Will he or won’t he? That was the question following Clayton Kershaw into the season’s final week. Entering his start last night against the San Francisco Giants, Kershaw sat 19 strikeouts away from the legendary 300-strikeout club. With an utterly dominant one-hit, 13-strikeout performance, Kershaw moved onto the cusp of becoming the first pitcher in 13 years to strike out over 300 batters in a single season. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling paired up to whiff a combined 650 hitters in 519.1 innings for the 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks.
Since mid-August, I have been tracking Kershaw’s march towards 300. At first, I estimated he would land on 285 on the season’s final day. After a few dominant starts by the Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander, I revisited his progress in early September. By that time, Kershaw had 251 strikeouts and five starts to go. I thought it would be a long shot, but if Kershaw could deliver another 12- or 13-strikeout performance, I thought 300 would happen on the season’s final day against the San Diego Padres. Kershaw’s quest seemed like it would be derailed by Don Mattingly removing him after just 80 pitches last week against the Diamondbacks. Kershaw already had nine strikeouts through five innings, and was none too pleased about leaving the game early.
Kershaw will take the ball in the final game of the season. The NLDS does not start until next Friday, so it would not make sense to skip a start and risk him getting rusty with extra time off between starts. Mattingly will likely keep Kershaw on a short leash once again — five or six innings would seemingly be the maximum. That should be enough time for Kershaw to record six strikeouts against a Padres team playing out the string. In two starts and 12.2 innings against San Diego this year, Kershaw has 20 strikeouts. He could reach 300 by the middle of the third inning. Either way, Mattingly will not remove him from the game before the 300th strikeout is recorded.
The 300-strikeout season has become increasingly rare, especially as pitchers become more specialized and innings are reduced. While hitters strike out more frequently than ever, it takes roughly 240 dominant innings to reach 300 strikeouts. Not many starters in today’s game are capable of combining the durability and dominance required to reach 300 strikeouts. As always, Kershaw stands alone, the class of the league’s starting pitchers. In a season where he will not win the Cy Young Award, Kershaw has still found a way to distance himself from the rest of the league.