March 9, 2015
Why Clayton Kershaw is a Dodger, and Tyler Colvin Isn't
Three Cy Youngs in four years, the other a second-place finish. A sub-3 ERA in six straight seasons, sub-2 in the past couple. Five consecutive 200-plus strikeout seasons, and (for a pitcher) exceptional health. This is what you want when picking a pitcher first overall in the draft.
But Kershaw wasn’t first overall. He wasn’t even the first pitcher picked. We all know baseball’s draft is a crapshoot in general, and predicting outcomes for pitchers—and especially high school pitchers—is even harder. But still, it’s jarring to recall that in 2006 Kershaw was the sixth pitcher selected.
Those arms selected ahead of Kershaw have had varying degrees of success during their time in the bigs, but none has come close to putting together a resume that can sniff that of the Dodgers ace. Combined, even, the field comes up short:
But to look at how these arms are doing nearly a decade later would be unfair. The reality is, it would be revisionist history to suggest Kershaw “fell” to the Dodgers. He was the first high-school arm selected, and no one familiar with how things were viewed in the summer of 2006 would claim that Kershaw slipped in the draft. However, it did involve a bit of strange luck for Kershaw to be available at the seventh pick.
San Diego Padres pro scouting coordinator Logan White, who was in charge of the Dodgers amateur scouting department at the time, tells us the story. In the 2005 draft, the Dodgers selected Hochevar with the 40th pick but failed to sign the talented collegian, whose agent, Scott Boras, reportedly wanted $4 million. After pitching in the independent American Association, Hochevar returned to the draft pool the next summer and was subsequently taken first overall by the Royals. That serendipitous splash affected every pick thereafter.
“It definitely changed the dynamic of that draft by putting another really good prospect back in,” White posited. “If you take him out of that draft what I believe would have happened, (the Royals) would have taken (Andrew) Miller. Had that happened, I believe the Tigers would have taken Kershaw. In a funny way, it’s a blessing we didn’t sign Luke, because then Kershaw doesn’t get to us.”
It’s interesting to think how things may have changed if Kershaw had ended up going to the Tigers in the draft. Particularly for the Dodgers, who would have had the option to take Tim Lincecum or Max Scherzer, both former Cy Young winners, who went 10 and 11, respectively, that year.
“People have asked me if I didn’t take Kershaw, I would have taken Lincecum, right?” White said. “Well, do you want me to lie and say yes? But no, we liked him, but I wasn’t that smart. We weren’t going to take him.
“Back then we had to stay within slot, even though there wasn’t a slot, there was a slot. And we had to stay at slot or below. And Scherzer just was a non-factor because of the amount of money it was going to take. We liked (Tyler) Colvin, we liked a lot of guys, and we liked Lincoln, who went in front of us. Colvin had a nice left-handed swing. If you wanted a position player, you could have gone that way.”
White said another option they had discussed had Kershaw not been available was taking Bryan Morris, who they ended up selecting at 26, and signing him way under slot. So had Hochevar not been available in that draft, it’s likely the Dodgers would have taken a player who ultimately would have had minimal major-league impact, as opposed to the generational talent they ended up with.
Passing on Lincecum was something that White actually was taking heat for a few years ago. In 2008 and 2009, the Dodgers lost in the NLCS twice. Kershaw was young and not yet dominant, with a 3.36 regular season ERA and a 5.87 postseason ERA. Meanwhile, Lincecum was the NL Cy Young in each season. As White admitted, Lincecum would likely have had a huge impact on those Dodgers teams, possibly giving them that extra edge and pushing them to the World Series.
But White never second-guessed his decision.
“Even at the time, I said, you know what? Both are really good pitchers and we’ve just got to let this thing play out and see where it’s at,” White said. “Both teams have got quality guys. You look at what Lincecum did for (San Francisco) and it’s outstanding, he had a huge impact for them. Clayton, for L.A., had a big impact and is still having a big impact. He’s going to have a long career.”
White never spent much time scouting Miller—who was widely considered the top prospect in the draft—because he was sure he wasn’t falling to the Dodgers. He went and saw Longoria once, but never went back because he knew he’d be wasting his time, for the same reason. White recounted a story of watching a late-season start by Lincoln in which he dominated. The next day, he saw Kershaw, who was solid, but hardly as dominant as one would expect from a top-tier high school arm. His delivery was out of sync, he was wild and he gave up some walks, but White had already seen enough to know he liked Kershaw. So at that point, a so-so outing could only hurt Kershaw in the eyes of other scouts, thus giving the Dodgers a better chance that they’d be able to land a player they were enamored with at seven. White would later say he was really excited by the bad outing.
