Catching Aces

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The first time I caught Clayton Kershaw was in 2007. He was 19 years old, and having mowed through low A-ball in Great Lakes, he came straight to Double-A in Jacksonville that August to try and help us make the playoffs. Our pitching coordinator came into town to be with him for his debut.

He pulled me aside and said, “Hey, you’re going to catch Clayton in these starts. We want you to work with him, and mentor and shepherd him.”

I was an older guy for that level, already 26. I think that’s what my role was in the Dodgers organization at the time: helping pitchers develop. Coaches trusted the work I did. Clayton didn’t have a slider yet, and they wanted him to develop a changeup, too. I remember he was warming up before his first start, working on that changeup. It was a very inconsistent pitch for him, and he was having trouble throwing it, missing high and away.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw, right, celebrates with catcher A.J. Ellis after pitching a shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies during a baseball game in Los Angeles, Wednesday, July 8, 2015. The Dodgers won 5-0. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

After about the fourth one, I said, “Hey, relax. Work down in the zone.”

Clayton looked at me and barked, “Hey, you relax! Get back there and catch!”

I thought, Who is this guy? Who do you think you are? First day in Double-A and you’re going to pull that?

That’s when I first realized something about Kershaw. On game day, you just let him be. 

I thought, Who is this guy? Who do you think you are? First day in Double-A and you’re going to pull that?

Now I don’t even pay attention to how he warms up. Clayton needs that guy to step in the batter’s box and an umpire to say “play ball.” Then his competitive juice just takes him to another level. I’m always kidding him, “That’s why you stink in spring training every year.” Those games don’t matter. When Clayton pitches with an expiration date — two innings, 75 pitches, or whatever — it’s not good for him.

He needs to pitch to win the game.

For pitchers who have less talent, I think a catcher’s job is to help them get through those 15-to-18 outs. To stretch an outing from five innings to six, or six to seven by making good decisions for them behind the plate. For guys with less margin for error, you sometimes need to be more forceful with decisions you make behind the plate. With an ace, it’s a different experience. And of course, with the Dodgers, we don’t just have Kershaw, but Zack Greinke as well. Two guys who could easily win this year’s National League Cy Young Award.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw, left, and Zack Greinke, center, and catcher A.J. Ellis watch from the dugout during the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (AP Photo)

Honestly, one of the toughest things about catching an ace is the pressure you feel not to screw it up. You know how great they are and want to stay out of their way, but at the same time make sure their rhythm and timing stays the same. That there’s always comfort and trust. But Clayton and Zack are very different guys, so the process of working with each is different.

Both are very strong in their preparation, physically and mentally. Hands-on and well-informed. Before each of Clayton’s starts, he and I, with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, sit down together two hours before the game. Clayton dictates that entire meeting, running through the starting lineup in detail. “Here’s what I want to do … ” Hitter after hitter.

Usually he’s spot-on with his approach and it matches with my scouting and game plan. Occasionally, I’ll throw in my two cents, but I’d better make damn sure my two cents fits with what he wants to do, because otherwise he’ll snap at me. “I’m not doing that. That makes no sense.”

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Zack Greinke throws to the plate during the first inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

With Zack, there’s a dialogue. We have a rolling conversation about hitters. He’s asking me questions, I’m asking him questions. Clayton has his sequences in mind and a very specific plan of what he’s going to do, but Zack feels out those first couple innings, testing the enemy’s defenses and making constant adjustments on the fly. He’ll come in between innings and say his slider isn’t feeling right, so he’ll tell me to only call for it in safe spots. Or maybe that his arm speed on the curveball is off, so let’s stick to the slider and changeup. You can see Zack’s brain working as he pitches, trying to adjust and figure out the best way to attack.

Chemistry between them and me develops in different ways, too.

Without a doubt, the best chemistry I’ve ever had is with Clayton. He’s the guy I’ve caught the most. We feel totally at ease with each other, and I know the trust level is there. That developed organically. First, I caught him in the minors, and when we both came to the big leagues, we hung out a lot — eating lunch together, taking cabs to the ballpark, talking on the bench the entire game. We built up that understanding and friendship, even beyond how we played together on the field. He tries to act older than his age, and I try to act a lot younger than mine, so we meet in the middle with a chemistry that comes from being friends first.

Colorado Rockies' Nolan Arenado, right, hits an RBI double as Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Zack Greinke, left, and catcher A.J. Ellis look on along with home plate umpire Jim Reynolds during the fourth inning of their baseball game, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

When Zack signed with the Dodgers before the 2013 season, he was already a Cy Young winner. I was anxious about it, to be honest. I knew his reputation and how intense he was about his work. I remember the first time I talked to him, before our first bullpen session together in spring training. I said, “Hey Zack, I’m catching your bullpen today. Just want to know, what do you want me to do? How do you want me to set up?” Basic stuff, trying to build a rapport with him.

