'He's addicted to winning': Clayton Kershaw's battle to remain elite

As he nears the end of his 11th season, Clayton Kershaw will have to decide whether to opt out of the last two years of his contract and become a free agent. Jennifer Buchanan/USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- It was the onset of spring training in 2015, Andrew Friedman's first as the Los Angeles Dodgers' president of baseball operations. "Player plan" meetings -- basically, an analytics session with players, coaches and executives -- were being held. They were mostly for the rookies, but accomplished veterans were included so the message would resonate.

The focus turned to Clayton Kershaw, fresh off winning an MVP award and widely considered darn near impeccable. A member of the Dodgers' front office brought up the consistently low swing rate on Kershaw's curveball and began talking about how the three-time Cy Young Award winner could use it as a way to get back into counts. Then Friedman heard a recognizable voice in a tone he hadn't yet experienced.

"Never gonna happen," Kershaw spat.

Up until then, Friedman had exchanged only pleasantries with Kershaw. He seemed friendly. Warm, even.

"That," Friedman said, "was my first indoctrination into Dominant Pitcher Clayton Kershaw."

And so began the task of transitioning Kershaw into the next phase of his career, one complicated by a balky back and a slower fastball. Kershaw is a noticeably different pitcher now, in the late stages of an 11th season that, if he opts out of his contract, could be his last before free agency.

His fastball velocity has dipped into the low 90s, and his slider has taken on the characteristics of a cutter. But he is still recording outs at a dominant rate, with an ERA (2.42) and WHIP (0.98) that rank seventh among those with at least 130 innings. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts credited Kershaw's "open-mindedness to information," but he couldn't help but laugh about the "long process" of getting Kershaw there.

"Clayton, he's not an easy sell," Roberts said. "The results have got to be there to support the why, and that's still not always enough. There's definitely some spirited debates with Clayton, which are always fun."

Ross Stripling keeps going back to the same word: "relentless."

The Dodgers' All-Star right-hander is trying to describe the diligence, aggression and unwavering consistency with which Kershaw approaches the mundane tasks that encompass his five-day routine. His warm-ups are other pitchers' workouts, his throwing sessions are executed with unmatched precision, and every morsel of his focus is directed toward that next start. There is no letup.

"No one else can do that," Stripling said. "I'd like to think that I could, but there's days when you just can't. Like, I show up, and I just don't have it in me. I've never really seen him have a day like that. I'm sure there are days when his kids are just crazy in the morning, got no sleep or whatever, but when he gets to the field, he knows. He kicks it into a gear that nobody else has."

Kershaw, who agreed to an interview in the eight minutes it took him to get his bat ready for bunting drills, has a simple reason.

"I get paid a bunch of money to do this, and so there's a responsibility to my teammates, every single day, to show up and be the absolute best you can be," he said. "There's a responsibility to the coaches, to the organization, to the front office, to the owners, to everybody who believes in you enough to give you what you've gotten, to the fans that show up every day and pay to watch you play -- all those things combined. It's not fair to take a day off. It's not fair to say, 'Hey, I don't have it today.' That's not fair. I constantly feel that responsibility, and I think that's a good thing. That's a good motivator."

It's also a real -- albeit immeasurable -- competitive edge, one that could carry Kershaw beyond what conventional wisdom might presume. The back issues might persist, the innings might pile up, and the life on his pitches might fade, but the dedication and the focus will not waver.

"Those things are just immeasurable and things that are going to sustain him as long as he steps on the mound," said San Diego Padres catcher A.J. Ellis, Kershaw's good friend and a former longtime teammate. "He's addicted to winning, and he's going to figure out a way. Even if it means throwing right-handed, he's going to figure out a way to go out and help his team win. He has too much willpower and is too competitive not to."

Kershaw's average fastball velocity has dropped each of the past four years, from 94.2 mph in 2015 to 91.5 mph in 2018. He has continually used the heater less (40.9 percent of the time in 2018, down from 53.6 percent of the time in 2015) and instead relies more heavily on his slider (41.3 percent in 2018, up from 27.9 percent in 2015).

"I don't care how you get the outs. It doesn't matter to me how bad it looks, how good it looks, how many strikeouts you have. None of that stuff matters as long as you get the outs." Clayton Kershaw

His swinging-strike percentage, which got as high as 15.9 in 2015, is down to 11.4. Kershaw is nibbling a little bit more, as evidenced by the 46.2 percent of pitches that are landing within the strike zone, second lowest of his career. There also has been the inevitable drop in strikeout rate (8.8) and increase in hits per nine innings (7.5), both of which are his worst since his rookie season in 2008.

