the vote, then finished second the following season. Given his consistency in recent seasons, his age and his ability, there’s no reason to expect him to do anything other than contend for another one in 2013.”
Official baseball historian John Thorn offered his thoughts on the Koufax comparisons.
“Kershaw has more accomplished earlier in his big-league career but he has ways to go to be mentioned alongside the mature Koufax,” Thorn said.
What does Kershaw have to say about the comparisons. At a Dallas reception in January, Kershaw said: “I think it’s a huge honor. I don’t take that lightly. But at the same time, there’s no expectations I have. He’s one of the best pitchers ever. So I’ve got a long way to go to even be compared to him, for sure.”
“Clayton Kershaw is everything a Dodger ace should be — poised, great competitor, mature beyond his years, sensational curveball, and he regularly beats the Giants,” said Ken Levine, a former co-host of Dodger Talk.
Kershaw will be around for many seasons to come.