Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?
For the last several years that age-old idiom could directly apply to longtime Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw.
The phrase comes from an ancient proverb that implies that most people are often reluctant to change their old ways or long-held beliefs. For most of his career, Kershaw was no different.
The three-time National League Cy Young Award winner and former MVP has always been a creature of habit. His post-start routine is the stuff of legends, and for the majority of his 15-year career he has rarely tinkered with any of the pitches that have made him a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
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For opposing pitchers, Kershaw has been easy to predict, but nearly impossible to hit. The 34-year-old left-hander has always stuck with his three bread-and-butter pitchers: the fastball, the slider, and the 12-6 curveball that has made him famous.
The latter two pitches have always been his most devastating. Back when his four-seam fastball could touch 96MPH, Kershaw would be able to keep hitters off balance between the fastball and the breaking balls.
However, Kershaw's fastball no longer has the velocity it once did. In each of the last five-years, his average fastball velocity has dissipated incrementally. In 2016, it averaged 94MPH, last season, it was just above 90 MPH. Additionally, for the first time in his career, his fastball was not his most thrown pitch. Kershaw actually threw the slider (47 percent) more than he did the fastball (37 percent) during the 2021 season.
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With his velocity dropping, Kershaw has quietly been trying to incorporate a changeup into his arsenal for the last few seasons. For the last several years, Kershaw's changeup has been like the high-speed super train from Los Angeles to San Francisco: often talked about, but never coming to fruition.
"Every spring I've been around, he's always tried to at least get a feel for it so it's an option," Dodgers' pitching coach Mark Prior told reporters recently. "Usually it runs its course."
Since his MVP season in 2014, Kershaw has never thrown the changeup more than 25 total times in a season. But could 2022 finally be the year he adds it to his arsenal and unleashes it at the perfect time against opposing hitters?
If you ask Kershaw, the answer to that is a bit complicated…
"It's easy to throw now, but once the game means something it gets a little more challenging," admitted Kershaw after throwing the pitch five times in his most recent start against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday. "We'll see what happens with it. I feel better with it now than I have in the past."
Kershaw's confidence with the changeup has continued to grow throughout spring. In each of his first three starts of cactus league games, he's thrown it at least a handful of times. Sometimes with success, other times it gets hit hard.
"It's still a work in progress, but overall I threw some good ones, which is more than last year," said Kershaw. "I would say 2 or 2 and a half were good. The last pitch I threw was a changeup that [Christian] Walker hit pretty hard."
The key to Kershaw's newfound confidence in the changeup this spring has been attributed to a new grip that he worked on with Prior and assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness this spring. Before his first spring training start, he was throwing it with confidence in live batting practice and bullpen sessions. During his double-barrelled bullpen session with teammate Walker Bueler on Thursday, he once again broke out the changeup several times.
"This year, he seems to have a little bit more comfort with it," said Prior. "He got some food feedback from some of the hitters the other day. There's some potential there. Usually, it never really gets to a point where he has a feel for it. And then the season is starting so you just kind of go on [without it]. But the early indications are there's some positive stuff coming out of it."
One of those hitters was new Dodgers' shortstop Trea Turner, who took over the position from longtime favorite and 2020 World Series MVP Corey Seager. Seager signed with the Texas Rangers in the offseason.
"He's looked very good, he's mixing in that changeup a little more," said Turner of Kershaw. "He's been so good with that fastball/slider, but now he's mixing that curveball and mixing in that changeup and it looks like he's added something to his game and I think it will be beneficial for the season."
His manager agrees.
"I just really commend him for continuing to try to get better," Roberts told reporters after a recent game. "How do you do that? There's a sequencing component that I think he's been open to the last couple of years. Now you're talking about the changeup that he got swing-and-miss, and to be open to that is only going to make him better and his other weapons play up."
In order for Kershaw to add the new pitch to his arsenal he's going to continue to have to throw it with confidence, and with success in his final tune-up before the regular season begins on April 8. He will get one more start in spring training this Saturday against the rival San Francisco Giants. After that, it's time for Dodger baseball again, and that's when we'll finally find out if you really can teach an old dog new tricks.