But Kershaw remains one of the game's most effective pitchers, even if he is no longer among the most overpowering.

"I don't care how you get the outs," he said. "It doesn't matter to me how bad it looks, how good it looks, how many strikeouts you have. None of that stuff matters as long as you get the outs."

Ellis noted that Kershaw is "comfortable not being that punchout king anymore." He was there for the genesis of Kershaw's menacing slider in 2009 -- during a throwing session at Wrigley Field, back when the lefty needed another off-speed pitch to put hitters away -- but he noticed a different one when he faced him two months ago.

Kershaw used to consistently drive his slider toward the shoe-tops of opposing right-handed hitters, but now he also is spotting it on the outside corner.

Said Ellis: "It gives the hitter 18 inches of plate he has to cover on what is already a devastating pitch."

Kershaw has thrown his slider with progressively less horizontal movement, less downward break and, starting four years ago, more velocity, making it appear like more of a cut fastball. He is throwing the slider on the outer third to right-handed hitters nearly 30 percent of the time this year, way up from roughly 15 percent in 2017.

"I don't think about it," Kershaw said of all the different ways he is attacking hitters. "It doesn't feel any different to me, I guess is what I'm saying. It doesn't feel any different. But I think the point is that the hitters will dictate what you have to do to get guys out."

Kershaw will have pitched somewhere around 2,100 regular-season innings in his career by the end of 2018. Since 1980, only eight pitchers have compiled that many innings through their age-30 seasons.

How they fared after that has been a mixed bag.

Roger Clemens entered into another stage of dominance, but performance-enhancing drugs might have helped. Dwight Gooden was never the same again, but substance abuse was a major factor. Greg Maddux, Frank Viola and Dave Stieb experienced varying degrees of sustainability, but CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Fernando Valenzuela fell off.

That brings us to Kershaw, who can soon opt out of a contract that would pay him $65 million over the next two seasons. He can be the headliner of a weak free-agent crop of starting pitchers, but he would do so on the heels of three consecutive seasons with back issues.

The only pitcher who makes more than the $32.5 million Kershaw would average over the next two years is former teammate Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $206.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks when he was a year older than Kershaw is now (and had compiled basically the same amount of innings).

David Price ($31 million average with the Boston Red Sox) and Max Scherzer ($30 million average with the Washington Nationals) came close on seven-year deals signed after their age-29 seasons. If Kershaw finishes the season strong, he could command something similar. But teams are increasingly cautious about doling out massive contracts to aging players displaying signs of regression, and Kershaw, who will be 31 in March, certainly fits that description.

For now, the dilemma can wait.

"I think we have a trust and a communication in place that allows for us not to spend too much of our time and focus on it right now," Friedman said, with his club gunning for a sixth consecutive National League West title. "When the time comes, we'll obviously seek him out and have those conversations. It's just not front of mind right now."

The torque in Kershaw's delivery is the type that stresses the back. But he won't ever change the way he throws. What he can do, Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said, is lessen the ferocity with which he attacks his between-starts routine, a process that already has begun.

Honeycutt isn't worried about the pitching aspect.

"I think he's smart enough," Honeycutt said. "Depending on what he has, he's going to figure out how to manufacture what he has and compete that day with what he has. That's never going to change. That part, the competitive edge that he has when he gets out in a game, is always going to be there."

Kershaw has mellowed out in recent years, those around him say. He used to navigate life with no off switch, his trademark intensity unrelenting. Along the way, he learned to separate, to add a little perspective.

"My kids taught me that," Kershaw said. "I used to maybe take it home with me a little too much, just constantly think about it. And that's when it gets exhausting. That's what'll get you, especially when it's not going well."

Fatherhood might have softened him off the field, but there was no seminal moment that made Kershaw more open-minded about tinkering with his pitching patterns. It was a gradual process, one helped by his relationship with Honeycutt, a growing trust toward the Dodgers' front office and, perhaps, the natural concern prompted by declining health. The back-and-forth between Kershaw and the Dodgers' front-office group has grown over time, enough so that Kershaw will now seek out the information.

He resisted initially, but the results were showing him that change was unnecessary.

He argued, but he made valid points.

"If you ever go to him with anything, you better be prepared to answer a lot of questions -- and really well-informed, educated questions," Friedman said. "Early on, I think he stumped me a few times, and I learned my lesson."

Friedman has often joked that the back half of Kershaw's career will consist of him dominating with a changeup, the one pitch that continually eludes him.

"I wouldn't bet against him kind of evolving in different ways to still compete at a high level," Friedman said, "because that's what motivates him, that's what consumes him, and he's got the mind, the work ethic, to do that."