CHICAGO -- Clayton Kershaw's new weapon is actually an old one. He was a sidearmer through his junior year of high school in Dallas before adopting the over-the-top motion that turned him into a first-round Draft pick and, eventually, a Cy Young Award winner.
The coach who helped Kershaw make that transformation still records and watches all of Kershaw's outings. So it has been like looking back in time for Skip Johnson in recent weeks as Kershaw plays around with his new/old weapon, dropping his arm angle to give hitters a different look.
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"A little bit, yeah," Johnson said of the similarity. "But he's still higher than he was back then."
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Today, Kershaw is an ace for the Los Angeles Dodgers, set to start Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Cubs tonight with L.A. down 3-2 in the series and facing elimination. Johnson is the pitching coach for the University of Oklahoma.
Back then, Kershaw was a promising high schooler and Johnson was a junior college coach and friend of Kershaw's Draft advisor and now agent, J.D. Smart. Johnson and Kershaw convened for a six-week stint of private lessons that would send the left-hander toward stardom.
Johnson had Kershaw throw curveballs with a hockey puck, helping Kershaw learn how to manipulate the pitch to get precise tumble. They incorporated the mid-delivery hitch, a trick that helps keep Kershaw stay back to get good downward tilt. It's the difference, Johnson said, between a pitch coming out looking like a Ferris wheel or a merry-go-round.
Kershaw's aptitude was off the charts, and he progressed quickly. His velocity jumped.
"By about the fourth lesson, it sounded like we were shooting skeet in a building," Johnson said.
Now, Kershaw is occasionally reverting to his 17-year-old self. Since returning from two and a half months on the disabled list with a back injury, he has occasionally resurrected the lower arm angle when he requires a different look for a fastball. When he does, it comes with an extra tick of velocity.
Statcast™ can visualize the effect. The following chart maps Kershaw's four-seam velocity in 2016, including the postseason, with the vertical axis being read as "feet from center at release." Zero is the middle of the rubber, and since Kershaw is a lefty, his release is always a foot to a foot and a half left of that mark. Note the seven dots in the two-and-a-half to three-foot range; those are the pitches for which he dropped down. And note the quality of the hitters: Bryce Harper (twice), Nolan Arenado, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Daniel Murphy and Gerardo Parra.
Kershaw's fastballs usually range from 92-95 mph. The sidearm releases are all on the higher side of his velocity chart, including his firmest pitch all season, a 96.3 mph fastball to Parra on Sept. 24.
"He was messing with it a couple of times down in the bullpen, and then all of a sudden he started pulling it out and he's throwing 95, 96," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "It is a different look. Sometimes it seems like it's almost more [challenging] for the right-handers."
"Next thing you know," Honeycutt added, "he'll be spinning breaking balls from down there."
If Kershaw played with his arm angle in his Game 2 start against the Cubs, it was too subtle to stand out in the graph above. Honeycutt noted one such pitch to Javier Báez, who collected the Cubs' only two hits in Kershaw's seven scoreless innings, and hit a harrowing line drive for Kershaw's final out.
Baez said he didn't notice the pitch Honeycutt referenced.
"I don't know why he would do that [drop down]," Baez said. "He's already pretty good."
True, but Kershaw is also about to pitch against the Cubs for the second time in a week. Might it be an opportunity to employ his new trick more often?
"Probably not, to be honest," Kershaw said. "It's not something that -- just every once in a while for a different look. But it's not going to be a huge part of the game plan by any means."
That's the thing: It does not have to be a huge part of the game plan to be effective. It just needs to be there for one situation in which Kershaw needs a big out.
Johnson, the former pitching coach, has a DVR full of games pitched by former students -- Kershaw, Homer Bailey and Clay Buchholz among them. Every now and then, one of those players calls looking for a tip. Kershaw hasn't needed one for some time, Johnson said.
What would it mean to the former coach to see Kershaw pitch the Dodgers into the World Series?
"Oh, it would mean everything," Johnson said. "My lifeline has always been the players. If I help a kid reach his destiny, then I'll reach my destiny."