Tuesday, October 4 2022
Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw pitches during a spring training game against the Cleveland Guardians on March 23, 2022.
Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw pitches during a spring training game against the Cleveland Guardians on Wednesday. During the start, he broke out a changeup several times. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

It’s become an almost annual tradition around Dodgers spring training.

Clayton Kershaw will tinker with a changeup, hint at the possibility of incorporating it full time into his arsenal, then abandon the pitch once the games count.

“Every spring I’ve been around, he’s always tried to at least get a feel for it so it’s an option,” third-year pitching coach Mark Prior said. “Usually it runs its course.”

Echoed manager Dave Roberts: “It’s just kind of been a work in progress, as far as getting that feel. … So yeah, we’ve seen this movie before.”

This spring, however, there are signs Kershaw might be scripting a different outcome for the elusive off-speed pitch.

During the left-hander’s second Cactus League start Wednesday, he broke out the changeup several times. One in particular induced a swing-and-miss from Cleveland Guardians outfielder Franmil Reyes and was praised on social media after being shared by the popular Pitching Ninja Twitter account. And after the game, Kershaw struck an optimistic tone when asked about his feel for the changeup.

“They were OK, I think,” he said — hardly a ringing endorsement but still a step up from years past.

“Work in progress still, but overall I threw some good ones, which is more than last year. So that’s good.”

The changeup has largely been a superfluous weapon for the three-time Cy Young Award winner. For most of his career, he has stuck with three bread-and-butter pitches: a firm four-seam fastball he continues to locate with precision; a trademark slider he can throw in almost any situation; and a looping curveball to keep batters off balance.

The changeup has been a rarely used alternative. Since 2014, he has never thrown it more than 25 times in a season. Only in his rookie year of 2008 did it account for more than 5% of his pitches.

“There hasn’t been a grip that he’s trusted to take into the season,” Roberts explained, “that he can use in any leverage at-bat.”

But this spring, Kershaw has a new changeup grip he worked on with Prior and assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness, Roberts said. Even before his Cactus League starts, Kershaw broke it out during live backfield at-bats against his teammates.

And while the clock is ticking again toward the start of the season, especially during this year’s shortened spring training, there are signs that Kershaw’s progress with the changeup is tangible, that he might have it in his back pocket when real games start in less than two weeks.

“This year, he seems to have a little bit more comfort with it,” Prior said. “He got some good 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.”

The changeup could be a key late-career addition for the 34-year-old Kershaw, who re-signed with the Dodgers on a one-year contract this month and is coming off a significant elbow injury that derailed his 2021 campaign.

His fastball, which once sat around 95 mph, last season averaged just over 90 mph. And while his slider is still a dominant pitch, he has had to increasingly rely on it, throwing it more often than his fastball last season for the first time.

Roberts thinks the changeup could give the future Hall of Famer another dimension on the mound.

“With Clayton, I just really commend him for continuing to try to get better,” Roberts said. “How do you do that? There’s a sequencing component that I think he’s been open to the last couple of years. And then also 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.”

But first, he needs to master his feel for the pitch. And even if Kershaw wasn’t letting on in the dugout, last week was an encouraging step.

“[He was] as excited as you might expect in an outing,” Roberts said with a laugh when asked whether Kershaw was excited by the changeup. “But I think afterward, him and Mark and Connor, I think that they were pretty pleased with it.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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