This Sunday, Clayton Kershaw has a shot to become the first pitcher to rack up 300 strikeouts in a season since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling turned the trick back in 2002. He needs just six strikeouts to get there, so theoretically he could do it by the end of the second inning. He and his Dodgers brethren will be squaring off against the Padres, one of the strikeout-ingest teams in baseballs this season, so he’s got a real good shot to get there, even if his innings are capped. So let’s for a moment say that he does. How would he stack up against the other members of the 300 K club?
First, how many players are in this club? Thanks for asking: there’s 14. Of the 14, five have done it only once (Bob Feller, Mickey Lolich, Mike Scott, Steve Carlton and Vida Blue) and nine have done it multiple times (Curt Schilling, J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Rube Waddell, Sam McDowell, Sandy Koufax and Walter Johnson). Overall, these 14 players have hit the 300 K mark 33 times. Kershaw would be #34. You can see the whole list, via the Baseball-Reference Play Index, right here.
There are a few ways to look at this. The first one that I always gravitate toward is innings pitched. Back in the day, when there were fewer starting pitchers, guys through a lot of innings. That is no longer the case. Let’s take a look:
Kershaw, as you would expect, would be in the 200-249 category. In fact, if he gets there, he’s locked into the second-lowest innings pitched total of the group — only Pedro Martinez in 1999 threw fewer innings than Kershaw has this season. So, Kershaw’s level of difficulty is higher in the sense that he has had fewer opportunities to actually get the strikeouts.
That sort of plays out when you look at the WAR totals as well. Kershaw is clearly not the leader of the pack, but then he didn’t rack up the innings pitched, so he has less time to accumulate those counting stats. Let’s take a look:
So, Kershaw wouldn’t be the at the bottom of the pack, but he’s not really blowing you away either. Yes, he doesn’t have the innings bulk, but ’99 Pedro didn’t either and he is at the top of this list. Not that we should be comparing anyone to ’99 Pedro, but it’s worth noting.
So, let’s take a look at some ratios.
Much better, right? Should he make it into the 300 K club, he’d rank 12th in ERA- as it stands now. He has room to move up or down, but chances are he’ll end up in or near the top third. He’s even better by FIP-, where he currently ranks fourth. He also places well in both K% and K/9 (included because Waddell and Walter Johnson pitched in the pre-K% era), but while ERA- and FIP- are adjusted stats, the K stats aren’t. So we can’t put as much stock in them.
So, then let’s adjust them, right? As Owen showed us earlier in the year, we can adjust for league pretty easily. I used the specific league in which the player’s team competed in 33 of the 34 cases — the lone exception being Randy Johnson in 1998, when he was traded from the American League to the National League. For him, I just used the MLB league average. Surprisingly, he was the only one for which this needed to be done.
I did this for both K% and K/9. The reason is Waddell and Walter Johnson. On the surface, it looks like Waddell and Johnson — who have four of the six lowest K/9s — don’t merit much consideration. But then I recall Tony Blengino’s piece from last year’s Hardball Times Annual, where he put up Waddell and Johnson as two of the best original power pitchers.
|Player||Year||Lg||Lg K%||K%||K%+||Lg K/9||K/9||K/9+|
Newsflash — it’s easier to strike batters out these days! Something about the size of the strike zone. So when you put these strikeout numbers in context, Kershaw comes out near the bottom. Bottom three in K/9+, and bottom five in K%+. Walter Johnson still grades out in the middle of the pack, but Waddell is right at the top of the pack.
Where does this leave us? Well, first, Kershaw has to get there. He needs those six Ks. Otherwise, he’ll join a few more Randy Johnson and Schilling seasons (and a couple Roger Clemens seasons) in the 290-299 K seasons. Second, the fact that he could be in this club is pretty great. This is a list of the greatest pitchers of all-time. As an overall pitcher (ERA-, FIP-) he grades out as one of the better pitchers in this group. As a strikeout artist, he grades out great in raw stats (K%, K/9) but not in adjusted stats (K%+, K/9+). As a strikeout artist he is a little lacking, but then again, he could be the first one to get into the club in over a decade. That’s pretty cool! Also cool is how, even though Kershaw has recorded basically the same amount of innings as he has in previous years, he’s produced nearly 50 strikeouts more his previous career high. The strike zone isn’t a big excuse here. The strike zone has changed less this year than in years past, so it’s mostly Kershaw. He just keeps finding ways to elevate his game, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.