Clayton Kershaw and Other 300 Strikeout Seasons

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:

Innings Pitched in 300 K Seasons
IP #
350+ 5
300-349 9
250-299 13
200-249 6

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:

WAR in 300 K Seasons
Player Year WAR
Pedro Martinez 1999 11.6
Steve Carlton 1972 11.1
Randy Johnson 2001 10.4
Bob Feller 1946 10
Sandy Koufax 1965 10
Walter Johnson 1910 9.6
Randy Johnson 2000 9.6
Randy Johnson 1999 9.5
Walter Johnson 1912 9.3
Curt Schilling 2002 9.3
Rube Waddell 1904 9.2
Sandy Koufax 1963 9.2
Sandy Koufax 1966 9.1
J.R. Richard 1979 8.9
Vida Blue 1971 8.8
Nolan Ryan 1973 8.7
Sam McDowell 1965 8.7
Mike Scott 1986 8.6
Pedro Martinez 1997 8.5
Clayton Kershaw 2015 8.4
Mickey Lolich 1971 8.3
Curt Schilling 1998 8.3
Curt Schilling 1997 8.2
Randy Johnson 2002 8.1
Rube Waddell 1903 8.0
Sam McDowell 1970 7.6
Randy Johnson 1998 7.6
Randy Johnson 1993 7.0
Nolan Ryan 1989 7.0
Nolan Ryan 1977 6.6
J.R. Richard 1978 6.4
Nolan Ryan 1974 6.3
Nolan Ryan 1972 5.4
Nolan Ryan 1976 5.3

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.

Ratio Stats in 300 K Seasons
Player Year ERA- FIP- K% K/9
Pedro Martinez 1999 42 31 37.5% 13.20
Randy Johnson 2001 55 47 37.4% 13.41
Randy Johnson 2000 56 53 34.7% 12.56
Randy Johnson 1999 53 59 33.7% 12.06
Clayton Kershaw 2015 57 53 33.5% 11.55
Randy Johnson 1998 72 65 32.4% 12.12
Randy Johnson 2002 54 61 32.3% 11.56
Pedro Martinez 1997 45 57 32.2% 11.37
Curt Schilling 1997 69 61 31.6% 11.29
Curt Schilling 2002 75 55 31.1% 10.97
Nolan Ryan 1989 81 66 30.5% 11.32
Randy Johnson 1993 74 71 29.5% 10.86
Sandy Koufax 1965 63 63 29.5% 10.24
Sam McDowell 1965 63 57 29.1% 10.71
Mike Scott 1986 63 61 28.7% 10.00
Nolan Ryan 1972 79 82 28.5% 10.43
Nolan Ryan 1973 79 69 28.3% 10.57
Curt Schilling 1998 76 64 27.5% 10.05
Nolan Ryan 1976 100 85 27.3% 10.35
Nolan Ryan 1977 71 79 26.8% 10.26
J.R. Richard 1978 94 75 26.6% 9.90
J.R. Richard 1979 78 61 26.6% 9.64
Nolan Ryan 1974 85 84 26.4% 9.93
Sandy Koufax 1963 62 62 25.3% 8.86
Sandy Koufax 1966 53 67 24.9% 8.83
Vida Blue 1971 56 65 24.9% 8.68
Sam McDowell 1970 75 74 24.2% 8.97
Bob Feller 1946 65 66 23.0% 8.43
Steve Carlton 1972 56 60 22.9% 8.06
Mickey Lolich 1971 83 78 20.0% 7.37
Rube Waddell 1903 80 62 8.39
Rube Waddell 1904 61 63 8.20
Walter Johnson 1910 56 54 7.61
Walter Johnson 1912 42 64 7.39

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.

K%+ & K/9+ in 300 K Seasons
Player Year Lg Lg K% K% K%+ Lg K/9 K/9 K/9+
Nolan Ryan 1976 AL 12.4% 27.3% 220 4.71 10.35 220
Rube Waddell 1903 AL 3.86 8.39 217
Pedro Martinez 1999 AL 15.7% 37.5% 239 6.24 13.20 212
Nolan Ryan 1973 AL 13.2% 28.3% 214 5.10 10.57 207
Nolan Ryan 1989 AL 14.3% 30.5% 213 5.48 11.32 207
Nolan Ryan 1977 AL 13.0% 26.8% 206 5.00 10.26 205
Nolan Ryan 1974 AL 12.9% 26.4% 205 4.91 9.93 202
Rube Waddell 1904 AL 4.08 8.20 201
Bob Feller 1946 AL 11.0% 23.0% 209 4.25 8.43 198
J.R. Richard 1978 NL 13.5% 26.6% 197 5.14 9.90 193
Randy Johnson 2001 NL 18.0% 37.4% 208 6.99 13.41 192
Nolan Ryan 1972 AL 14.7% 28.5% 194 5.50 10.43 190
Randy Johnson 1993 AL 14.8% 29.5% 199 5.76 10.86 189
J.R. Richard 1979 NL 13.4% 26.6% 199 5.12 9.64 188
Randy Johnson 2000 NL 17.1% 34.7% 203 6.75 12.56 186
Randy Johnson 1998 MLB 16.9% 32.4% 192 6.61 12.12 183
Walter Johnson 1910 AL 4.21 7.61 181
Randy Johnson 1999 NL 17.0% 33.7% 198 6.69 12.06 180
Sam McDowell 1965 AL 15.8% 29.1% 184 5.96 10.71 180
Walter Johnson 1912 AL 4.25 7.39 174
Sandy Koufax 1965 NL 15.7% 29.5% 188 5.93 10.24 173
Randy Johnson 2002 NL 17.5% 32.3% 185 6.77 11.56 171
Mike Scott 1986 NL 15.7% 28.7% 183 6.00 10.00 167
Pedro Martinez 1997 NL 17.7% 32.2% 182 6.89 11.37 165
Curt Schilling 1997 NL 17.7% 31.6% 179 6.89 11.29 164
Curt Schilling 2002 NL 17.5% 31.1% 178 6.77 10.97 162
Vida Blue 1971 AL 14.3% 24.9% 174 5.42 8.68 160
Sam McDowell 1970 AL 14.8% 24.2% 164 5.65 8.97 159
Sandy Koufax 1966 NL 15.2% 24.9% 164 5.76 8.83 153
Sandy Koufax 1963 NL 15.7% 25.3% 161 5.90 8.86 150
Curt Schilling 1998 NL 17.5% 27.5% 157 6.80 10.05 148
Clayton Kershaw 2015 NL 20.6% 33.5% 163 7.85 11.55 147
Steve Carlton 1972 NL 14.9% 22.9% 154 5.65 8.06 143
Mickey Lolich 1971 AL 14.3% 20.0% 140 5.42 7.37 136

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.

We hoped you liked reading Clayton Kershaw and Other 300 Strikeout Seasons by Paul Swydan!

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Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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1999 Pedro was a slice of something special.