Bill James once wrote, “Perhaps the most phenomenal fact of life in baseball today is that major-league teams continue to use first-round picks for high school pitchers.” James isn’t alone in that belief; there’s often a strong sentiment that if you’re going to go with a pitcher early in the draft, going the college route is your best bet.
White is aware of all the numbers that say drafting high school arms early is risky, but he believes there might be a flaw in such analysis.
“I’ve always thought you needed to look at, A, your own track record, and B, maybe how your team has drafted,” White told me. “For some teams and some people, they probably shouldn’t draft high school pitchers; maybe their development is not set up for it or maybe it’s just not their strength as a scout. I’ve always felt like you just had to feel comfortable being able to draft pitching, know your own track record, know your development people, and know the people that are helping you make the decision and their track record. And I think if you feel like you’re confident in your ability to evaluate a pitcher, whether he’s a high school guy or a college guy, then you shouldn’t be afraid to go with it.”
White readily admitted that there is risk. But he emphasized that, not only does he believe that identifying quality high-school pitchers is a strength of his, but his trust in those around him and in the Dodgers development staff allowed him to be confident taking that route as often as he did. More than half the first-round pitchers White drafted in his dozen years at the helm in Los Angeles were high schoolers .
“I never wanted to limit us from that pool of talent,” White said of high-school pitchers. “I always thought that talent pool was so slim anyway—I mean how many guys become above-average major leaguers out of each draft, what is it, 35-40? Let’s say 50, maybe that’s on the high side. But my thought is, if 20 of them are high school—especially when you’re picking down in the draft—I don’t want to eliminate those 20, because now I’m just picking out of the pool of 30. So my odds are just going down when I’m selecting from a smaller pool.”
Indeed, studies have shown that while there is more risk with high school pitchers, there is a greater chance of one turning into an all-time great than a college arm. White put it quite simply: Every college pitcher was in high school at some point. He compared being able to identify those guys earlier, projecting what they’ll be down the road, to scouting international talent.
“You’re trying to figure out 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, what they’re going to be,” White explained. “So I always took the mindset to try to visualize and view what a young pitcher is going to be like, and heck, if we’re ahead of the curve on him, then great. And sometimes the talent is so overwhelming that it’s a little bit easier.”
That talent certainly stood out with Kershaw—not only to White, but anyone who saw him at his best.
“In the case of Kershaw, he was physical, big, strong, had good arm action, the arm worked well,” White said. “He already was showing plus velocity in high school, had the makings of a plus curveball, he was a great competitor on the mound, so to me there were a lot of things to really like about Clayton. I don’t want to say it was easy, but a lot of people liked him. We just happened to be fortunate enough that year that we picked seven. My whole time over there, that’s the highest we’d ever picked.”
White said they certainly considered other names, but with where they were picking and with who they expected to be there, Kershaw was the man they wanted.
“We were so locked into Kersh though, it was a unanimous thing for us,” White said. “I remember Alan Hendricks calling me, who was the agent at the time with J.D. Smart, and he asked me, ‘How do you like the Kershaw kid?’ And I said, ‘I like him, he’s okay.’ And I’m always one to keep stuff close to the vest and if I tell the agent I really like him, he’s going to tell other teams, so that could affect us. ‘Would you take him with your pick?’ he asked. So I said, ‘Well, yeah, I’d take him 26. Yeah, I think I would.’ Which, I wasn’t lying, I would have taken him 26. I wasn’t going to tell him, ‘My gosh, of course I’ll take him at seven!’”
White said he identified Kershaw as someone he like pretty early on and he couldn’t even really put his finger on why he liked him so much.
“Sometimes you get those feelings—and as scouts we get criticized for it, and that’s okay—you call it instinct. You have an instinct, or a gut feel, why you have it, I don’t know. But he was one of those gut-feel guys. I remember the first time I saw him throwing in the bullpen that spring and it just hit me like a sledgehammer. This guy is pretty good.”
White continuously praised both the scouts around him and the Dodgers development staff, but the last thing he wanted to do was take anything away from Kershaw. White recounted an outing in which Kershaw tossed five perfect innings and struck out all 15 batters that he faced. The stuff was there for anyone to see: a fastball that sat 93, a quality curveball, and makeup off the charts.
“You could see the concentration, just how focused he was. Even at that age he had really good command,” White said. “He had a very good upbringing, where he went to school, anyone you talked to would talk about how good of person, how good of makeup he had. All the factors were there for him to be a very good big-leaguer.”
Surely there were similar plaudits uttered about Hochevar, Reynolds, Lincoln, Morrow, and Miller at the time. But that happens with a lot of prospects. It’s rare that people continue to gush about a player nearly a decade after he’s been drafted, but that’s the case with Kershaw. It’s not just White and the Dodgers who hit the jackpot with the superstar southpaw, but each and every one of us who get to watch him dominate every fifth day.