LOS ANGELES -- When Clayton Kershaw reported to Spring Training in February, it was his first Dodgers camp without close friend and batterymate A.J. Ellis around.
Yasmani Grandal is now Kershaw's personal catcher, and management cemented that pairing by having Grandal catch every one of Kershaw's starts this spring, as he will do when Kershaw ties the Los Angeles Dodgers record with his seventh consecutive Opening Day start against the Padres on Monday at 1:10 p.m. PT.
Analytics can't quantify the chemistry and comfort level of a pitcher with a catcher. Grandal observed Kershaw and Ellis with admiration.
"Watching the connection they had was very special," said Grandal. "Not many guys get to have that. For me, it was great to watch it. It taught me a lot. The fact I get the chance now to be behind the plate every time he's throwing gives me the chance to watch greatness on the mound, and that's exciting."
Grandal doesn't have the pitch-calling premonition or the pitch-blocking anticipation that develops over a decade, but he set out this spring to improve both.
"All you want at the very minimum from a catcher is to be all-in as far as trying to figure out how to best catch you," said Kershaw. "I think Yas has shown that this spring, for sure. I don't think Yas has needed to do a whole lot. This is our third year. I think it's great when he shows the willingness and interest to catch."
In 2016, Grandal broke out with a 27-homer season, making the Matt Kemp trade with the Padres a big win for Dodgers management. But Grandal, one of the better pitch-framers behind the plate, acknowledged there were upgrades possible in other areas of receiving, particularly blocking Kershaw's wipeout slider in the dirt.
"If he feels comfortable, that's great, and if he wants to do more, that's great, too," said Kershaw. "I don't like to be vocal about, 'Here's what I like to do, here's what I don't like to do,' because games don't always work out that way. To be comfortable, you just go through the scouting reports and go through the game batter by batter, and over time, you figure it out. We've talked a little this year about the slider, but everything else, I feel confident in where we're at."
While smothering those two-strike sliders in the dirt can be a challenge, catching Kershaw also gives Grandal unique enjoyment.
"At times, reading swings and looking at the faces of the hitters is pretty funny," Grandal said. "I remember one at-bat, first a fastball and then a curve, and from the hitter's face you can see that, 'All right, I've got you." They might ask the umpire, 'What was that?' It gives me an idea of what they're seeing and what they're not seeing."
Entering his 10th Major League season, a healthy Kershaw should continue his march up the leaderboards for many Los Angeles Dodgers career records, currently ranking seventh in wins (126), fourth in strikeouts (1,918) and ninth in starts (263) and innings pitched (1,760). Since his 2008 debut, Kershaw leads the Major Leagues in opponents' average (.205), strikeouts (1,918), WHIP (1.01), shutouts (15) and winning percentage (.677).
He continues serious work on the changeup, determined to give opponents a fourth pitch to worry about.
"You're never good enough," said Kershaw, now 29 and the father of two. "You stay the same long enough and, well, another pitch can't hurt. Might be a day when I need to throw that a lot. Hopefully, I get to that day."