Clayton Kershaw and 300 Strikeouts

Talk to any player in baseball and that player will tell you the most important thing is winning. That player will tell you he doesn’t care if he goes 0-for-4 if his team still wins the game. That isn’t always all true, but winning tends to be the priority, and at least in the moment, players don’t care so much about the numbers. It’s one of the many differences between baseball players and baseball fans. Players just want to go to the park and have their team get the job done. Fans want to consume as much baseball as they can, and that’s where the stats come in, to fill the void in between baseball games. Each day, a game entertains for three hours. That means numbers could conceivably entertain for 21 hours, given a particularly unhealthy individual.

Many of the best players in baseball are almost as entertaining on paper as they are on the field. Barry Bonds‘ player pages continue to amaze to this day, even though his career has been over for years. Clayton Kershaw is turning into a sort of pitcher version. Kershaw goes above and beyond what his own team would deem necessary. There’s no need for Kershaw to be this good. The Dodgers would still win if he were a little bit worse, but he’s not a little bit worse, so the numbers are like a toy box. If you want to observe Clayton Kershaw, and he’s not actively pitching, you can get by from looking at his statistics, because they’re like the numerical version of a perfectly-located curveball.

Kershaw pitched on Wednesday. He faced a lineup of players all worse than him, and he was something close to perfect, striking the hitters out 15 times. What that meant, for Kershaw, is that the Dodgers won a game against a division rival. What it means, for us: Kershaw has positioned himself to have a shot at 300 strikeouts.

I doubt that Kershaw really cares. I doubt that he’s thought about it. These thresholds are almost entirely for the fans and for the writers, but 300 strikeouts is a big one. There’s one person who’s asked me a few times in my chats whether I think we’ll ever see another 300-strikeout pitcher. I’ve been skeptical. I’m still skeptical, at least as far as this Kershaw is concerned, but the probability is increasing. As Jeff Passan noted:

Let’s think about this. 300 strikeouts for 2015 Clayton Kershaw? Kershaw doesn’t much care, but we’re our own people, and we get to choose what we care about. I’m choosing to care about this.

Passan was right about a few things. Kershaw, right now, has 251 strikeouts. He’s done that in 27 starts. Indeed, no one has reached 300 since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, as teammates, in 2002. Johnson also got there in 2001, and 2000, and 1999, and 1998. (And 1993.) Mix in some Pedro Martinez, and you have all the guys who’ve done it since Nolan Ryan in 1989. A few years ago, Yu Darvish got to 277. David Price, last year, got to 271. Pseudo-threats. Kershaw’s threat feels a little more real.

But I’m afraid Passan might be wrong about one thing. That one thing — “at least six starts left.” Doesn’t appear that way. Mike Bolsinger is about to start, having just been promoted, and no starter’s being skipped. Here’s how I figure Kershaw’s upcoming schedule:

  • 9/8 vs. Angels
  • 9/14 vs. Rockies
  • 9/20 vs. Pirates
  • 9/25 vs. Rockies
  • 9/30 vs. Giants

That’s five starts. October 4 is the Dodgers’ final regular-season game. Maybe Kershaw moves up on account of there being a few remaining off days, but that would be aggressive for a team that presently doesn’t need to be, and it would line Kershaw up to pitch in the final series against the Padres. That’s a start I’d be a little surprised if the Dodgers don’t skip. Especially if it’s on the last day. The Dodgers right now have a 6.5-game lead on second place. They’re probably not going to lose it. Odds are, the final series won’t really mean anything, and Kershaw will be rested so as to make sure he’s fresh to begin the NLDS. If he weren’t skipped completely — and, as I look at it, Zack Greinke wasn’t skipped last season — he’d be limited to a shorter, low-stress outing.

Ordinarily, one start isn’t a big deal, but right now Kershaw is 49 strikeouts away from 300, and there’s a big difference between having five or six chances to collect them. It’s the difference between 9.8 strikeouts per start, and 8.2. For the record, this year, Kershaw has averaged 9.3. If he were to have another six starts, he’d have a real good chance. With five starts more probable, our odds get slimmer.

Right now, again, Kershaw is at 251. Just plugging in rest-of-season projections, over five starts, you get him ending up at 289. Plug in what he’s actually done this season against those opponents above, and you get him ending up at 290. Plug in just his overall season averages and you get him ending up at 297. Oh, but that one is achingly close. Three away. It’s almost enough to convince a manager to give Kershaw a few innings of relief against the Padres, just to get there. If the manager cared about the numbers. Which he probably doesn’t. But maybe!

Looking at those same opponents, over the last month, to capture what they’ve been up to — none of them have been super high-strikeout teams. The Rockies have ranked 11th in descending order of strikeout rate. The Giants, 14th. The Pirates, 19th. The Angels, 24th. That doesn’t say anything about their performances against just lefties, and Kershaw is more than just some lefty, but there aren’t any swing-and-miss pushovers.

It is September. Rosters are expanding. For some teams, they’re just playing out the string. The Rockies are totally out of it, so maybe they’ll be easier to dismiss. Kershaw’s perhaps going to see them twice. The Giants might well be out of it by the end of the month, although, they’re still the Giants, playing against the Dodgers, so that won’t be a meaningless game, even if it’s a meaningless game. The Angels are alive. The Pirates are secure, but still playing hard.

Here’s another way to look at it, just staying focused on Kershaw. Kershaw needs 49 strikeouts for 300. He’s made 27 starts, so he’s had 23 five-start stretches. Over seven of those 23 stretches has he recorded at least 49 strikeouts. He’s topped out at 54. Over two more stretches, he’s recorded 48 strikeouts, which would qualify as a weird sort of heartbreaking in this instance. Just looking at 7 over 23, that would give Kershaw a 30% chance at reaching 300. Maybe it’s really more like 25%, or 20%, or 15%. You have to think about the opponents, and some possible regression toward the mean. But the chance is real, if relatively unlikely.

Let’s try the same simple math, but now figuring that Kershaw actually has another six starts. This year, he’s had 22 six-start stretches. Over 17 of those stretches has he recorded at least 49 strikeouts. That would put his odds at 77%. Again, probably high, but you get a sense of the importance of that sixth start. Not actual importance, but importance for these purposes. The sixth start might well be the whole difference between reaching the milestone, and falling just short.

And so here’s where we see how the numbers and the Dodgers might be in conflict. If you want to see Kershaw reach 300 strikeouts, you really want him to have another six starts. If Kershaw has to make that sixth start, it’s probably because something has gone wrong, and the Dodgers have slipped back close to the Giants. So close that they can’t afford to rest Kershaw with the future in mind. For the Dodgers, five starts would be good news. It means things finish easy. Six starts could also be good news, but it introduces the possibility of bad news. If the Dodgers get their way, they can spend the last weeks of the season partially resting up, and if that means Kershaw doesn’t get his 300th strikeout, so be it — they have bigger fish to fry. The number, ultimately, is important only to us, and maybe to Kershaw’s grandkids when he’s very old and very retired.

So, you pick what you want. The Dodgers will operate independent of that. Maybe Kershaw gets those six starts, and his 300th strikeout. Or, perhaps, he’ll get there in just five. Or four. Don’t count out four. Guy’s a freak.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Matt
7 years ago

NLDS game 1 is October 9th, so Kershaw could make his final start on the 4th and still be on regular rest for the NLDS. Since they likely wouldn’t want him going 10 days between games, I wouldn’t be shocked to see them give him the start and let him go 5 or 6 innings just to let him stay busy.