Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw joined an exclusive club on Wednesday night. In the long run, it could prove to be a notable step in his journey to an even more exclusive club.
Heading into his start against the San Diego Padres, Kershaw was sitting on 999 career strikeouts. He got career strikeout No. 1,000 when he punched out Yonder Alonso in the second inning, and there was much rejoicing at Dodger Stadium.
I must tip my cap to Jon Weisman of DodgerThoughts.com for reminding me that Kershaw's 1,000th strikeout was coming and for pointing out the significance of it. That would be that Kershaw is only 25 years old, making him just the 16th pitcher in history to get to 1,000 career strikeouts by his age-25 season.
You can see the full list at Baseball-Reference.com. Not featured in it: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Steve Carlton—the only four members of baseball's 4,000-strikeout club. Kershaw is ahead of their pace.
But can Kershaw eventually break into the highly exclusive 4,000-strikeout club? Let me check my crystal ball real quick.
[Begins to stand. Realizes he doesn't have a crystal ball. Sits back down.]
And by "check my crystal ball," what I really mean is that we have to do some math.
His Wednesday-night start not included, the rest-of-season ZiPS projections from FanGraphs calls for 216 more strikeouts for Kershaw's 2013 campaign. That would put him at 241 strikeouts for the season and 1,215 for his career.
Then Kershaw would just need 2,785 more strikeouts to crack the 4,000-strikeout plateau. The quick math says that's fewer than 200 per season over a 14-year period.
This obviously sounds simple, but it would require Kershaw to A) enjoy a long career, and B) remain an above-average strikeout pitcher for the duration of it.
Kershaw was sitting on 967.1 career innings heading into Wednesday night's start. That doesn't even put him close to the top of the rankings among left-handers through the age of 25, which is good. Relative to past left-handers, Kershaw hasn't been too overworked so far.
Barring injury, things are going to look a little different by the end of the season, however. Kershaw is projected to pitch 204 innings the rest of the way, which would put him at 227.1 for the season and 1,171.1 for his career.
That would place Kershaw just ahead of CC Sabathia on the above list, and there would be no modern pitcher ahead of Kershaw. In light of his age group and the workload expected from modern pitchers, he's poised to have a lot of innings on his arm.
That's not a good thing working in his favor. Pitchers break, and the more innings they put on their arms, the more likely they are to break.
The big question: Precisely how many more innings would Kershaw have to put on his arm to get to 4,000 strikeouts?
Well, Kershaw's career K/9 is 9.3, and there hasn't been a whole lot of fluctuation in his strikeout rates in his young career. Since his first full season in 2009, his K/9 has been consistently over 9.0.
Since we're assuming that Kershaw is going to be sitting on roughly 1,215 strikeouts at the end of the season, then he'd need to pitch a little over 2,700 more innings while maintaining a K/9 of roughly 9.3 to get the 2,785 strikeouts he'd need to join the 4,000-strikeout club.
The good news is that a left-hander pitching 2,700 innings after 25 is not unheard of. The list of guys includes Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer, Tom Glavine, David Wells, Kenny Rogers and Chuck Finley.
The not-so-good news? That would be the fact that only one left-hander in history has maintained a K/9 over 9.0 over at least 2,000 innings following his age-25 season—none other than the Big Unit himself. He was a freak of nature, so asking the same from Kershaw is asking a lot.
For that matter, asking Kershaw to maintain his current strikeout talents well into the future is asking a lot. None of the other pitchers who notched 1,000 strikeouts by their age-25 season managed to do it:
The one exception here is Felix Hernandez, and he's not really an exception. His age-25 season was in 2011. We're now only in 2013. It's way too early to tell what kind of strikeout pitcher King Felix is going to be throughout the rest of his career.
Let's assume that the 2011 Cy Young is going to end up being more like these guys and less like the Big Unit. And let's naturally assume his K/9 rate is going to drop as he gets older. What then?
Well, fewer strikeouts per inning would require more innings to get to 4,000 career strikeouts. If Kershaw's K/9 were to drop to 8.0, he'd need to pitch over 3,100 additional innings after 2013 to join the club.
As it is, Kershaw is facing a long road to 4,000 strikeouts even if he keeps up his strikeout rate.
Since he's a pitcher, it's a fair bet that he's going to run into his share of peril before his career is done. Depending on the peril, his career could potentially come to a premature end.
Hence the reason I wouldn't bet the farm on him getting to 4,000 career strikeouts. As brilliant as the Dodgers ace is, there's a darn good reason that the club has so few members. Getting there is next to impossible.
But if you want to bet a nickel or two on Kershaw getting there, well, you could do worse things with your nickels. Among contemporary pitchers who look like they could be destined for all-time greatness, Clayton Kershaw's name is near the top of the list.
Him getting to 4,000 strikeouts is not likely. But with his talent, nothing's impossible.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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