Don't walk: Clayton Kershaw crossing into historic territory

Hold the phone! Clayton Kershaw has surrendered how many walks this season? Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX -- On a recent Sunday morning, less than 12 hours after securing a victory for his club, Clayton Kershaw had already started setting up his next work of art by running sprints in the outfield, then jogging the curve of the warning track.

On Tuesday afternoon, in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ clubhouse in Arizona, he finished his preparation by poring over information on a computer while activity buzzed around him.

One of the game’s best pitchers -- and one of the best the sport has ever seen -- is pitching better than he ever has, and it is not an accident.

Ever since he burst onto the scene in 2008 at the ripe old age of 20, Kershaw has strived for the kind of season he is having now. He has given whatever time it takes to gain any advantage possible, and he has not taken any moment for granted.

The payoff this year is that he has tallied a dominating 122 strikeouts in his first 100 2/3 innings of work. Making that number stand out even more is that Kershaw has walked just six batters this season.


Consider this: Kershaw has seven hits as a batter in 36 trips to the plate, yet he has only given up six free passes to the 360 batters he has faced. So far this season, he's posting a 20.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The record for BB-to-K ratio over a full season by a starting pitcher is 11.6-to-1, which was put up by the Minnesota Twins ’ Phil Hughes in 2014.

That’s right, Kershaw is close to doubling one of baseball’s best efficiency marks.

"What separates Clayton a little bit more is his ability to pitch with conviction," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "He trusts himself, he trusts his weapons. There is no tentativeness when he throws a pitch.

"It’s funny how, even when a pitch that has the same velocity as another pitch, the one that is thrown with conviction just always seems to have that extra aggressiveness, that extra life to it. And as that ball just kind of gets to me in the hitting zone, you can feel that energy behind it versus one that is trying to be placed somewhere."

Kershaw’s least-favorite topic of discussion is Kershaw, but he is willing to talk about his mind-boggling command -- to a point. Kershaw seems to have come into this season with an extra determination to attack the strike zone.

Yet he isn’t ready to go into specifics about how he took his already-dominating command to a level that even longtime observers of the game have never seen.

"I don’t know if there is one specific thing," Kershaw said. "It’s just a matter of working at it and getting more consistent and repeating the same mechanics over and over again, and having the mindset that you aren’t going to walk guys.

"You’re going to get beat with hits, and you’re not going to worry about that."

In 2015, Kershaw ran into some early-season speed bumps when he tried to get ahead in the count at the beginning of at-bats. If teams found a spot to get to the Dodgers’ ace, it was early in the count, and often on the first pitch.

Swinging on the first pitch is a dangerous strategy for hitters, but when they face somebody of Kershaw’s talent, they are often forced to pick their poison. If Kershaw is getting outs on teams swinging at the first pitch, his odds of throwing a complete game go up exponentially. But getting ahead in the count isn’t just about finding the plate on the first pitch. If there is one thing Kershaw’s eight previous major league seasons have taught him, it's that a pitcher can't take the 0-0 count lightly.

"Getting ahead is really important, obviously, but not at the cost of leaving balls over the middle," he said. "So you have to understand who's hitting, understand the situation, understand what you can get away with, and maybe I’m doing a little bit better job of that this year."

And indeed, that seems to be the secret to this season's success. He has reached an 0-1 count in 56 percent of his opponents’ plate appearances, a career high. According to the ESPN Stats & Information, he is throwing a slider on the first pitch 26 percent of the time, up from 19 percent last year.

Kershaw's change in first-pitch selection isn’t a gigantic difference, but it's big enough to keep hitters guessing. That might be the reason batters don’t look locked in against him early in the count.

"I just think his execution has been a little better this year -- not that it was bad before," Ellis said. "This has always been his plan of attack. I just think he’s been very successful at executing this year.

"A lot of the early-season struggles he had last year -- the Clayton version of struggling -- happened on the first pitch, a pitch not in the strike zone, or a pitch not located as properly as they should have been and guys were able to do damage on. This year, he has been able to navigate 0-0 very successfully, and it opens up the entire at-bat for him."

It seems improbable that someone who has already won three Cy Young Awards could still make a considerable improvement. But Kershaw is doing it, and the start of his 2016 season has been a historic one.

Asked if he always sees ways he could improve his game, Kershaw walked that fine line the way he does on an 0-0 count. He didn’t want to seem aloof, but he didn't want to sound obsessive either.

"It just depends," he said. "Every start is different. The second you feel like you perfected something is usually when it goes haywire. This game humbles you fast, I know that.

"The only way to worry about that is to worry about your next start. So beat the D-backs [on Wednesday]. Just worry about that then."

Ellis will be back behind the plate for Kershaw’s start in the series finale in the desert. He has been the backstop for all but three Kershaw starts this season, and he relishes being there for his good friend. Ellis has called his seat behind the dish the ideal spot from which to watch Kershaw travel the road to the Hall of Fame.

Speaking during the week of golf's U.S. Open, Ellis drew on current events for an analogy.

"My role is to play that caddy role, and to be there and support him," Ellis said. "That rare time when he might need a club, I can tell him which one to use on a shot.

"But the rest of the time, it’s just to be there as a sounding board, or a guy to vent to, a guy to compete with."