If you hadn't noticed, Clayton Kershaw is kind of consistent.
He led the league in ERA in 2011, he led the league in ERA in 2012 and, through the first six weeks of 2013, he's leading the league in ERA.
That kind of repetitive excellence doesn't happen by accident. Kershaw is diligent before the game and focused to an extreme during the game, those traits combining with his natural gifts to make the perfect storm, a hitter's bad dream.
An underrated part of Kershaw's success: catcher A.J. Ellis, who is with him start after start, thinking his way through a lineup so Kershaw doesn't have to and helping create an environment in which the Dodgers' ace can thrive. Two days after Kershaw's 11-strikeout masterpiece against the Washington Nationals, we caught up with Ellis to see what it's like to work with the the brilliant young lefthander:
Q. How does your close personal relationship with Clayton play into your on-field chemistry?
A. I think we’re both really professional guys and, when the game starts, it’s about winning that game, so we’ve got that in common. He’s very diligent in his pregame preparation, knowing the hitters. I have my ideas. We have a meeting before the game to bounce ideas off each other. We kind of go from there. Then, it’s up to me to feel how the game is going, what pitches are working for him and try to stay on that same page.
Q. Can you tell us more about that pregame meeting?
A. Usually, he’s very particular and he dictates. He watches a lot of video, studies these hitters he’s going to face. Basically, he runs the meeting. It’s him, myself and [pitching coach] Rick Honeycutt. Usually it’s an hour and 45 minutes before first pitch. He runs through the lineup, he tells me what he wants to do with the leadoff hitter, what he thinks, what he sees, and 95 percent of the time, we just kind of move on to the next guy. There are a couple times when Rick or I will add something like, “This guy’s really bad on two-strike sliders,” or, “This guy, you can beat him away late. You can catch him looking away.” He’ll kind of push back a little bit, but it’s a really good meeting.
Q. So, once the game starts, it’s your job to think your way through the other team’s lineup, applying the advance scouting report, and to let him concentrate on the mechanics of making pitches?
A. The one thing we do as catchers, myself, Tim Federowicz and Ramon Hernandez, we all look at the other team before the series starts, break down their strengths and weaknesses. The hard part is trying to match that up with what he wants to do. There will be certain times when you’ll say, “This guy’s a really good hitter on fastballs inside,” but if his strength is throwing fastballs inside, there will be times when we have to say, “You know what? Here’s what the report says, but we’re sticking with your strengths.”
Q. [Tuesday] night, he had the good curveball early. When he has that, do you think, “It’s over?”
A. Almost. It’s a great feeling to have, when you know he has a feel for it, because it’s a pitch we use early, but mainly we use it with two strikes. He’s got the feel to throw that thing just behind the strike zone that ends up a ball. It’s such a part of his repertoire, such a tough pitch to make contact on. Yet it’s such a hard pitch to lay off. It has so much break on it.
Q. So, is it just a matter of getting to two strikes and then, "Good night, drive home safely?"
A. With that pitch, especially [Tuesday] night, my job was pretty simple. Just put the No. 2 down, because that was probably the best feel he’s had for his curveball all season. If he’s got that one, the strikeouts are going to pile up.
Q. He’s an intense guy when he’s pitching, I guess. What are visits to the mound like?
A. He’s very to-the-point, very matter of fact, basically, “What are you doing out here? What do you want to talk about?” Basically, that’s it. There’s no room for any fluff or anything else. I rarely have to go out there. He’s so good at staying in the moment and he’s so good at calming himself down when the game gets fast. He’s really good at controlling the pace of the game. He knows when he’s got a good rhythm going, so it’s time to get going, going, going. He knows when it’s time to back off and slow down. My job when he pitches is to stay out of the way and let him do his thing.
Q. Can you see him change, day by day, as his start gets closer?
A. He’s the exact same guy for four days. He’s a great teammate, a leader on this team. He’s always on the top step cheering on his teammates, working relentlessly to get ready for his next start, but his personality is fun, really energetic, positive always. But I’ve never seen somebody who can change so totally. From the time you see him in the parking lot on his game day, it’s like a light switch is turned and do not talk to him about anything other than that night’s hitters and what’s going on. There is a focus and intensity that is unbreakable. That was the great thing for me, seeing him on Opening Day hit that home run in the eighth inning and to see the smile on his face running around the bases and then to see him try to refocus. That never happens. He always stays in it.
Q. Have you worked with other pitchers who are the opposite, like to joke around the day they’re pitching and keep things loose?
A. There are a lot of guys who are very talkative the day they pitch, have a lot to say, are very energetic and just want to talk and talk. Everybody’s got a different personality and everybody gets ready in a different way.
Q. Does your hand hurt after catching Clayton, or any of the other hard throwers?
A. Not so much. The mitts they make for us nowadays are so strong and protective. I wear a batting glove under my hand. My hand hurts more from getting broken bats sawed off at the plate.
Q. Do catchers get enough credit for when a guy pitches well?
A. I don’t think there’s any place for us to get any credit. They’re the ones out there doing the work. It’s up to us to just get on the same page. There’s a rhythm of the game thing, but it’s all about their execution and what they’re able to do. I’m more than willing to give all the credit and then shoulder the blame if things don’t go well. I won’t say anybody can catch Clayton, but it’s not a difficult task, because he’s so unique and special.
Q. Do you ever hear any funny comments from hitters when Clayton is pitching?
A. A lot of opposing pitchers when they hit. They’ll see a pitch and be like, “Well, this’ll be fast,” or they’ll strike out on a curveball and be like, “Really? A curveball?” The hitters, I would guess, don’t want to give any impression that they’re intimidated.