The kid was tall, he was well built and he was warming for his second outing of his first Major League camp. Vero Beach, Fla. Dodgertown. March 9, 2008.
Sean Casey watched. On the cusp of his first season with the defending world champion Red Sox, his 11th and final season in the bigs, he knew the league inside and out. But 19-year-olds wearing jersey No. 96 don't qualify as known quantities, even to a wily vet.
"Mags," Casey said to hitting coach Dave Magadan, "do you know this guy?"
A purse of the lips and a shake of the head.
"Tito," he said to manager Terry Francona, "you know him?"
Casey came up with two out. The first pitch was a rocket. Ninety-seven on the black. Strike one.
"That was legit," Casey thought to himself. "That was different."
He looked over to the open-air visiting dugout. Magadan shrugged. Francona shrugged.
Next pitch, curveball. A big old hammer. At the face one moment, at the knees the next. Casey buckled. Strike two.
This time, he looked over to the home dugout. Joe Torre and Larry Bowa were giggling.
Now Casey knew. The joke was on him.
"Who is this guy?"
Third pitch, another heater on the edge of the zone. Casey couldn't even muster the momentum to pull the trigger. The umpire, generously, called it a ball. The ump probably figured he was giving the established and notoriously scrupulous hitter the benefit of the doubt, when in fact he was only prolonging the nightmare.
Finally, mercifully, memorably, the finisher. The curve again. You don't go through your career striking out in only 10 percent of your plate appearances without the ability to read pitches, to wait on breaking balls. But Casey had never seen anything like this. He surrendered to Uncle Charlie, emphasis on the "uncle." The rotation, the depth, the free fall like an elevator with a snapped cable. This embarrassing at-bat was as lost at the plate as Casey had ever felt in his professional career. And when the umpire rung him up after four pitches in which the bat never left his shoulder, with Torre and Bowa still laughing in the other dugout, Casey retreated in utter confusion.
"What the hell just happened?"
* * * *
Life is short, times are hard, people are divided. This seems as good a time as any to celebrate the good in life. And as far as baseball is concerned, not much is better than the Clayton Kershaw curveball.
Though he threw it, on a percentage basis, more in 2015 than in any season since his rookie year, it still qualifies as a rare treat. You figure 33 starts, an average of 100 pitches per start, a career curveball usage of 13 percent. That's 429 Kershaw curveballs in a given year, maybe as many as 600 if he falls in the neighborhood of last year's 18.1-percent mark. In a typical year, Stephen Curry will take more threes, Jordan Spieth will hit more fairways, Mike Trout will log more plate appearances, Tom Brady will throw more passes.
So take the Kershaw curveballs when you can get them.
The first one many of us saw was that killer to Casey. Even as recently as 2008, prospect hype hadn't hit the heights we're so well accustomed to now. Kershaw was the seventh overall pick in the Draft two summers earlier, so a fair number of Dodgers fans knew his name and were probably excited to see him for his first appearances in a televised tilt. But to the opposition, to the casual fan in the Vero Beach stands, he was just some kid off the back fields.
That 1-2 curveball changed everything. It inspired a "holy mackerel" out of Vin Scully, who instantly dubbed it "Public Enemy No. 1." A low-quality video clip (available here) made the rounds.
If the baseball world, at large, didn't know Clayton Kershaw before he struck out Sean Casey, it did now.
But of course, a curveball is only as good as the pitches that set it up. And that's where Kershaw had to grow. The Casey at-bat featured the full extent of his offerings in 2008, a year in which he would make his official debut and log a 4.26 ERA in 22 appearances. Kershaw was a two-pitch pitcher, which means his occasional brilliance was ultimately unsustainable. Midway through 2009, he learned a slider, which sounds harmless enough. Except that, as quickly as the next season, it rated as one of the most effective pitches in all of baseball, per the advanced metrics available at FanGraphs.com.
