After 15 seasons, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw has improved his control

Clayton Kershaw first faced the problem nearly 10 years ago.

Heading into free agency before the 2014 season, and already entrenched as the face of the Dodgers franchise after winning three Cy Young Awards, the lefty faced a crossroads in offseason contract negotiations with the club.

For the first time as a major leaguer, Kershaw was forced to take a hard look at his long-term future — to start charting his career in a way that certain Hall of Famers didn’t have to.

During that process, Kershaw recalled, “there was talk of doing it 10, 15 years,” an ultra-long deal that would stretch through his playing days.

The only problem?

“I was never comfortable committing to being good for a long period of time,” Kershaw said.

And almost a decade later, that philosophy hasn’t changed.

Now, as then, the 35-year-old pitcher is only careful to “fully commit what you can commit to.”

And by “absolutely,” he means what Kershaw knows he can do well.

That’s why, although he’s not sure when he might retire, how long he’ll last in a sport he’s dominated for a generation and whether he’ll ultimately end his career in LA or return home to Texas, Kershaw has accepted. looking forward to his future in baseball year after year.

After completing the seven-year, $215 million deal he signed with the Dodgers in 2014, he has entered free agency the past two seasons in search of a one-season deal, rejecting the possibility of another lucrative long-term deal. deal with something much more valuable at this stage in his life and career.


“I didn’t plan on this,” Kershaw said. “I think it’s a good way for me to go where I’m at.”

Kershaw mentioned the feeling of “freedom” several times in an interview this spring, discussing his current outlook and future plans as he gazed across a back field at the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch facility.

The 2014 National League MVP and all-time franchise strikeout king still feels the pressure to perform. Entering his 16th MLB season, he still sees every contract he signs as a promise to be great.

Everything comes from the cut fire that has fueled his historical career.

“This year I feel fully committed. It might be (the same) next year. But I love the freedom of not being committed… I like the ability to reset every year.”

– Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers pitcher

But now, even Kershaw knows he’s closing in on a possible destination. That the moment his performance declines, or the moment his motivation is lost, or the moment his body breaks down beyond repair, he will not be beholden to anyone or any team.

He will not make a commitment that he is unable to fulfill.

He will be able to leave the game, whenever the moment comes, on his own terms.

“Whenever you sign that contract for a team, in my mind, you’re 100 percent committed to doing whatever you can to help your team win,” Kershaw said. “And that is not easy. You have to be good. It’s not ‘Oh, you should be good.’ no You have to be And if you’re not, you’re not keeping your promise.

“Right now, I feel completely committed this year. It might be (the same) next year. But I love the freedom of not being committed. … I like the ability to reset after every year.”

By the time his last outing was recorded, he had started lifting a dozen seasons.

Kershaw knew winning a World Series would be special. He thought it would release the frustrations that had built up over the years and years of October.

But what he didn’t expect, when he and the Dodgers finally clinched the 2020 title, was that the long-awaited championship would loosen the shackles of his character and open the way for a new perspective. about his career.

Clayton Kershaw acknowledges the crowd during the Dodgers’ World Series championship ring ceremony on April 9, 2021.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

“I think having that (World Series) definitely let me relax a little bit more,” Kershaw said. “I didn’t realize I carried that much weight.”

In fact, everyone around the Dodgers has taken notice of Kershaw in recent years.

How his stoic facade has begun to fade. How his once fearsome aura has softened.

It has not been a complete transformation. He still follows the strict opening day routine. He still sticks to himself in bullpen sessions. He’ll still throw a chair—half-jokingly—in heated games of ping pong at the club.

But when he flips the switch and navigates the quiet moments in between, he’s ready to cover that sharp edge.

He has become more open with his teammates. More self-esteem in interviews. He was once ready to appreciate the little joys he let pass.

“Obviously, he knows he’s on the other side of his career,” pitching coach Mark Prior said. “So I think he’s trying to enjoy all the other little things that sometimes get lost in the shuffle.”

Former Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said, “He’s always put that extra pressure on himself. And he’s still a great competitor. You still see him compete at this high level. He wants to continue to do that. But I think he’s able to separate things a little bit better ».

During an outing in the backfield this month in a minor league game, for example, Kershaw visited with his wife and children between innings as they watched back and forth from the mound to the dugout to the dirt track.

Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw returns during a game against the Texas Rangers on March 16, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona.

Clayton Kershaw returns to the plate during a spring training game against the Texas Rangers on March 16 in Glendale, Ariz.

(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

A week later, Kershaw sat with Prior during a morning throwing session for Dodgers pitchers. After watching reliever Caleb Ferguson’s mechanics up close, the once-reluctant boss reached out to his fellow left-hander to share his observations, choosing a subtle moment to impart the wisdom he’s gleaned over 15 seasons.

“Being on a stage like that, being in so many big games, knowing what’s expected of him, I think there’s a lot that goes into that,” said catcher Austin Barnes, who has been around Kershaw longer than any other player. The Dodgers club. “I think he’s figured out a good balance for himself.”

And Kershaw’s ability to go year-to-year, with a $17 million signing in 2022 after a $21 million renewal last winter, has only exacerbated that shift, replacing the pressures of past expectations and obligations with the new prerogative that has carried with him. all camps

“When it’s your choice — like, I don’t have to play anymore, so this is your choice to come to this game — I don’t take that for granted,” he said. “You’re not walking through another season, you’re going through it. Now, we’re here because I love baseball, I love this team, and I think we can be good. So there’s, I think there’s a bit of freedom in that.’

Just as Kershaw’s mindset has changed in recent years, so has his role on an ever-evolving Dodgers team.

While he’s one of the majors’ best pitchers when healthy — something he confirmed with a 12-3 record, 2.28 ERA and first career All-Star Game start last season — he’s no longer the staff’s primary ace.

Although he maintains his high hopes, the club’s fortunes are not as dependent as they once were.

Instead, Kershaw has taken on responsibilities that his former closer would never have accepted.

He has quietly mentored younger friends on rotation, such as Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May, though he feels uncomfortable being publicly labeled as a mentor.

Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw.

⚾ 2023 MLB Season Preview

“There is no forced leader. Nobody’s going to answer him,” Kershaw said. “I think my strongest is one-on-one (interviews). I can help the boys wherever I can.’

He’s accepted his place as one of the elder statesmen on the roster as well, discussing his veteran status last season with a sheepish grin across his face.

“I don’t know when I became, I guess, like a veteran,” he said with a soft, hesitant grin, a word that was still uncomfortable coming from his lips. “I don’t know what year it happened.”

Now, though, he’s slowly catching on, moving into a “different headspace,” as president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman described it, “than eight or nine years ago.”

“I don’t think it’s that unusual with players as they get into their 30s,” Friedman said.

With Kershaw, however, the changes have been more significant than most.

What he will bring beyond this season is unclear.

Like last year, Kershaw considered signing with the Texas Rangers this offseason, an attraction to the Dallas native that lingers every time he hits the free agent market. He has not ruled out the possibility of this being his last season either, saying at the beginning of camp that “everything is on the table, for sure”.

That’s why, for now, he’s focused solely on his offseason commitment, settling for at least one more year with the Dodgers.

“I think the opportunity, the time you chose to be here, changes your perspective a little bit,” Kershaw said. “You are not forced to be here. For example, this was an opportunity for our family. So you can enjoy it too.’

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