Spring Training: Clayton Kershaw

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If there were any doubts that Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke views the world from a different perspective, he allayed them this week with an update on his dream commuting scenario. In a perfect world, Greinke would live on the beach and travel to and from work in a helicopter, Kobe Bryant-style. Until reality intervened, he was hoping to put a whole new slant on the term “infield chopper."

“I don’t think you’re allowed to land in the stadium,’’ Greinke said. “I looked into it. And then you have to go to an airport to get picked up, so it’s not as easy as it sounds. If you have to drive 10 minutes to the airport, fly and then drive 10 minutes from where you’re dropped off, it takes you 45 minutes. You might as well just drive.’’

Greinke’s teammates through the years have learned that he can be aloof or downright standoffish at times, and his veneer is hard to crack. But this year the Cactus League clubhouse seating chart is rich with bonding opportunities. When Greinke looks to his left, he sees 2011 National League Cy Young award winner and two-time All-Star Clayton Kershaw in a neighboring stall. You get the feeling they’ll find lots of common ground.

Kershaw, 24, is sensational and ascending. Last year he became the first pitcher to lead the major leagues in ERA in back-to-back seasons since Pedro Martinez achieved the feat for the 2002-2003 Boston Red Sox. He also joined Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Hideo Nomo and Fernando Valenzuela as the fifth Dodgers pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts in three straight seasons.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
AP Photo/Paul SancyaZack Greinke signed a six-year, $147 million contract with the Dodgers in the offseason.
Greinke, 29, ranks fifth in baseball in strikeouts since the start of 2008 behind Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia and Felix Hernandez. And even his so-so days can be special: In his next-to-last start of 2012, Greinke whiffed 13 Seattle Mariners in five innings. He became the first pitcher since 1920 to register that many strikeouts in five innings.

It’s tempting to say that Greinke makes a great wing man for Kershaw -- except that $147 million over six years is awfully pricey for a wing man.

“I’m thinking, ‘Why me?’ This is awesome,’’ said Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis. “I get to catch two of the elite pitchers in all of baseball. Two former Cy Young winners. Guys who are probably going to win more Cy Youngs in their future. I’m more than excited.’’

As Greinke settles into his new environs, he’s trying to place a difficult aspect of his past into its proper perspective. After walking away from the game with Kansas City in 2006 because of social anxiety disorder, Greinke turned a corner when he began taking the prescription antidepressant Zoloft. There were 37 million Zoloft prescriptions filled in the U.S. in 2011, so he’s not exactly a trailblazer. In the baseball world alone, Joey Votto, Dontrelle Willis, Khalil Greene and Justin Duchscherer are among the players who have been forthright about struggles with anxiety or depression in recent years.

But Greinke’s quirky demeanor and “makeup" were destined to become a more prominent topic of conversation after he signed a nine-figure deal with Magic Johnson’s budding star factory at Chavez Ravine. Greinke didn’t encounter a lot of media scrutiny in Kansas City or Milwaukee. In Los Angeles, he’ll have to adapt to heightened expectations pitching for a big-market team under lots of pressure to win.

Greinke got a taste of those expectations after the Angels acquired him in a stretch-drive trade with Milwaukee last July, and he acquitted himself nicely with a 6-2 record and a 3.53 ERA in 13 starts. During the free-agent process, the Dodgers were blown away by Greinke’s baseball knowledge and candor in a personal interview with him. Manager Don Mattingly hailed Greinke as a “baseball junkie" and said the social anxiety disorder is a “non-issue."

Last week, Greinke spent 25 minutes at his locker breaking down his off-field issues from A (anxiety) to Z (Zoloft). Group media interviews with Greinke can be awkward events, in part because he’s so introspective and refuses to give rote, convenient answers to questions. Try to engage him on the weather, and you’re asking for a blank stare.

“I like learning stuff, I guess," Greinke said. “I don’t want to just talk about nothing -- or less than nothing. If it’s something important, I’m fine with it. If it’s, ‘Hey Zack, how was your day?’ well, my day was good. That’s gonna be my answer. I don’t know how it gets any deeper than that. Do people ask that question and you actually tell them how your day was? I don’t have any interest in that."

The decision to sign with the Dodgers -- besides making him one very wealthy dude -- will showcase Greinke’s all-around skills and help liberate him to be everything he can be. Greinke is a .170 hitter in 106 big league at-bats, but he should be more of a threat once he gets regular work at the plate. He’s a terrific athlete with the aptitude to run the bases or spring from the mound to turn sure infield hits into outs.

Greinke has been fortunate to pitch on some talented staffs with the Brewers and Angels in recent years, but it wasn’t always that way. When he broke in with a 58-104 Kansas City team in 2004, he pitched in a rotation with Darrell May, Brian Anderson, Jimmy Gobble and Mike Wood. The following year, Jose Lima, Runelvys Hernandez and D.J. Carrasco came onto the scene. You get the picture.

It wasn’t until the Royals signed Gil Meche to a $55 million deal in 2006 that Greinke felt relieved of his burden to carry the staff.

“It was hard in Kansas City because all you see is bad," Greinke said. “After a while you start to think, ‘Is it even possible?’ For a young guy, it’s so much harder to come up and not have success around you. If you were a young hitter coming up in Texas’ lineup the last couple of years, if you can’t succeed with that around you, you’re just not that good. It’s a million times easier coming up with success around you."

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
AP Photo/Paul SancyaEntering his sixth season with the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw has a career 2.79 ERA.
While Greinke freely admits that “I can’t focus on two things at once," Kershaw seemingly does everything with ease. After winning the Roberto Clemente community service award at the World Series, Kershaw traveled to Zambia in January to open an orphanage with his wife, Ellen. He’s embraced a leadership role and the burden of expectations while developing into a more polished pitcher every year.

“When I first worked with him in the minor leagues and the big leagues, he would just rear back and throw the four-seam fastball and curve as hard as he could," Ellis said. "He’s truly a pitcher now. He’s 24 in age, but his mind is like 46."

Greinke watched Kershaw throw a bullpen session last week and was bowled over by his new teammate’s stuff. Meanwhile, Kershaw took note that Greinke was paying attention.

“He just studies," Kershaw said. “He watches, and I think that’s how he learns. Whether it’s pitchers on our staff or games or video or whatever it might be, he looks like he just takes it right in. I think it’s a testament to how smart he is and how much he likes the game.

“Everybody’s personality is different. I think that’s what makes a clubhouse good. If you have 25 of the same guys, it can be pretty boring. Once we get to know him a little bit, maybe we’ll have a little bit of small talk. As long as we keep it to baseball, I think we’ll be on the same page."

The Dodgers' rotation has a chance to be considerably more than a Greinke-Kershaw production if Josh Beckett clicks it into gear, free agent Hyun-Jin Ryu is the real deal and Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly are over their injuries. That doesn’t even include Aaron Harang or Chris Capuano, good big league starters who might be squeezed by the surplus.

But it all begins with the two pitchers at the top. If the Dodgers’ daily commute takes them to the playoffs and beyond this season, nobody will care which route they take to the park.

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