There are a lot of expectations surrounding Clayton Kershaw this season, and even at 21 years old, he might be ready to meet them.
I wrote in spring training how much the young southpaw impressed scouts in camp and that he appeared ready to take the next step up as far as commanding his pitches at the big league level, thanks to a more consistent line to the plate and less of a tendency to overthrow.
So far, so good after his first start. Though he managed to get through just five innings while throwing 105 pitches in his debut, it was encouraging to see that despite his control's wandering at times, he was able to command within the zone OK. Considering he didn't throw his secondary stuff, especially his vaunted curveball, a whole lot, it was good to see him have a solid outing in which fastball command was a large part of his success.
"For me, the key is getting ahead of hitters," Kershaw said. "I'm not a control pitcher. I'm not going to be a guy that paints the corner; I'm going to attack on the white. If you get ahead of the hitters, you can get away with more, so my main focus is just getting ahead."
He's slowed his delivery down a touch, which helps make it a bit more repeatable, and has lowered his leg kick in the stretch, which is mostly to hold runners a bit better but has some ancillary benefits in keeping his stretch mechanics more consistent.
"I'm mostly the same pitcher, but I think I'm more in control and not trying to speed the game up as much, like I did last year," Kershaw said. "Last year I would just get the ball and throw. This year I'm trying to pitch with more of a purpose."
It was also encouraging to see some development in his changeup; a circle change variety that looks like an improved offering over last season. Last year, he was throwing it too hard, and it didn't have enough separation from his fastball. However, based on a couple of his spring starts and the handful of times he threw it in his first start of the season, it looks like he's been able to take a little more off it while maintaining his arm speed and not tipping the pitch. In addition, he's been throwing it for strikes.
"It has improved a lot," Kershaw said. "My main purpose this offseason was to get my change to where I feel confident with it. It's a mental thing; having the confidence to throw it the way you want to in a game is something you can't really learn. You just have to keep throwing it. Spring training was great for me, with throwing it a lot in game situations, and I felt a lot better with it in my first start."
Having a solid third pitch in his arsenal to keep batters off the curveball is only going to make him that much more dangerous this season. We expected some improvement this season just by virtue of his having a year of big league experience under his belt, but another good offering in his repertoire could accelerate his progress even faster.
Kershaw may not go too deep into games most nights, which will hurt his win potential a bit. However, he will rack up the strikeouts, command well enough to offset his walks and maintain a solid WHIP, and keep his ERA solidly under 4. In short, a pitcher worth starting every time out in any league.
• Another 21-year-old from whom much is expected this season is apparently hitting some bumps on the way to stardom. A popular breakout pick this season (this scribe included), Justin Upton has been sitting out some games to start the season, and when he has played, he's gone 0-for-9 with five strikeouts. The rumblings are getting a little louder that he may not be in the big leagues to stay in the short term.
Let's be clear, Upton is still very much a future superstar, but he's 21, and we may be expecting too much too soon. That's understandable, given that hitters who can post a .463 slugging percentage in more than 350 at-bats at age 20 -- as Upton did last year -- are likely ticketed for many future All-Star Games. This isn't a knee-jerk reaction to nine poor at-bats; it actually was a concern all spring training. Upton just wasn't looking good at the plate. He took swings at horrible pitches, flailed at balls in the dirt, and tried to do too much with pitches he couldn't drive. But it was spring, and troubles in camp don't necessarily carry over to games that count -- that's especially true of Upton, given that he got off to a lightning-fast start last year, hitting .340 with a .962 OPS in April.
However, Upton's bad swings have followed him into the regular season. He's swinging for the fences on every pitch, and his swing is getting big and loopy. He's actually holding the bat higher in his stance, and I'm not sure that it's helping him, as it's making his swing longer and neutralizing some of the benefits of his phenomenal bat speed. And at times he's choosing to swing at pitches that aren't even close to the strike zone or travel a full 60 feet, 6 inches. That's why we've seen him grab some pine a bit in the early going.
I still think Upton is going to have some good impact this season, even if it requires some Triple-A time to get things sorted out. If someone is panicking early and drops him or is offering him up in a trade for pennies on the dollar, and you have a spot available to stash him away, by all means do so. The upside is too tantalizing not to take a chance on, even if we may wind up being a bit premature on the breakout. When you take a risk, you want the potential of a big return.
• By contrast, although it hasn't shown up in the stats thus far, Upton's teammate Chris Young has been showing some progress at the plate. Whether intentional or not, he is standing a little less upright in the box this season. What I've seen from Young so far indicates that this might help him with his plate coverage a little bit, especially considering that one of his trouble areas in making contact the past two seasons has been down in the strike zone. Young is still going to have his fair share of strikeouts, but the way he looks right now, he might be able to be a bit more consistent in making solid, hard contact when he does connect, and that can only help.
Of course, the big question for fantasy players is whether Young is going to run as much as he did in 2007 as opposed to 2008, and that remains to be seen. Young has been vocal ever since the second half of last season about getting back to his running game, but part of his problem thus far has been that four of his five hits have gone for extra bases, so don't count out the wheels. It's still very, very early.
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• The numbers say a 9.35 ERA thus far, but having watched his first two starts, I'm very optimistic that Justin Verlander is going to get some things figured out this season, and be more like the '06-'07 version, and not last year's model. Verlander's mechanical issues last year -- chief among them struggling to keep his front side closed -- were well-documented, as was his plan of restructuring his delivery this spring with new pitching coach Rick Knapp, which was a main reason for his inconsistent spring outings. Things did not look good after an eight-run outburst against him on Opening Day, but he fanned eight in his second outing (although he ran up a big pitch count early), and there were a lot of positives to take from it.
The biggest was a return to the old Verlander velocity, which had slowly declined over the course of his three full seasons in the big leagues, and he was under 94 mph most of the time last year, largely because of his mechanical woes. However, Verlander has been averaging a consistent 95-96 mph in his first two starts this season, topping out at 98-99 mph. That's the Verlander that burst onto the scene in 2006. After struggling to find a consistent release point in his first outing, he got it dialed in much better the second time out, and we saw the better results.
There are still some kinks to work out, as he's been using his curveball much more than his changeup thus far. Obviously, we're dealing with an extremely small sample size here, but he's been basically a two-pitch pitcher, whereas before he would throw his curve and change equally. It's likely a conscious decision to throw predominantly curves until he gets the feel of his off-speed pitch back, given how important that frequent use of the change was in his past success. The bottom line is there are a lot of positives thus far, and as he starts feeling more and more comfortable with his mechanics and brings the changeup out of his back pocket, we should start seeing some very nice outings from him.
• Speaking of returning to old velocity, Brad Penny put himself back on the mixed-league map with his first start of the season. Yes, he did give up a couple of solo jacks to Mike Napoli and struck out only two, but he still threw a quality start. Additionally, Penny averaged around 93 mph on the gun and hit 95 mph many times and the pitches had much better sink than last year. Those are good signs for a pitcher coming off a season when shoulder problems derailed him from the start, and had his work ethic questioned when he left the West Coast.