Tolleson hopes to join childhood friends Kershaw and Walden in the Big Leagues
LOS ANGELES — It would
be understandable if Shawn Tolleson felt a twinge of jealousy every time he
watched Clayton Kershaw pitch last season for the Dodgers. But he insists he
didn’t, not one bit.
Kershaw and Tolleson
have been friends since they played on the same traveling squad as teenagers in
Texas. They were also teammates on the 2005 USA Junior National team.
Then their careers took
Kershaw was a
first-round draft pick by the Dodgers out of high school in Highland Park,
Texas. Tolleson suffered a horrific elbow injury in the first start of his
senior season at Allen High School near Dallas.
Kershaw climbed the
ranks of minor league ball and reached the big leagues in his third year.
Tolleson underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, took two years to
fully recover and accepted a scholarship to pitch at Baylor University.
Kershaw won the Cy Young
Award last season after going 21-5. Tolleson spent his first full season in the
minors last year, starting at low Class A ball.
Tolleson realizes he
could be where Kershaw — and Los Angeles Angels reliever Jordan Walden, another
former traveling club teammate — is now, but he has no regrets.
“They’re both good
friends of mine, so I’m obviously really excited for them,” Tolleson said.
“Everyone takes different paths to get somewhere. I took a different path. I
don’t second-guess one time going to Baylor and getting an education. I learned
a lot there.”
Tolleson, 23, is in town
this week as part of the Dodgers’ winter development program for selected minor
league players. The program gives players a chance to work with coaches and get
a taste of what the big leagues are all about — from finding Dodger Stadium to
navigating the freeways and locating the team hotel.
“It’s huge,” Tolleson
said of the chance to spend a week in LA. “If you get that chance to get called
up, it’s nice to know where you are and have a little bit of a comfort zone
about where things are and where you need to be, that kind of thing.”
Tolleson, the Dodgers’
minor league pitcher of the year last season, may need that knowledge at some
point this season. He’s not on the club’s 40-man roster, but he was impressive
enough last season that team officials already have him on their radar.
draft pick by the Dodgers after playing four seasons at Baylor, Tolleson has
ripped through the minors. He spent a half season at Rookie League Ogden in
2010 and gave up just two earned runs in 28 2/3 innings, striking out 39.
Last year, he moved
quickly from low Class A Great Lakes to high Class A Rancho Cucamonga to
Double-A Chattanooga. Each transition was seamless.
Consider his numbers at
Great Lakes: 1-0 record,
0.00 ERA, 10 saves, 33 strikeouts in 15 innings.
Rancho Cucamonga: 2-0,
0.93 ERA, 3 saves, 17 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings.
Chattanooga: 4-2, 1.62
ERA, 12 saves, 55 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings.
Together, Tolleson had
seven wins, a 1.17 ERA and 25 saves. He struck out an average of 13.7 batters
per nine innings.
“I’ve had to make
adjustments as I go,” he said. “When I first got to Double A, it was a serious
jump in competition. Those players are really good, really talented, and the
hitters have a better idea of what they’re doing. So I had to make a few
adjustments here and there. I had to be a little bit finer with where I place
my fastball, that kind of thing. I’m working on developing a couple of other
pitches that I can throw to left-handers because they’re just going to get
better and better as I keep going up.”
Tolleson made the switch
from starter to reliever after he was drafted, but the Dodgers aren’t currently
in need of a closer. Javy Guerra produced 21 saves and a 2.31 ERA last season
after Jonathan Broxton went down with an injury, and Kenley Jansen proved to
have closer stuff, registering five saves and 96 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings.
But they know Tolleson
is there if they need him.
“Obviously, we’re going
to see more of him,” manager Don Mattingly said. “Right now, we’ve got young
guys here that are pretty good that are scheduled to be in LA. But guys that
are coming up keep knocking on the door, and that’s what you ask them to do,
keep competing, keep pushing our hand, keep making us make tough decisions.
Keep that guy in front of you working, and if he falters, there’s a guy that’s
That’s all Tolleson can
hope for. If he performs well in spring training and continues his pace at
Chattanooga, his likely destination to start the season, he could be the first
name called if injury strikes.
“My mindset is the same
as it’s always been,” he said. “Just go out and pitch as good as you can.
That’s all I can do in the position I’m in. Just go out and get as many outs as
possible. I don’t make the decision, they do.”
Tolleson throws a 95-mph
fastball and a two-seam cutter that has the speed of a slider. But he’s working
on a changeup to keep hitters off balance.
Had it not been for his
elbow injury, Tolleson knows he might be in the majors already. As Kershaw, who
remains his friend and offseason workout partner, told the LA Times last year,
“I have no doubt in my mind he would be in this clubhouse, if not another one.”
But Tolleson figures
he’ll get there soon enough. It just takes time.
“It’s always been my
goal to pitch in the big leagues, and it takes a lot of hard work to get
there,” he said. “I’m not there yet so I’m just doing everything I can to get
there as soon as possible.”