Column: Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw finally has learned it’s OK to be normal, even on game days
Clayton Kershaw made an important discovery this year as he reclaimed his place as one of the best pitchers in baseball: When he wasn’t on the mound, he could be a normal person, even on days he pitched.
Suddenly, Kershaw was smiling before his starts. He was talking more to his catchers. He was sharing laughs with them on the bench.
“I think you do enjoy it a little bit more,” Kershaw said in September.
This is the version of Kershaw who will return to the Dodgers next season, not the one who was notoriously unapproachable when he pitched. In the coming days, Kershaw is expected to finalize a new one-year deal with the team, according to multiple people familiar with knowledge of the situation.
“In years past, you couldn’t have a conversation with him before, during and even after [his starts],” manager Dave Roberts said last month. “It was just a tough conversation. I think that now he is kind of open to things and realizes that you can still somewhat be normal and still be very good.
“It’s been fun for me to see him evolve.”
Clayton Kershaw doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. The left-hander, who has spent his entire career in L.A., is close to a one-year deal with the team.
Kershaw will be 35 on opening day. The upcoming season will be his 16th with the Dodgers, his newfound tranquility a projection of his experience.
The change in game-day demeanor, however, shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that Kershaw is any less competitive than he was at, say, 25 or 30.
“I don’t want to be considered a nice guy,” Kershaw said with a chuckle in that September conversation.
Kershaw was only half-kidding.
“I think there is that edge that you have to have,” he said. “I think there’s like that, ‘I’m better than you, I’m going to outcompete you, I’m still going to do this.’ I think when you lose that edge, that’s when you become, ‘Ah, whatever happens out there happens.’ I don’t ever want to do that. I’m going to retire before I do that.”
The proof was in his performance, Kershaw posting a 12-3 record and 2.28 earned-run average in 22 starts.
“I think there’s a little bit more of a calmness, a little bit more of a relaxed version, especially the days I pitch.”
But, he said, “I think it’s OK to have a level of normalcy within your competitiveness.”
Early in his career, Kershaw couldn’t always turn off the competitive switch when the game was over, which occasionally resulted in tense interactions with the media. In recent years, he gradually became more relaxed in postgame interviews.
Now, he said, “I think I have the ability to even turn it off a little bit between innings too.”
When he encountered trouble on the mound this year, he said he was more likely to tell himself, “OK, let’s talk to Will [Smith], let’s talk to [Austin Barnes], let’s figure out some things.”
By his own admission, the transformation happened almost by accident.
Kershaw has always valued consistency. This made him a slave to his between-starts regimen. He didn’t break character on the days he pitched, fearing he would lose his edge if he thought of anything other than how to attack the opposing hitters.
“Once again, the whole routine, everything that’s been made such a big deal of almost to the point of, ‘This guy’s crazy,’ it’s not something that I necessarily strove to do,” he said. “It’s just kind of what happened over time.”
Doing the same thing over and over became impossible, however. Kershaw missed the postseason last year because of an elbow problem. He went on the injured list twice this year because of back trouble.
“Being hurt, having to work out differently, having to recover differently because it’s a little bit harder to do all those things, the changing of that routine maybe opened up my thoughts,” he said.
Kershaw pointed to a bullpen session he threw in mid-September. With temperatures in the triple digits, he did something he never previously did. He stopped early.
Barnes was taken by surprise.
“I thought he was hurt or something,” Barnes said.
He wasn’t. He was just exercising caution.
“I think that now he is kind of open to things and realizes that you can still somewhat be normal and still be very good.”
— Dodgers manager Dave Roberts on Clayton Kershaw
A couple of days later, Kershaw said, “I felt fine during the game. I wasn’t exhausted. I felt like I had good stuff all the way through. That didn’t change the outcome of the game.”
The episode reinforced a lesson he’d learned throughout the season. He could break from his routine and break character and still have success.
“I think there’s a little bit more of a calmness, a little bit more of a relaxed version, especially the days I pitch,” Kershaw said.
Barnes, who was in his eighth season catching Kershaw, noticed a difference. Before, when communicating with Kershaw between innings, he said, “If you had something to tell him, you better get it quick and done with. You’re not going to be asking a bunch of stuff.”
The Dodgers declined their option on Justin Turner, but extended offers to Trea Turner and Tyler Anderson.
“He’s just more interactive, just not so deep into whatever place he’s in,” Barnes said. “I think that’s been pretty good for him.”
“I think there are some advantages competitively, like having that communication, being able to talk a little bit with guys and maybe they see something that could help, as opposed to just sitting there and not talking to anybody and not doing anything,” Kershaw said.
Something else: He’s enjoying parts of the game he previously didn’t allow himself to enjoy.
“Maybe even laugh at something that happens,” Kershaw said.
Why wouldn’t he sign up for another year of this?
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