How's this for a throwing partner: Clayton Kershaw

Rotation candidates Muller, Davidson spend offseason learning from 'awesome role model'

March 31st, 2022

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- and will spend the next week battling for a spot on the Braves’ Opening Day roster. They spent this past winter soaking in the thrill of again serving as two of Clayton Kershaw’s throwing partners.

“His attention to detail is incredible,” Muller said. “He’s locked in and focused however long he is playing catch that day. Some days it’s easy to go in there and just throw to throw. He’s always throwing with a purpose. That’s something that really stuck with me. If this is what people are doing to be at his level, that’s what I need to be doing.”

While Kershaw is on the back end of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, Muller and Davidson are just trying to find a lasting spot at the Major League level. Both are competing for one of the final spots on Atlanta’s pitching staff.

Muller’s bid certainly wasn’t strengthened when he retired just four of the 12 batters he faced in a 5-1 loss to the Rays on Thursday afternoon at CoolToday Park. The 6-foot-7 lefty, the Braves' No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline, surrendered six hits, issued two walks and was fortunate Ozzie Albies turned Yandy Díaz’s line drive into a double play in the first. He was lifted with two outs in the second and then re-entered in the third.

“The hardest-hit ball they had was the double-play line drive,” Muller said. “I’d rather give up hits like that than walk people. If I start walking people, that’s way more than one run in those first two innings.”

While Muller has stumbled in his past two outings, Davidson impressed with three hitless and scoreless innings Saturday against the Twins. Davidson is expected to pitch again within the next couple of days.

Braves manager Brian Snitker said while evaluating pitchers, he has to remain cognizant of the fact that this is a shortened Spring Training.

“Honestly, I think a lot of these guys are going through dead arms and things like that,” Snitker said. “I’m not putting a lot of stock in [results] because we’re at a time in Spring Training where they aren’t going to be real fresh.”

With the Braves scheduled to play 14 straight days to begin the season, they are thinking of beginning the year with a sixth starter, or at least somebody who could serve as an opener a couple of times in that span. Dylan Lee was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Thursday morning. So Muller, Davidson and are the top remaining candidates to fill this role.

“These are all big for the young guys,” Snitker said. “We love what we’re seeing. We’ll keep running them out there. We’re going to need all of them before it’s all done. I like the depth we have right now.”

The front of the Braves' rotation is solid with the presence of Opening Day starter Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson. Kyle Wright and Huascar Ynoa are slated to fill the No. 4 and No. 5 spots. But neither of those young right-handers is established enough to ensure confidence they will keep their rotation spots throughout the season.

So there is a greater emphasis on ensuring quality depth in the likes of Muller and Davidson, who both tasted short stints of success as big league starters last year. Strider, the Braves' No. 2 prospect, has tremendous upside. But with just one professional season under his belt, he’ll need more seasoning if the Braves plan to keep him as a big league starter for any extended period.

“Everyone is throwing the hell out of the ball here,” Muller said. “So whatever they decide is best for the team, it’s their decision, and I’m going to deal with it. I’ve still got work to do.”

Muller’s mental resolve has been tested multiple times over the past year. After posting a 1.88 ERA in his first six career starts, he struggled with command in his next two outings and was sent back to Triple-A. He stayed ready by pitching at the team’s alternate training site in October. But unlike Wright, Lee and Davidson, he was never added to the Braves' roster during any postseason round.

“At that point, my stuff wasn’t at a point to compete,” Muller said. “It definitely sucked. I loved watching the team win, but it was killing me to not be there.”

Muller spent this offseason again trying to learn from Kershaw. He was introduced to the three-time National League Cy Young Award winner through former Braves prospect Jason Hursh, who was a friend of somebody who knew Kershaw.

If you had passed Kershaw’s alma mater, Highland Park (Texas) High School, at some point over the past few winters, there’s a chance you saw a group of pitchers that included Kershaw, Muller, Davidson, Brett Anderson and other Dallas-area residents like Yu Darvish.

This has been a dream come true for Muller and Davidson, who were both pre-teen left-handed pitchers when they saw Kershaw, a fellow Texan, begin to establish himself as one of the game’s best pitchers.

“[Kershaw] will hang around and watch us throw after he throws a 'pen,” Muller said. “If there’s anything he thinks he can help with, he’s there to mention it. He’s just an awesome person and an awesome role model.”