Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw discovers less intensity is good

Clayton Kershaw made an important discovery this year as he reclaimed his place as one of baseball’s best pitchers: When he wasn’t on the mound, he could be a normal person, even on days when he was pitching.

Suddenly Kershaw smiled before his starts. He spoke more to his captors. He laughed with them on the bench.

“I think you’re enjoying it a little bit more,” Kershaw said in September.

This is the version of Kershaw set to return to the Dodgers next season, not the one who was notoriously aloof when he fielded. According to several people familiar with the situation, Kershaw is expected to sign a new one-year deal with the team in the coming days.

“In years past, you couldn’t have a conversation with him before, during, and even after [his starts]’ manager Dave Roberts said last month. “It was just a tough conversation. I think he’s kind of open to things now and realizing that you can still be reasonably normal and still be very good.

“It was fun to see how he develops.”

Kershaw will be 35 on opening day. The coming season will be his 16thth with the Dodgers, his newfound calm is a projection of his experience.

However, the change in behavior on matchday should not be interpreted as a sign that Kershaw is less competitive than, say, when he was 25 or 30.

“I don’t want to come off as a nice guy,” Kershaw said with a chuckle in that September talk.

Kershaw was only half joking.

“I think there’s that advantage you have to have,” he said. “I think there’s such a thing as, ‘I’m better than you, I’m gonna beat you, I’m still gonna do that.’ I think when you lose that edge, you’re like, “Ah, whatever’s happening out there, is happening.” I never want to do that. I will retire before I do that.”

The proof was in his performance, Kershaw averaging a 12-3 record in 22 starts and a 2.28 earned run average.

“I think there’s a little more quiet, a little more relaxed version, especially on the days that I’m pitching.”

But he said: “I think it’s okay to have some level of normalcy within your competitiveness.”

Early in his career, Kershaw couldn’t always turn off the competition switch when the game was over, leading to occasional tense interactions with the media. In recent years, he has gradually become more relaxed in post-game interviews.

Now he said, “I think I have the ability to even turn it off a little between innings.”

When he ran into trouble on the Hill this year, he said he’d rather be like, ‘Okay, let’s talk to Will [Smith]let’s talk [Austin Barnes]let’s find out a few things.”

By their own admission, the transformation happened almost by accident.

Kershaw has always valued consistency. This made him a slave to his inter-start regime. He didn’t break his character on the days he served, fearing that if he thought about anything other than how to attack the opposing racquets, he would lose his lead.

Clayton Kershaw goes back to the mound after hitting a batter against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Clayton Kershaw heads back to the mound after hitting a batter against the Arizona Diamondbacks September 19 at Dodger Stadium.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

“Again, the whole routine, everything that was made such a big deal, almost to the point of ‘this guy is crazy,’ it’s not something I really wanted to do,” he said. “It’s just what happened over time.”

However, doing the same thing over and over again became impossible. Kershaw missed the postseason last year with an elbow problem. He was twice on the injured list this year due to back problems.

“Being injured, having to train differently, having to recover differently because it’s a little bit harder to do all those things, changing that routine maybe opened my mind,” he said.

Kershaw pointed to a bullpen session he hosted in mid-September. With temperatures in the triple digits, he did something he’d never done before. He quit early.

Barnes was surprised.

“I thought he was hurt or something,” Barnes said.

It wasn’t him. He was just being cautious.

“I think he’s kind of open to things now and realizing that you can still be reasonably normal and still be very good.”

— Dodgers manager Dave Roberts on Clayton Kershaw

A few days later, Kershaw said: “I felt good during the game. I wasn’t exhausted. I felt like I had good stuff all along. That didn’t change anything at the end of the game.”

The episode reinforced a lesson he had learned throughout the season. He could break out of his routine and character and still be successful.

“I think there’s a little more quiet, a little more relaxed release, especially on the days that I’m pitching,” Kershaw said.

Barnes, catching up with Kershaw in his eighth season, noticed a difference. Earlier, while communicating with Kershaw between innings, he said, “If you’ve got something to say to him, you’d better get it done quickly. You’re not going to ask a bunch of things.”

And now?

“It’s just more interactive, just not as deep into where it’s at,” Barnes said. “I think that was pretty good for him.”

Kershaw agreed.

“I think there are some competitive advantages like having that communication, being able to talk to guys a little bit and maybe they see something that could help, instead of just sitting there and not talking to anyone and not doing anything,” Kershaw said.

Something else: He’s enjoying parts of the game that he hadn’t allowed himself to do before.

“Maybe even laugh at something that’s happening,” Kershaw said.

Why wouldn’t he sign up for another year of it? Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw discovers less intensity is good

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