Clayton Kershaw has built himself quite the nice little résumé after eight seasons in the Major Leagues — three Cy Youngs, an MVP, five All-Star games, three strikeout crowns, two sub-2.00 ERA seasons, and two twenty-win seasons. He’s also thrown a no-hitter and 11 career shutouts. This year, he’s giving us another fine season. After a bumpy April that saw his ERA inflated mostly by bad luck, Kershaw is on track to turn in another sub-2.00 ERA season. He will likely lead the league in shutouts and FIP, and holds a wide margin in strikeouts and K/9.
Despite all of the accomplishments and accolades, there is one thing missing from Kershaw’s resume that would vault him into the pantheon of greatest pitchers of all-time — a 300-strikeout season.
Three-hundred strikeout seasons are incredibly rare in baseball history. We have not seen one since 2002 when Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both reached 300 for the Arizona Diamondbacks. In baseball’s modern era, there have been only 33 300-strikeouts seasons, and they are largely owned by Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez, Johnson, and Schilling. That group has combined for 20 of the 33 seasons. Reaching the 300-whiff mark takes utter dominance and endurance from a starting pitcher. It takes roughly 240 innings striking out batters at a clip of 11.3 per nine to even have a shot at sniffing 300. Very few pitchers are capable of reaching either level in today’s game. Hitters take more pitches, so strikeouts often last five or six pitches, and managers are more comfortable turning the game over to their bullpen in the seventh inning thanks to the influx of young power arms that are taking the late innings by storm.
Despite all of the factors working against him, Clayton Kershaw actually has a shot at reaching the 300-strikeout club this year. Through 23 starts, he has struck out 205 hitters, good for an 11.4 K/9 rate. At that current pace, he would need to pitch at least 237 innings to get to 300, so let’s say 240.0 innings is the magic number. His career high in innings is 236.0, set in 2013. Looking at the schedule, if the rotation plays out as expected the rest of the year, Kershaw will get nine more starts. In those nine starts, he will need to strikeout just under 11 per game. On the year, Kershaw already has six games with more than 11 strikeouts. At his current innings total of 162.0, Kershaw is 78.0 innings away from the 240.0 mark.
Clayton Kershaw is good, but expecting him to throw a complete game and strikeout 11 in each of his final nine starts is asking a lot. He does, however, have five double-digit strikeout performances this year that came in starts lasting seven innings or less. It’s not totally out of the question, but Kershaw is really going to have to work to get to 300. The schedule could also work in Kershaw’s favor, as six of his final nine starts come against teams with losing records. Two of the teams with winning records he will face — the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago Cubs — strike out a lot as well.
Here’s a breakdown of the opponents Kershaw will face the rest of the year:
[table caption=”Kershaw’s Remaining Starts”]
Opponent,Opponent K/Game,Opponent K against LHP,Opponent BAA against LHP,Kershaw K/9 against Opponent,2015 High
San Diego Padres,8.36,229,0.228,9.0,11
Los Angeles Angels,7.26,200,0.236,9.1,7
San Francisco Giants,6.95,207,0.262,9.2,9
Judging by the remaining schedule, Kershaw has at least a puncher’s chance at reaching 300 strikeouts. None of the teams he will face the rest of the year hit left-handers particularly well, except for Arizona, who did tag Kershaw for five runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on April 11. Kershaw will benefit from facing the Rockies twice, a team that he has recorded two double-digit strikeout games against this season. Facing the Padres and Rockies in September after call-ups have been made won’t hurt his cause, either.
It’s still quite a stretch to predict with much certainty that Clayton Kershaw will reach 300 strikeouts this season. To do it, he will need a few 13 or 14 strikeout games. He does have two such games this year, but those are still hard to come by. The Dodgers do have a somewhat comfortable 3.5 game lead on the Giants in second place in the division. If that lead shrinks in September, Kershaw may draw an extra start or two if the Dodgers choose to tighten up their rotation, but that’s still unlikely to happen. In the end, Kershaw probably comes up just short of 300 strikeouts — around 285 seems reasonable.
What’s also not unreasonable to expect, is Kershaw adding a fourth Cy Young to his collection. That’s going to happen.