With Vintage Form, Clayton Kershaw Joins the 200-Win Club

Clayton Kershaw
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Clayton Kershaw didn’t need his 200th career win to burnish his Hall of Fame credentials, but on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, in his first start with the milestone within reach, he secured it in brilliant fashion. In an outing bookended by his pitching out of jams, Kershaw tossed seven scoreless innings against the Mets, a team he has utterly dominated throughout his career.

In securing the milestone, Kershaw joined Justin Verlander (244 wins), Zack Greinke (223), and Max Scherzer (203) among active pitchers, and Hall of Famers Don Sutton and Don Drysdale as those who won at least their first 200 games as Dodgers. He became the 121st pitcher in major league history to reach the plateau, and just the 13th to do so entirely with one team:

Before we go further, it’s time for the usual caveat about pitcher wins: Regular readers know that I generally avoid dwelling upon the stat, because in this increasingly specialized era, they owe as much to adequate offensive, defensive, and bullpen support as they do to a pitcher’s own performance. While one doesn’t need to know how many wins a pitcher amassed in a season or a career to appreciate his true value — and single-season totals in particular can be wildly misleading — those totals do affect the popular perceptions of their careers and still carry a certain cachet among players.

If you needed proof of that last point, note the rare show of on-field emotion from Kershaw after ending his night by striking out Tommy Pham with two on in the seventh inning:

Note also that the Dodgers held a champagne toast in honor of the ace lefty after the game, though for Kershaw, this was all about teammates, past and present. Via The Athletic:

“The goal is to win,” he said. “That’s why tonight is really cool. Because it’s a team stat, a win. So for me to be able to do that 200 times, is just a product of being on some great teams. That’s why I really like tonight and that’s pretty cool.

“As far as reflecting, I’m not the greatest at that, either. But being able to think back about the different groups of guys that I’ve played with, the different division titles that we’ve won, the different regular seasons and all these things, to be able to have this many wins is just a byproduct of all those people that I got to play with. Once again, thankful to be part of this organization, really. That’s all tonight comes down to.”

On Tuesday night, the 35-year-old southpaw — trust me, those of us who remember him at 19, introducing Vin Scully and the rest of us to Public Enemy Number One, are particularly alarmed at his age — almost immediately had to pick up one of his teammates. Brandon Nimmo scorched his fourth pitch of the game 102.5 mph to right field, where a backpedaling Jason Heyward gloved the ball but didn’t catch it before falling over. Nimmo sped to third on the error, but Kershaw stranded him there by striking out Starling Marte, Francisco Lindor, and Pete Alonso, the first two on big curveballs and the last on a foul-tipped fastball. Good morning, good afternoon, and good night.

Facing Tylor Megill, the Dodgers quickly rewarded Kershaw with a two-run cushion through a Freddie Freeman single and a J.D. Martinez homer; he added a solo shot in the third inning. Staked to that 3–0 lead, Kershaw cruised, allowing just one baserunner from the second through sixth innings on a one-out single by Lindor in the fourth. He didn’t need more than 13 pitches in any of those innings and entered the seventh with a pitch count of just 73.

From that point, things got more difficult. Kershaw hadn’t gone to a single three-ball count over his first six innings, but he did so three times against the five batters he faced in the seventh; of the 33 foul balls the Mets hit off him, 11 of them occurred in that frame. He needed nine pitches to strike out Lindor for a second time, whiffing him with a high slider. While he came back to strike out Alonso on just three pitches, capped by another slider, Mark Canha fought him off for 13 pitches — including seven fouls in a row once the count went full — before blooping a single into right field.

Jeff McNeil followed with a first-pitch single to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Pham. Kershaw fell behind 2–0 before battling to a full count, then finished his 105-pitch outing by getting Pham to chase a slider at the bottom of the zone. It was his ninth strikeout of the night and 2,833rd for his career, moving him past Mickey Lolich for 22nd all-time. The moment called for some celebration and catharsis:

For the night, Kershaw netted 19 whiffs, 12 via the slider and five via the curve; the Mets chased 18 of the 33 breaking balls he threw outside the zone. He allowed just four hard-hit balls all night, three by Nimmo, but none of them were barreled. Only on that first-inning error did a Met reach base on a hard-hit ball. Classic Kershaw.

