Clayton Kershaw Is Elite, and Ross Stripling Knows Why

Ross Stripling was the featured guest on episode 905 of FanGraphs Audio, and something he said after we finished recording prompted what you’re about to read. Stripling mentioned that he could have spent the entire segment talking about the impact Clayton Kershaw — his Los Angeles Dodgers teammate from 2016-20 — has had on his career. That bug in my ear, I made it a point to circle back to the 31-year-old Toronto Blue Jays right-hander to explore that subject for print.

We ended up covering more than just that. Along with the matter at hand, Stripling delved into what makes Kershaw Kershaw.

First things first.

“I wouldn’t have had the success that I’ve had in the big leagues if it wasn’t for Clayton’s mentorship,” said Stripling, who has a 3.85 ERA and a 3.91 FIP over 444-and-two-thirds career innings. “I met him in the spring of 2014 — that was my first big-league camp — but ended up tearing my UCL and didn’t get to interact with him nearly as much as I wanted to. But he’s a North Texas guy — Highland Park — and I’m from South Lake. We’re 20 minutes apart, so I knew everything about him.”

That includes Kershaw having committed to Texas A&M, only to sign with the Dodgers out of high school in 2006. Stripling chose a different route. He spent four years at A&M, earned a finance degree, and was drafted and signed by the Dodgers in 2012. It was four years later that Stripling’s baseball education truly began to take root.

“Fast forward to spring training 2016,” Stripling told me. “[Kershaw] just commands a locker room. He has a presence about himself, and rightfully so, because he was the best pitcher in baseball. Anyway, I’m on the 40-man now, and using my time to pick his brain as much as I can, probably almost to an annoyance. Even when we were just playing ping pong together, I’d be talking to him.”

Stripling allowed that he also began shadowing the southpaw’s routine. Calling Kershaw “very Type-A,” he shared that his mentor was especially diligent in the weight room, which meshed well with his own workout regimen. A lot of what he learned was through osmosis. As Stripling explained, the future Hall of Famer “isn’t a huge verbal leader; that’s not his style — he’s not going to go out of his way to say something to you — but rather he leads by example.”

The fellow Texans spent a lot of time together in the outfield playing catch, which served as a hands-on demonstration as to how well Kershaw can manipulate a baseball.

“During catch… Clayton has, naturally, an elite fastball,” said Stripling. “It used to be velocity, but it’s really spin. He gets 20 inches of vertical rise, and there are only a few guys in the big leagues that average 20 inches of vert on their heater. That’s just a natural God-given ability.

“The story is that Clayton was going to get sent to the minor leagues if he didn’t learn a third pitch,” continued Stripling. “Well, he just runs down to the bullpen and learns arguably the best slider in history. In one day; he was throwing it in his next outing. Clayton’s always just had an ability to manipulate a baseball, to spin the baseball. But he’s not necessarily a great teacher of that. Where you really learn from Clayton is on the mental side.”

Stripling brought up a game from a few years ago when Kershaw’s back was hurting, yet he was able to pitch effectively with a fastball topping out in the mid-80s. What Stripling gleaned from that outing was the belief that it’s possible to outcompete your opponent with sheer willpower, regardless of how you feel. Not that everyone can do it, of course. Not everyone is Clayton Kershaw.

“He has the same intensity and conviction on pitch one and on pitch 110,” said Stripling. “And there’s an aura around guys like Clayton. They can instill fear into a lineup because of the success they’ve had, and from the intensity they bring. I remember Max Scherzer screaming at Chase Utley to get in the box. Like, nobody does that to Chase Utley. But that’s an edge some of the elite pitchers have. They have that mound persona, which Clayton definitely has.”

Pair those attributes with elite stuff, and Kershaw doesn’t need to parse scouting reports in minute detail. Not like mere mortals. According to Stripling, he looks at what the opposing team did the last two times they faced left-handed pitchers, but he doesn’t delve too deep into the details. For example, what Nolan Arenado does against 2-1 sliders isn’t particularly important. When push comes to shove, Kershaw is going to “feel the game” and go with what’s working for him that day.

More often than not, it’s going to be the aforementioned “best slider in history.” Kershaw has thrown the pitch roughly a quarter of the time over the course of his career, and in recent years he’s relied on it a full 40% of the time.

“The slider is his bread and butter,” explained Stripling. “He’ll throw it any time, whereas you never see him throw his curveball when he’s behind in the count. His curveball is a put-away pitch almost exclusively. But his slider… especially if you go back to vintage Kershaw — MVP/Cy Young Kershaw — he’s going glove-side fastballs, with sliders off of that. That’s the one-two combo that he’ll eat lefties and righties up with all day.”

Kershaw is 177-77 with a 2.44 ERA and a 2.74 FIP since debuting with the Dodgers in 2008. He’s already punched his ticket to Cooperstown, and at age 33, he’s still going strong. Moreover, he’s a positive influence for every member the pitching staff. Given his persona — both on the mound and in the clubhouse — that comes with the territory.

“I’m a better pitcher just from being around him every day,” stated Stripling. “I mean, it just bleeds off on you, man. It really does. You can’t show up to Dodger Stadium and see Clayton working his tail off, then sit down to play cards. You just don’t feel right doing that. You’re going to put your work in, because that’s what Clayton is doing.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Smiling Politelymember
3 years ago

Kershaw is such an iconic pitcher *and* a generous & good guy. I hope he stays in LA until he retires, and I hope his reputation and goodwill continues to grow even after that.

3 years ago

Agree 100%. Can’t help but root for the guy, especially with all the good he does off the field.

3 years ago

Love that the best pitcher and hitter of this generation are genuinely great dudes.