During his days as a Dodger, Zack Greinke puzzled over the tendencies of his most venerated teammate. Clayton Kershaw, Greinke thought, was entirely too predictable.
The curveball had made Kershaw famous. In spring training, Kershaw tinkered endlessly with a changeup. In between starts, he toiled to land pitches in each quadrant of the strike zone. Yet during games, once the season began, Kershaw trusted a straightforward formula. Nearly nine times out of 10, he threw a fastball or a slider. More often that not, he aimed the baseball toward his glove side — inside to right-handed hitters and away from left-handed batters — and low in the zone. He did not mind if he telegraphed his intention. He still dominated — and Greinke didn’t get it.
“To me, like, how do guys not hit that?” Greinke said one day this past summer. “He’s telling you what he’s going to do. I would think that people would be able to hit it.”
It was only later, after Greinke left for Arizona and stepped into the batter’s box against his former teammate, that he understood the clinical potency of Kershaw’s approach. Greinke geared up for fastballs on the inner half and sliders aimed at his back foot. He learned that it did not matter that he knew what was coming. Nor did it matter if Kershaw’s fastball no longer lit up the radar gun. Kershaw still beat him to the spot, just as he continues to beat hitters to the spot, the same spot, time and again, in this, his 15th season in the majors.
“When I got to face him more consistently, you would see that a good pitch is a good pitch,” Greinke said. “If someone has a really good pitch, even if you’re looking for it, it’s not easy to hit.”
In this era, few men have executed more good pitches than Kershaw. At 34, beset by back injuries and sapped of the velocity of his 20s, he still subdues hitters and churns through opposing lineups. After seven scoreless innings in Arizona last week, he lowered his ERA to 2.44, his best in a full season since 2017. On two occasions, he has carried a perfect game through seven innings. In the playoffs, the Dodgers will once more rely upon him, the sport’s annual October ritual.
To maintain his stature among his contemporaries, Kershaw has made concessions to his age and the sport’s evolution. He has chucked weighted baseballs at Driveline, become a vocal proponent of infield shifts and reconfigured his rigorous workout regimen in hopes of staying upright. But conversations with his fellow pitchers revealed their admiration for the aspects of his approach which have not changed, for his refusal to part with the qualities that made him great in the first place.