The outing was his strongest of the season, surpassing his first start against the Diamondbacks on April 1, when he allowed just one run in six innings and struck out nine. He entered Tuesday night’s game with an uncharacteristically high 3.75 ERA and 4.44 FIP, but lowered those numbers to 2.52 and 3.39, respectively. He remained undefeated against the Mets for his regular-season career, running his record to 11–0 with a 2.03 ERA and 2.74 FIP (the Mets did beat him in the 2015 Division Series opener).

Now in his 16th major league season, Kershaw is on his second one-year contract in a row, having spent time after the 2021 and ’22 seasons assessing whether or not he had the will to keep playing and the desire to return to the Dodgers. Fortunately, he’s answered that affirmatively both times, maintaining a philosophy that hints that he won’t stick around just for the sake of pitching into his 40s: “Commit what you can commit to fully.”

There’s little doubt Kershaw can still do what he does at a high level. While he made just 22 starts for the second year in a row in 2022, landing on the injured list twice due to back injuries — the sixth and seventh times that’s been the case in the past nine seasons — he posted a 2.28 ERA and 2.57 FIP, his lowest full-season marks since 2016. He made the NL All-Star team for the first time since 2019, started his first All-Star Game (at Dodger Stadium, no less), and twice threw seven perfect innings, something no other pitcher had done in the post-1960 expansion era.

Had he decided to hang up his spikes after last year, Kershaw would have fallen short of both 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts (he finished last season with 2,807), but with an MVP award, three Cy Young awards, nine All-Star selections, a World Series ring, and the no. 23 ranking among starting pitchers in S-JAWS, he’d have sailed into Cooperstown on the 2028 ballot with ease nonetheless. In doing so, he would have become just the second postwar starting pitcher with fewer than 200 wins to get elected after — you guessed it — Sandy Koufax, the yardstick against whom he’s inevitably measured. Koufax won 165 games in his 12-year career (1955–66).

As for 200, it’s an increasingly rare milestone, in large part due to all of the trends toward reduced pitcher workloads that I’ve documented in this space over the years. Since Verlander’s 200th win in 2018, only three pitchers have retired having achieved the mark: CC Sabathia (251), Bartolo Colon (247), and Jon Lester (200). Adam Wainwright, who’s sitting on 195 wins as he works his way back from a groin injury, should get there this season.

As for who’s next, you may want to make yourself comfortable, because it’s going to be awhile. To that end, I asked Dan Szymborski to supply me with the ZiPS odds for active pitchers when it comes to reaching the major wins milestones — not just 200, but also 150, 250, and 300.

Active Pitchers’ Chances at Career Wins Milestones
Pitcher Age Wins 150 200 250 300
Justin Verlander 40 244 100% 100% 99% 5%
Clayton Kershaw 35 199 100% 100% 48% 12%
Zack Greinke 39 223 100% 100% 33% 1%
Max Scherzer 38 203 100% 100% 10% 0%
Adam Wainwright 41 195 100% 90% 0% 0%
Gerrit Cole 32 134 96% 53% 22% 7%
Julio Urías 26 52 82% 51% 18% 4%
Max Fried 29 55 64% 26% 8% 1%
Shohei Ohtani 28 30 52% 25% 11% 1%
Chris Sale 34 115 47% 24% 0% 0%
Aaron Nola 30 79 57% 22% 7% 1%
Dylan Cease 27 38 51% 18% 3% 0%
Logan Webb 26 31 54% 15% 9% 1%
Corbin Burnes 28 37 41% 15% 3% 0%
Shane McClanahan 26 26 53% 14% 8% 0%
Madison Bumgarner 33 134 54% 12% 1% 0%
Carlos Rodón 29 56 51% 11% 1% 0%
Jacob deGrom 35 83 18% 8% 0% 0%
Shane Bieber 28 55 50% 7% 1% 0%
Johnny Cueto 37 143 94% 2% 0% 0%
Lance Lynn 36 123 54% 2% 0% 0%
Cole Hamels 39 163 100% 1% 0% 0%

