LOS ANGELES -- Rick Honeycutt saw Clayton Kershaw in tears after the Dodgers’ season ended last week and was reminded of a teammate whose Hall of Fame career is unfortunately defined by a home run he allowed and a game he lost.
“He just went around the room that night and just broke down, apologizing to everybody,” Honeycutt said of Kershaw, who blew a save by allowing eighth-inning home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto two innings before the Dodgers were eliminated in the National League Division Series.
“I remember playing with [Dennis] Eckersley, he was so good, and you can still come back and do it, but you give up the home run [to Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series] and you’re the last line of defense and don’t do your job -- it’s painful. You’re used to succeeding and you feel like you’ve let the other guys down. I told [Kershaw], ‘There’s nothing I can say right now, but I want you to know I care about you and we all hurt. You’ve always given everything you got and when you do that, you shouldn’t let this eat at you. You got us here.’ Told him I love him and care about him.”
Since last Wednesday night, the 65-year-old Honeycutt made his official transition to a front-office special assistant after 14 years as the Dodgers’ pitching coach, forced to step aside by a back injury.
“Obviously he’s meant a lot to this organization for a long time, and he still will going forward,” club president Andrew Friedman said. “It’ll just be in a slightly different role that we’re still kind of working out the details on.”
Honeycutt said he envisions his new role as somewhat similar to the Minor League pitching coordinator job he held from 2002-05. Pitching is embedded in the DNA of the Dodgers organization and Honeycutt’s intention is to continue it.
“We haven’t sat down and gone through it, but I anticipate spending time at Double-A and Triple-A levels with our top young pitchers and [fast-tracking] them as quick as we can to make them better,” he said. “I’d be teaching our pitching coaches things I’ve learned over time. Keep that balance and tradition of what the Dodgers have been. My focus has always been to pass along what I learned from Ron Perranoski and Sandy Koufax and Dave Wallace and all the way back to Red Adams. The way they presented it, and the way I perceived it, has always been some of the best information that’s out there. I’ve always used their techniques as examples. I want that to continue, hopefully.”
This year, the Dodgers led MLB with a 3.37 ERA, finishing in the top spot for the third straight season. They also led MLB with a 1.10 WHIP, .282 opponents’ on-base percentage and the fewest walks and second-fewest home runs allowed. The Dodgers have ranked in the top five in the league in ERA in eight of the last nine seasons.
A disciple of legendary pitching guru Dave Duncan, Honeycutt said he learned to implement more than just observation long before computers and SABR connected the dots between statistical tendencies and future performance. He said the staff’s consistency is what he’s proudest of.
“Pitchers would come over from other organizations, and at first they might not have bought in, but they’d see how it worked and they’d want to become a part of it,” Honeycutt said. “Kersh was a big influence. Take a guy like Zack Greinke and he sees how a guy like Kersh prepares for the mental part. Ted Lilly called me and said he appreciated how we helped him. He said he was kind of hard-headed. I said, ‘You’re all hard-headed. It can be good and bad. But we all can improve.’”
Honeycutt said he’s been considering a reduction in workload for the past four seasons, but the back injury that required fusion surgery last Spring Training “put it over the top.” Although the surgery was considered a success, pain from nerve damage persists and leaves him unable to sit for long periods, making travel difficult.
The Dodgers have been grooming bullpen coach Mark Prior to replace Honeycutt for the past two seasons. Friedman all but declared Prior the successor earlier this week.
“Mark’s extremely smart, always observing, very conscientious, very prepared,” said Honeycutt. “He’s a good communicator with the pitchers. He always wanted to be at every bullpen session, always listening. The continuity I hope will be very streamlined going forward.”
Prior will have a challenge awaiting him in his new role. Despite the staff’s overall success in 2019, the Dodgers’ latest postseason failure underscores flaws in the starting rotation and bullpen. And now there’s the uncertain psyche of Kershaw, still a winning pitcher but no longer a dominant ace.
“Everybody talks about Kersh not making adjustments. Well, he’s made adjustments all through his career to get better,” said Honeycutt. “Sometimes it comes down to recognizing how the other team is approaching you that day.”
Honeycutt defended the club’s strategy to use Kershaw as a reliever against the top of the Nationals batting order, which included left-handed hitters Adam Eaton and Soto.
“If we had a crystal ball, you’d do it differently when you know the outcome,” Honeycutt said. “But that part of the lineup was set up for Kershaw -- Eaton, Turner, Rendon, Soto -- the only lefty segment in the lineup.”
Honeycutt said Rendon hit a “well-executed pitch,” a low slider. The next pitch was a mislocated slider and Soto walloped it. Although the 10th-inning loss went to Joe Kelly, who allowed a grand slam to Howie Kendrick, Kershaw was visibly shaken on the mound, in the dugout and afterward in the clubhouse.
“Obviously, he’s going to take the blame and responsibility,” said Honeycutt. “You can’t even think those things are going to happen, but they did.”