He looked at me, and then into the distance a little.

“Well A.J.,” he said, “I’m pretty easy. I stand on the mound, you stand behind the plate. I throw the ball, you catch it.”

You can see Zack’s brain working as he pitches, trying to adjust and figure out the best way to attack.

There was a wry smile on his face. He knows what people say about him, and he knows what’s going on. Zack’s as self-aware as anybody I’ve ever been around.

I learned quickly what’s important to Zack and not to waste his time with trivial stuff. We have a mutual love for how the game works and how decisions are made. He is interested on an intellectual level in game management and pitch sequencing. He loves the deeper-level analytics and is really involved in our defensive shifting. It’s also a question of reading Zack and knowing when he wants some space and when he’s ready to engage.

Zack’s also incredibly, sometimes even brutally, honest. He’ll tell me all the time, “I think you could have caught that ball better, and we might have gotten a strike call.” Originally I took offense, but I’ve come to realize it’s not personal. He’s just telling me what he thinks. Zack’s not afraid of confrontation. (It’s a characteristic I wish I had a little more of, actually.) You can’t lie to him, either. If he asks if you thought a pitch was a strike, or whether he wanted the correct pitch, I tell him. If he’s bad, I tell him. That’s what Zack wants.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, left, looks over at catcher A.J. Ellis during the first inning of their baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Nobody is more self-critical than Clayton, but inside a game, we stay away from that. He wants things more encouraging and positive, but honestly, there isn’t much in-game dialogue between the two of us. He’s so focused on what he’s doing that a lot of my job is helping him maintain a rhythm. Clayton wants to work and get a good pace. The only time I might come to the mound would be to give him a breather in those moments where his pitch count in an inning gets higher (not that it happens often) or he gets a big out in a tight situation. Occasionally, I’ll try to slow the game down for him.

But sometimes, you’re just back there and your job really is not to screw it up.

Last June, against Colorado, Clayton threw what some people consider among the great no-hitters of all time. Fifteen strikeouts, no walks. Only one batter all night made it to a three-ball count. Usually one of his two breaking balls is going to be A-quality, and the other might be B- or C-quality. That day, both breaking balls were A+. Off the charts. So it was just a question of mixing and matching because both were so unhittable, perfectly executed and commanded. He had a game like that earlier this year in Washington, striking out 14 guys over eight innings and only needing 101 pitches to do it. He was driving his fastball in and locating his curveball. You see the swings and misses and think, Wow, this thing must be disappearing.

Should we qualify for the postseason, we’re obviously going to rely on Clayton and Zack. The playoffs are different, for sure. Cliche as it sounds, each game is like its own one-game, winner-take-all playoff. Everyone keeps their routine, but everything is intensified. The flow of information is greater, because you’re targeting one team so specifically, and head-to-head matchups are bound to present themselves.

inning of the baseball game on Saturday, June 15, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

It will be important to monitor not just the physical energy but also the emotional energy exerted in these games. Both these guys give everything they have, but Clayton in particular, he pours his heart and soul into these starts. Sometimes you want to make sure he hasn’t emptied the tank emotionally, even though he might have some physical ability left in him. So it’s being aware and watching and reacting. Paying attention to body language.

Zack’s always going to tell you how he feels and where he’s at. He’s got the self-awareness to know that Chris Hatcher or Kenley Jansen coming out of the bullpen might have a better chance of getting this guy out than he is at that point. He’ll always let you know. Again, brutal honesty, even about himself.

Clayton is always going to want the ball and to keep pitching. He’s never going to say “no,” or that he’s had enough. He’s always going to think he can get the next guy out. He’ll say, “I want the ball,” even past that point where he’s got anything left.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, left, talks on the mound with starting pitcher Zack Greinke (21) and catcher A.J. Ellis (17) during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Sunday, July 19, 2015, in Washington. The Dodgers won 5-0. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Two totally different mentalities, but each is fundamental to what makes each guy so great.

Ultimately, the catcher’s job is to be a servant to the pitching staff. There’s nothing worse — and I’ve heard this from other pitchers — than a catcher who’s back there calling signs while his biggest concern is getting to his next at-bat. You can’t get away with that. I’ve had great mentors, like Brad Ausmus, my minor league coordinator Travis Barbary and Mike Borzello, who is now the major league catching coach for the Cubs. They taught me that catching can’t be about you. It’s always about the pitcher.

With aces like Clayton and Zack, there are high expectations on days they throw, so you want to elevate your performance and not abuse that trust. If I call a pitch, they execute it, and if it doesn’t work out, I feel awful about it. When they’re on the mound, you get the other team’s best shot. Opponents raise their game, because in this game, no one wants to get embarrassed. Everyone gives them their best at-bats, so if you’re not prepared behind the plate as a catcher, you’re doing them a disservice.

The opportunity to work with two pitchers this good is rare. I’m incredibly fortunate.

It’s my job not to screw it up.

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