Young Cy? Kershaw just getting started
Dodgers left-hander, 23, already ranks among top pitchers in NL
ATLANTA -- Dodgers have won nine Cy Young Awards, but never when the team had a losing season.
Clayton Kershaw is doing a lot of special things this year, so maybe he can do that, too.
There have been 100 Cy Young Awards handed out, but only 14 have gone to pitchers on losing teams, one in each of the last two seasons -- Felix Hernandez with Seattle (61-101) last year and Zack Greinke with Kansas City (65-97) in 2009.
"He should be in the discussion regardless of how his team finishes, because you look at the numbers he's putting up," Arizona's Ian Kennedy, another National League Cy Young Award candidate, said of Kershaw. "His strikeouts are amazing, but more impressive for me is that he's thrown more innings.
"Felix Hernandez won it last year and his team didn't win a lot games, but he had a microscopic ERA. I think [team performance] might mean more for an MVP. I mean, look at him -- he's still finding ways to win, and that's difficult to do when you're team is not winning. You've got to go deep into ballgames to do that."
"The Cy Young is not based on value to the team, it's based on numbers," said Kershaw's manager, Don Mattingly, the American League MVP Award winner in 1985. "Kersh will end up with as many wins [as candidates playing for contenders] and [he] plays on a team without as many wins. It should be harder for him."
Nonetheless, Kershaw is having the kind of season that assures, decades from now, he'll be referred to as "... since Kershaw," as in "the first time that's happened ... since Kershaw."
At 17-5, he already has more wins than any Dodgers hurler since Chan Ho Park in 2000, and he is on pace to be their first 20-game winner since Ramon Martinez in 1990. Kershaw already has more wins than any Dodgers left-hander since Fernando Valenzuela in 1986. His 2.45 ERA, if it holds up, would be the lowest for a Dodgers starter since Orel Hershiser in 1989.
He's contending to be the club's first league leader in strikeouts since Hideo Nomo in 1995; in wins since Brad Penny and Derek Lowe in 2006; in complete games since Martinez in 1990; in innings since Hershiser in '89; in games started since Kevin Brown in '99; in winning percentage since Penny in 2007.
Perhaps no Dodgers pitcher in history had the bar of expectations set as high as Kershaw from the day he was drafted in the first round in 2006 out of a Dallas-area high school. Scouting director Logan White compared him to Dave Righetti. Then-manager Joe Torre saw Kershaw pitch in two Spring Training games at age 19 and compared him to -- gasp -- Sandy Koufax.
Kershaw, now 23, has taken those expectations and exceeded them. Or -- in his mind -- ignored them.
"I have expectations for myself and I don't worry about the expectations of others," said Kershaw. "I expect to do well, to have a better start than the time before. If I look too long-term, it can get overwhelming, so I focus on the next start.
"It's flattering that people talk about what you've done or what you can do, but I'm not trying to please other people or meet other people's expectations of me. I just try to be a good teammate and try to win my start every five days."
Kershaw also possesses one of the most underrated and rare tools in sports -- true confidence in his ability.
"For me, confidence comes from preparation," he said. "The four days between starts, I do everything I can to be ready, to have no excuses. If I pitch bad, it's not because I didn't work between starts. But also, I think being on the mound is what I was made to do and I'm fortunate to have the ability to do it at this level. At the end of the day, I don't think anybody should get a hit off me. I don't know where that comes from. It's just fun for me to pitch, I guess."
Then there's a competitiveness that can't be taught.
"Competition is fun, I don't know why," he said. "Growing up, everything I did was competitive -- one-on-one basketball, video games. Childhood was fun for me because everything was some type of competition.
"I used to be a bad loser. I'm getting better [at] leaving it on the field. I really hated losing to my friends in ping-pong. The solution was just don't lose anymore."
Kershaw goes for win No. 18 on Sunday against the Braves. He won his 17th Monday night by beating the Padres, compensating for a missing slider in the early innings by switching to a changeup -- his fourth-best pitch. He retired 13 of the final 14 batters en route to his fifth complete game.
"He smelled the finish line," said opposing manager Bud Black, who was the Angels' pitching coach when Bartolo Colon won the AL Cy Young Award with them in 2005. "His last 30 pitches were the best of the game. I don't like losing, I didn't like it [Monday] night, but I dig that when I see it."
Style-wise, Kershaw isn't in the mold of anybody.
"He's creating his own style," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "He's getting closer to Steve Carlton in the sense of his repertoire. He reminds me of Fernando Valenzuela in that the day after he pitches -- you can't tell if he won or lost. He's one of the most prepared pitchers we have, and that's saying a lot for a 23-year-old. He's just the total package.
"And it's great for the organization in that he sets a high standard for anybody to follow. This is the blueprint. He doesn't think of it that way. He's just being him."
Carlton was the all-time winner on a loser, earning the NL Cy Young Award in 1972 when he won 27 of the Phillies' 59 victories. Outperforming the rest of your team is a pretty good measure of greatness for a starter.
"Whenever you know Kershaw is pitching -- Tony LaRussa used to talk about it -- not that you take anything away from any other pitcher, but that's the ace," said Dodgers infielder Aaron Miles. "And when the ace takes the mound, every time you feel you have a good chance to win."
After brief Minor League seasoning, Kershaw arrived with a fastball in the mid-90s, a jaw-dropping overhand curve and a rough changeup. He's since added a slider that better complements the fastball than the curve, which breaks so sharply that hitters (and sometimes umpires) give up on it, so it's hard to get swinging or called strikes.
"In 2009, I got called up for a three-game series at Wrigley Field, and between starts, Kersh had been scuffling with his curveball," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "He and Honeycutt and [bullpen catcher Mike Borzello] talked about a slider. He tried it in the bullpen and took it right into his next start. That pitch took him from a really good pitcher to a great pitcher."
Kershaw's delivery has a slight leg hesitation as he begins to shift forward, which hitters say adds deception, and which none other than Koufax told him not to mess with.
"He saw that my delivery is a little unorthodox, but he said not to change it, and I'll listen to him," said Kershaw. "It's not as fluid as some people, but I still get to the same spot as anybody else. It was suggested to help me stay back on pitches."
"He has a serious work ethic," said catcher Rod Barajas, who caught Roy Halladay in Toronto. "He wants to improve as a pitcher. Look at Halladay. Maybe the hardest worker I've seen. Like Halladay, this kid works, he's constantly watching video. That's where I see Kershaw heading, in that direction. You rarely see him reading the paper at his locker, doing nothing."
Determined to cut down on last year's 81 walks, with five starts left this season Kershaw is on pace for only 60.
"He knows how to learn, how to dissect information that will be useful to him and decipher what will help him the most," said veteran Dodgers lefty Ted Lilly. "He's just smart. The things he does are for the right reason, not to meet others' expectations. I asked him who he learned from. His mom had a lot to do with it. The way you handle failure, success, the way you deal with people, those things have an effect on how you play and how you deal with other things in life."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.