Wiedmer: Is Kershaw baseball's LeBron or MJ?

Wiedmer: Is Kershaw baseball's LeBron or MJ?

August 14th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers to the Milwaukee Brewers during their game on Aug. 10, 2014, in Milwaukee.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers to...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ATLANTA - In a little less than an hour, the rampaging Los Angeles Dodgers would face the reeling Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. But before he hunkered down in front of his laptop Wednesday evening to best assess pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu's deliveries, LA pitching coach Rick Honeycutt was asked a single question about Clayton Kershaw, the National League's probable Cy Young winner.

The question to Honeycutt, the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and University of Tennessee great, was this: "When it comes to Kershaw, do you feel like Phil Jackson coaching Michael Jordan?"

Said Honeycutt, "I do, I really do. What [Clayton's] accomplished the last three and a half years has been pretty spectacular. And he's gotten better every year. Now can he keep improving? I wouldn't put it past him."

To borrow from the lingo of the current football coach at Honeycutt's collegiate alma mater, the Kershaw tool box could make Ace Hardware feel inadequate .

The lanky lefty's earned run average is a major league-best 1.78. So are his 14 victories, which include 11 straight wins heading into Saturday's home start against Milwaukee. His 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings leads the National League, as do his five complete games and 1.81 nighttime ERA.

And he could actually get better?

"He still hasn't perfected his changeup," said Honeycutt. "But he's working on it all the time. He probably won't need it until later, though, because he's so dominating now and his curve is a nice change of pace."

Then again, Kershaw is but 26 years old. For perspective, LeBron James didn't win his first NBA title until he was 27. Air Jordan was a year older than that. Peyton Manning won his only Super Bowl to date at the age of 30.

"Clayton's just outstanding in every aspect," said Honeycutt, whose wife, Debbie, children Rick and Holli and five grandchildren all made their way to the Big Peach this week to visit. "He has impeccable work habits, just a tremendous work ethic. He's a tremendous competitor. He just sets a great example for our entire staff, and that's a dream come true for a coach."

Honeycutt has been a dream come true for the Dodgers since he was named their pitching coach in 2006 following a stint as a roving pitching instructor. On a team that owned the most wins in the NL (69) heading into Wednesday night, the LA pitching staff had the league's third-best ERA (3:31), the third best opposing batting average (.241) and were No. 1 in strikeouts.

"They certainly have some great talent over there," said Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, who's a regular at Honeycutt's charity golf tournament each fall at Battlefield Golf Club. "But Rick deserves a lot of credit for that. He's developed most of those guys. They have great mechanics. They think the game well. They're confident. That's Rick's influence on them."

Or as Dodgers manager Don Mattingly recently told ESPN: "I think Rick's just solid at everything he does, from preparation to mechanics. One thing nobody talks a lot about is Rick had pretty much every role in his career. He was a starter, he was a long man, he was a late-inning situational lefty. He went through all the stages in his career. His stuff was one way when he was younger. He got older and was pitching through some stuff when his arm wasn't exactly right." Perhaps that's why Honeycutt never lost a postseason baseball game in 30 appearances, actually ending his 21-year career with a 3-0 postseason record.

But now all that knowledge is helping the Dodgers put together the best pitching staff in baseball, led by the remarkable Kershaw, who's the lefty Honeycutt always dreamed of being

"His whole routine is centered around baseball, about getting better every day, and he's about as good as you can be," said Honeycutt. "It's like when he came to Chattanooga for the rehab assignment. He didn't want to go because if he was going to throw 75 or 80 pitches, he wanted to throw them against big-league hitters. He wanted that challenge."

For all his success in high school, UT and the big leagues, Honeycutt has never been about baseball only. His family's charity work throughout the Chattanooga area is well documented -- everything from free clinics for underprivileged youth to therapy horses for cognitively and developmentally disabled children.

And because enjoying his five grandchildren increasingly fills his rare free time, "We don't play golf near as much as we used to," said McDowell, who quickly added, "and Rick's the much better golfer."

Indeed, during Tuesday's batting practice, 8-year-old Haden Griffith threw a few pitches to LA leadoff man Dee Gordon.

Said Gordon, "That kid's sick (meaning great)."

So maybe the next great pitcher Honeycutt develops will be his grandson.

But for now, his most decorated pupil remains Kershaw, whom he first saw in spring training seven years ago.

"Just a kid with a big smile," recalled Honeycutt. "He struck out the side but gave up a home run. But from the beginning it was obvious he had tremendous stuff."

And thanks to Honeycutt, the kid soon had a tremendous teacher to make the most of it.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.