How Kyle Muller and Clayton Kershaw became offseason throwing partners

Braves pitcher Kyle Muller is hoping for a spot in the starting rotation this season. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

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Braves pitcher Kyle Muller is hoping for a spot in the starting rotation this season. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Four years ago, Kyle Muller was sitting in his parents’ living room during the offseason when he received an Instagram message from Jason Hursh, a teammate in the Braves’ organization.

“I got a proposition for you,” Hursh wrote.

“What’s that?” Muller responded.

“Clayton Kershaw needs a throwing partner,” Hursh responded.

As he recalls this moment, the look on Muller’s face tells the story of his emotions. He couldn’t believe it. The young lefty who grew up idolizing Kershaw, the top southpaw in baseball at the time, could now be his throwing partner? Insane.

“No way!” Muller yelled in the living room.

He freaked out. He was so excited. He immediately responded.

“Of course,” Muller, then 20 years old, said to the proposition. “Any time, any day. Just let me know.”

Since then, Muller and Kershaw, the Dodgers’ longtime ace, have been throwing partners during the offseason. Those two are part of a small group that meets at Highland Park, Kershaw’s high school.

On the first day they threw together, Muller introduced himself to Kershaw … who introduced himself back. Dude, I know who you are, Muller thought. But this represented something he’s learned about Kershaw: He’s humble as can be for a guy of his status.

Kershaw is a three-time Cy Young Award winner who has also won a National League MVP. He’s an eight-time All-Star. He likely will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

You apparently can’t tell. He’s never “big leagued” Muller or acted better than him.

“I'm friends with all these guys, so I want everybody to do well. I just want to put it on myself to perform better, and I think that's friendly competition, that's healthy, that's good."

- Braves pitcher Kyle Muller

“If you met him and you didn’t know all of his accolades, you wouldn’t know all of his accolades,” Muller said. “I think that’s a really cool quality to have, especially somebody of that caliber and that talent, to just be like another guy. Sometimes you see situations where that’s not the case. In his case, he couldn’t be a better person and a better role model.”

Muller, now 24, has also picked the 34-year-old Kershaw’s brain. Muller asks questions about how Kershaw attacks certain hitters and how he thinks about certain aspects of the craft. “It’s awesome having a resource like that at your disposal,” Muller said. “But I’m not asking him for his pitch grips or any of his super secrets. He’s got to keep those close to the chest.”

Of course, Muller would love to inquire about those. Sometimes, when Kershaw tells him how other pitchers throw certain pitches, Muller is almost tempted to ask: How do YOU hold it? Kershaw has helped Muller learn about arm action and what he thinks about when hurling certain pitches.

As someone hoping to make the Braves’ starting rotation this season, Muller thinks it’s cool how Kershaw doesn’t seem to be complacent. Analytics have become more prevalent as the veteran’s career has progressed, as have other methods for improvement. Kershaw has embraced them, Muller said.

“I think that’s a really cool thing, too, (that) he hasn’t stopped learning,” Muller said.

Muller is one of a few internal candidates hoping to grab one of the back-end rotation spots. Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson seem like locks for the first three, which leaves two open jobs.

How does Muller approach this competition? Well, he goes back to a lesson he learned in the minor leagues: If you worry about what you can’t control, you’ll go crazy.

“Like why am I not at this level? Why haven’t they called me up? That’s a dark hole you don’t want to get into because you don’t make those decisions, and that starts to affect your play,” he said. “For me, I’ve kind of learned that over the years, that all I can do is focus on what I do every day to give myself the best opportunity to have the people making the decisions make that choice.”

But it’s not easy, he said, to avoid comparing himself to others.

“Especially when you have friends that are other pitchers, they do great but then the first thing that goes through your head is you want to do better,” Muller said. “You’re never rooting for somebody to do that. That’s a bad teammate. I’m friends with all these guys, so I want everybody to do well. I just want to put it on myself to perform better, and I think that’s friendly competition, that’s healthy, that’s good.”

Muller on Sunday pitched two scoreless innings. He allowed a hit and struck out two batters. His fastball sat 96-98 mph, and he said he believes his velocity can tick up from here.

That’s because he made an adjustment over the offseason. He fixed his timing. Instead of trying to throw the ball as hard as he can when he lifts his leg, as he did last season, he’s letting his foot hit the ground to get a solid foundation before he rotates and fires. He said this has allowed it to feel like the ball comes out easier.

It also should allow him to be more consistent. Whereas he was erratic at times last season, when he debuted, he believes he’ll be more under control moving forward.

“Now I’ve got more trust, I’ve got more confidence in myself and what I’ve done this offseason to prepare,” Muller said. “I’m definitely in a better spot mentally and physically, for sure.”

During the season, Muller doesn’t text Kershaw much. He knows the Dodgers lefty has a family and his own business to handle. But when Muller debuted, Kershaw sent him a congratulatory text.

When Muller began devouring professional sports as a kid, he only sought to watch the sport’s top lefty. That’s why Muller began idolizing Kershaw.

That young boy now throws with Kershaw five to six times a week during the offseason.

“He just acts like another guy,” Muller said. “He doesn’t act like he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He knows the success he has, but (he’s) just a great dude.”

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