Raw talent is one thing, but the aptitude to pick up a new pitch and make it arguably as good as your best pitch almost overnight is what makes the good ones great. And in the not-small sample that is the last five seasons of Major League Baseball, it's a matter of accepted fact that no pitcher has been better than Kershaw.
The curve, though, is still Kershaw's breathtaking beauty, his bread and butter that makes batters toast. So we should thank him for putting himself in the counts to use it more frequently and more effectively as he's proceeded through these peak years.
Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net, here's a chart showing Kershaw's curveball usage, beginning in 2011, his first of three Cy Young seasons (to date):
Now look at the downward action on that pitch, in the same span.
The break in Kershaw's breaking ball is now close to 10 inches, on average. And that kind of drop is how you freeze more people than Queen Elsa of Arendelle.
"It's an awesome weapon," said A.J. Ellis, "that's unique in all of baseball."
Ellis, until very recently, was Kershaw's longtime personal catcher, the guy who helped him adapt to and adopt that slider in '09, which means he'll be one of the guys acknowledged when Kershaw gives his Hall of Fame induction speech. He's caught more Kershaw curves than anybody, which means he's uniquely qualified to assess them.
"It's gotten better," Ellis said. "Clayton's curveball usage is always dependent on his ability to get in favorable counts. He did an amazing job last year, especially the last two-thirds of the year, to be ahead in the count. When you're in those situations, you can use your curveball more and hitters have to protect against it more. When he throws it right and he gets that good 12-to-6, top-to-bottom spin, it's an unhittable pitch.
"Clayton has very repeatable mechanics and a good understanding of what he needs to do on each throw to execute it, and that's a testament to his concentration and his discipline. All that factoring together created a spot where he could really dominate with that pitch."
Former teammate Zack Greinke was a witness to that domination and a provider of his own. The downward drop data withstanding, Greinke wasn't ready to entertain the argument that Kershaw's curve has gotten better. Because how do you improve on perfection? But he did agree with the sentiment that is has become more of a situational edge.
"Last year he became a little bit tougher to gameplan against," said Greinke, "because he would throw his curveball in slightly different counts and then throw his fastball and slide it away sometimes. So it was harder to gameplan as much, and that probably made his curveball more valuable just because there were more pitches for them to worry about."
As for the opinion of the man himself?
"I think just the biggest thing is throwing it where I want to more often," Kershaw said. "I've been able to spin it the same since I came up. But knowing when to throw it in the dirt and when to throw it for a strike and being able to do it more consistently is the difference."
* * *
So here we are, nearing the dawn of a new season. Kershaw turns 28 next week. He's finished in the top three of the Cy Young voting each of the last five seasons, won an MVP, hopefully quashed the stupid storyline that he can't win in October, sired a child, continued his admirable charitable work.
It's a good life if you can get it.
However long Kershaw's remarkable run continues, it has indisputably been one of the game's great joys this decade. Maybe, for some, Kershaw's eventual, lasting legacy will be entirely dependent on whether the Dodgers go as far as their ginormous payroll leads you to believe they should go. But with so much out of his control -- Greinke's whereabouts, Brett Anderson's back, Yasiel Puig's production, Corey Seager's ascension -- let's just soak in individual excellence where we can.
And furthermore, because so many prime pitching prospects blow out and flame out, let's not take for granted the ones who survive and thrive.
After Casey took that called third strike in '08, he couldn't get No. 96 and that confounding curveball out of his head. So he watched with great interest when the kid made his proper debut two months later, and he's of course been as engrossed as anybody with all that's transpired since.
It's funny. In 11 seasons, Casey made more than 5,600 plate appearances. He had 1,531 hits, played on a pair of playoff teams, went to three All-Star teams. He had a great career. And yet it's a four-pitch strikeout in a meaningless March exhibition that he calls "the most memorable at-bat of my career."
At least Casey can find solace in the fact that while he might have been the first public victim of Public Enemy No. 1, he was far from the last.
"Now," he said, "I don't feel so bad. Now he's doing it to everybody."
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.