A 19-year-old left-hander, Clayton Kershaw is the top-rated prospect in the Dodgers organization. The first high school player taken in last year’s draft and the seventh pick overall, Kershaw relies on a mid-nineties fastball with excellent command, an above-average curveball and a circle change. A native of Dallas, he has an advanced pitching approach for someone beginning just his first full professional season. Kershaw debuted in the Gulf Coast League last year, posting an ERA of 1.95 while holding opposing batters to a .201 average. He is starting this season with the Low-A Great Lakes Loons, managed by former Tigers great Lance Parrish. At the time David Laurila sat down with Kershaw, he was off to a good start, going 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA while striking out 28 in 19 innings through April 29.
David talked to Kershaw about commanding his fastball, the Dodgers’ pitching philosophy, and what it’s like to be a Loon.
David Laurila: Before we get to pitching, I’ve seen a photo of you in a uniform that says, ‘Scots.’ Who are the Scots?
Clayton Kershaw: That was my team at Highland Park High School (in Texas). The place we played was called Scotland Yard, and our mascot was a fighting guy in a kilt. I’m not really sure where that came from, but I’ve always thought it was kind of fun.
DL: How would you describe yourself as a pitcher?
CK: Competitive. I don’t really get into describing my pitches. I just go out there and compete, and don’t give in to hitters.
DL: Can you tell us a little about your fastball, including what kind of movement you get on it?
CK: I’m pretty much all four-seamers. I throw some two-seamers to lefties, but not all that many. As for movement, my fastball doesn’t really run, or cut, or anything like that. My catchers describe it as almost rising. I usually work it down in the zone, but I do like to elevate it with two strikes, trying to get guys to chase.
DL: Is there a specific area of the strike zone where a fastball is the most effective?
CK: If you work inside, especially at this level, you’re going to have success. The hitters aren’t as good yet, in part because they’re still adjusting to wood bats, and if you get in on their hands they’re going to have trouble getting to the ball. Even when you get to the higher levels, establishing the inside is important. If you do that, you’ll be able to set up the rest of your pitches better.
DL: If you were to pitch a perfect game, would you rather strike out all 27 guys or get 27 first-pitch outs?
CK: It would be even rarer to get a 27-pitch game, but that’s exactly what you want to do. You want to get outs in as few pitches as possible so you can work deep into games.
DL: What does the term “pitch to contact” mean to you?
CK: It’s all about hitting your spots. Some guys maybe take it too far and say you should pitch down the middle and force contact, but if you have good control you don’t have to do that. If you make quality pitches you’ll get outs.
DL: Which lineup would you least like to face: one with nine David Ecksteins or one with nine Adam Dunns?
CK: I’d least like to face nine David Ecksteins. He’s a pest. Every at-bat he seems to foul off eight pitches, and then he puts the ball in play somewhere. You’ll give up a few bombs to Adam Dunn, but he won’t make you work as hard. Not to disrespect Dunn, but I’d hate to face a lineup full of guys like Eckstein.
DL: Chase Wright gave up four consecutive home runs in his second big league game two weeks ago. If that happened to you, what would your reaction be?
CK: I guess I’d be shocked, but I’d also realize that it was only four runs and that I needed to get back to work. A run is a run, regardless of how they score, and every pitcher has given up four in an inning. If you want to be a great pitcher, you can’t let your mind linger on things. If you get mental about stuff that goes wrong, it will stay with you, and you don’t want that.
DL: What would your reaction be if the Dodgers told you they wanted to turn you into a closer?
CK: I’d be a little shocked, but in a way I’d probably love it. I think I could get my adrenaline going and get myself some saves. I’ve never done it before, but I could if that’s what they thought was best for me.
DL: You signed with the Dodgers rather than play at Texas A&M. Did the team that drafted you have any impact on your decision?
CK: No, that didn’t matter. It was a bonus when it was the Dodgers, though. There’s all of the history, and there’s definitely quality coaching in the organization. I knew right away when I got to the Gulf Coast League that the coaching was good.
DL: Which of the coaches has had the most impact on you?
CK: Marty Reed, our pitching coordinator, is one. He’s been a big help. My pitching coach here, Glenn Dishman, is another. He especially helped me in my first few starts. I was rushing a little too much, and I don’t think I was warming up enough in the pen before games; I wasn’t completely ready when I went out for the first inning. He helped me work those things out.
DL: How would you describe the pitching philosophy in the Dodgers organization?
CK: They’re all about pitching ahead. I think pitching coaches everywhere are, but the Dodgers really stress that. Walks are what kill you. They emphasize how much a hitter’s batting average drops when you have him 0-1 instead of 1-0.
DL: You’re being managed by a former All-Star catcher. What are the conversations like when you talk to Lance Parrish?
CK: Lance is easy-going. He certainly commands a lot of respect, but he’s more like one of us when we’re away from the ballpark. On the field, he’s not so much about talking pitching as he is about having a team concept. He’s also big on attitude and body-language. He doesn’t want us dropping our shoulders after we give up hits and get in trouble. He wants us to walk back onto the mound with confidence.
DL: What is the most important thing you’ve learned since signing a pro contract?
CK: That it’s work. Seven days a week, for six months out of the year, it’s a grind. You can’t take a single throw for granted. By that I mean you do everything with a purpose. You don’t flip balls side-arm, or throw knuckleballs, because you’re not just playing catch with your buddies anymore.
DL: You’re playing with the Great Lakes Loons. What do you think about being a Loon?
CK: I have to admit that I had no idea what a loon was I got here. Once I learned it was a duck…, or is it a bird? I guess I still don’t know exactly what it is. A loon is a loon, I suppose.
DL: Do you have a favorite team name from the world of sports?
CK: I’ve always thought the Montgomery Biscuits is a pretty cool name. It would be fun to be a Biscuit. I like being a Loon, though.