When Dan ran a similar query in 2018, Kershaw had a 31% chance at 300, Verlander 29%, Greinke 21%, and Scherzer 16%. Wainwright, who had been limited to eight starts that year due to ongoing elbow inflammation in the wake of surgery the previous fall, was given just a 5% chance of reaching 200 wins; Sale (80%) and Rick Porcello (73%) were almost sure things on the level of Kershaw (83%). Roughly speaking, ZiPS estimated at the time that the then-current crop of pitchers would yield two 300-game winners, eight 250-game winners, and 16 200-game winners, figures that we both agreed felt on the high side. “[T]he ZiPS machine isn’t sensitive enough to this current moment in decreasing workloads to be as pessimistic as I am, and rewiring it on a moment’s notice to suit my perceptions wasn’t an option,” I wrote.

While the returns aren’t entirely complete, that pessimism proved to be well-founded, not only due to reduced workloads but also injuries (the Tommy John surgeries of Verlander, Sale, and Cueto, Hamels’ litany of shoulder problems, Stephen Strasburg’s physical collapse, and so on) as well as the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, which according to Dan “cost every top starter 8–12 wins or so.” Via his numbers, the expected yield for all current pitchers is 0.4 300-game winners (and only a 21% chance that anyone active besides Kershaw reaches that plateau), 3.1 250-game winners, and 10.3 200-game winners.

Looking at the table above, which I’ve sorted by odds of reaching 200 wins, though you can do so by any of the columns, a few things stick out. Of the 18 pitchers who haven’t reached 200, only one of the four besides Wainwright who is at least halfway there has more than a 12% chance of making it: Cole. Meanwhile, Urías is the only other pitcher with better than a coinflip’s chance of reaching 200. The 12 pitchers whose odds of reaching 200 range from 10% to 89% average 29 years in age but just 65.6 wins, less than one-third of what’s needed; the heavy lifting is still to come. The contrast between the two pitchers tied at 134 wins — just past two-thirds of the way there — is particularly jarring; Cole, a perennial Cy Young contender, has odds about four and a half times better than Bumgarner, who’s being sent to the hill every five days based on his salary and past glory more than his present capabilities.

All of which should make Kershaw’s achievement stand out even more. Two hundred wins is by no means the best measure of his success; for that we can point to his 28th-ranked fWAR (73.9) and 29th-ranked bWAR (76.6), his through-age-35 rankings in both (10th in fWAR, 16th in bWAR), or his S-JAWS and strikeout rankings. He’s one of the all-time greats, and perhaps his generation’s best. Particularly given that we don’t know how much longer he’ll keep doing this, we should take every opportunity to savor his accomplishments.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Alex Remingtonmember
1 year ago

I completely agree with the first sentence – Clayton Kershaw was already a Hall of Famer long before this. But I’m curious: just how long ago did Clayton Kershaw become a clear Hall of Famer? At what point did his continuing brilliance become just icing on the cake?

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Well, he only surpassed Andy Pettitte in career WAR midway through 2021!!!

But I’d probably say 2017…when he appeared in his 10th MLB season, and became eligible.

He finished that season with 64.3 RA9-WAR, and a 53.2 RA9-WAR7…good for 58.7 RA9-JAWS in under 2000 IP!!!!

1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Honestly, probably after the 2014 season. At that point, he had already banked 3 CYAs, 4 ERA titles, 1 MVP, and led the NL 2x in wins. If he just started 1 game in each of the next 3 seasons to get the 10 year HOF eligibility, he probably gets the Koufax treatment and gets elected.

Last edited 1 year ago by jgrub7
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

This brings to mind a past fangraphs article about when Adrian Beltre became a hall of famer in the eyes of the public, the conclusion was it was a couple years into his seasons with Texas iirc