Mapping out Clayton Kershaw's Difficult Road to 300 Career Wins

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Mapping out Clayton Kershaw's Difficult Road to 300 Career Wins
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Clayton Kershaw's quest for 300 career wins can only happen one batter at a time.

When Clayton Kershaw steps on the mound Tuesday night, he'll be after career win No. 64. If the Dodgers lefty, still just 25 years old, is ever going to have a chance to step on the mound to achieve his 300th win, when might that be and how will he get there?

Even though Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson each won their 300th game within the past 10 seasons (see chart below), 300 wins seems like an impossibility these days, a figment of the imagination from decades past, when pitchers would make more starts and throw more innings than they do in today's game.

But given Kershaw's age and success to this point of his still-young career, let's map out a scenario in which he joins the club. 

Fellow MLB Lead Writer Zach Rymer recently considered Kershaw's chances to crack the 4,000-strikeout club. Now let's see how Kershaw's trek to 300 wins might look in a fanciful world where we control his fate.

THE 300-WIN CLUB

Before anything else, here's a reminder of the 24 pitchers who have won 300 or more games in MLB history, so we know what Kershaw is up against.

To provide further context on what Kershaw needs to do, here are the ages at which each pitcher won his 100th, 200th and 300th game:

THE 300-WIN CLUB
PITCHER TOTAL WINS AGE AT 100TH AGE AT 200TH AGE AT 300TH YEAR OF 300TH
Cy Young* 511 26 30 34 1901
Walter Johnson 417 24 27 32 1920
Pete Alexander 373 28 32 37 1924
Christy Mathewson 373 24 27 31 1912
Pud Galvin* 365 25 27 31 1888
Warren Spahn** 363 30 35 40 1961
Kid Nichols* 361 23 26 30 1900
Greg Maddux 355 27 32 38 2004
Roger Clemens 354 27 34 40 2003
Tim Keefe* 342 27 30 33 1890
Steve Carlton 329 27 33 38 1983
John Clarkson* 328 24 27 30 1892
Eddie Plank 326 29 34 39 1915
Nolan Ryan 324 28 35 43 1990
Don Sutton 324 27 33 41 1986
Phil Niekro 318 34 40 46 1985
Gaylord Perry 314 31 36 43 1982
Tom Seaver 311 27 32 40 1985
Old Hoss Radbourn* 309 28 31 36 1891
Mickey Welch* 307 24 26 30 1890
Tom Glavine 305 28 34 41 2007
Randy Johnson 303 32 34 45 2009
Early Wynn*** 300 30 35 43 1963
Lefty Grove 300 30 34 41 1941
AVERAGE AGE -- 27.5 32.0 37.6 --

*Denotes a player who debuted prior to 1900 (the modern era). Of the 24 300-game winners, 17 started their careers in 1900 or later.

**Spahn missed three full seasons in the middle of his career (1943-45) due to military service.

***Wynn missed one full season in the middle of his career (1945) due to military service.

The most important part of that chart is the last row, "Average Age." That provides the benchmarks we should aim for with Kershaw. In short, if 300 wins is a realistic goal—we're using "realistic" here in the loosest possible way—then Kershaw should shoot to have win No. 100 by age 27, win No. 200 by 32 and No. 300 by 38 or so.

That's what we'll use to guide us along Kershaw's quest.

KERSHAW THROUGH AGE 25

Here's where we apply this to Kershaw, who already has two wins in this, his age-25 season. If we conservatively project that he'll win 12 more in 2013—to match his total from last year's 14—then he'll have exactly 75 wins through age 25.

(Quick aside: That has been done by 53 pitchers in the modern era of baseball, and of those 53, only five went on to win 300 for their career. Not exactly promising odds, huh?)

While we're on the topic of the 2013 season, since we're taking liberties with Kershaw's career path, let's just get the whole contract extension out of the way right here. While he is in line to hit free agency after 2014, for the purposes of this piece, Kershaw will be signing a 10-year extension with the Dodgers at some point in the near future. This will dwarft the recent extension Justin Verlander signed to stay with the Tigers at upward of $202 million.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Justin Verlander's $200 million contract is the highest ever given to a pitcher—for now.

Such a contract makes sense for both sides—and helps our perfect-world scenario move along—as the Dodgers have the dough and Kershaw would be able to stay in one of baseball's best pitcher's parks around, which of course, helps him toward his ultimate goal of 300 wins. Plus, being on a team whose owners are willing to spend big to acquire premium talent will only help Kershaw's chances to keep piling up wins.

Okay, back to the task at hand—winning 300 games.

If Kershaw finishes 2013 with 75 career wins, that means he'll have two seasons, at ages 26 and 27, to accrue at least 25 more wins to reach the 100-win mark to keep him on pace for 300 "W"s. Certainly do-able, right? In fact, forget our little world of make-believe, Kershaw might even do better than that in real life.

But what will he have to do to stay on that pace?

KERSHAW IN HIS PRIME

Since Kershaw will turn 26 just before the start of 2014 and the average age of our 300-game winners at No. 300 is almost 38, that gives him 13 seasons or so to rack up those 225 wins—or 17.3 wins per year.

Obviously, Kershaw could pitch a few years beyond his 38th birthday, but by that point, he's going to need to be within, say, 25 wins of 300 to have any sort of realistic shot of getting there in his late-30s or early-40s.

That means Kershaw will need to use the first portion of his prime years to get well on his way to 200 wins by the time he hits the big three-oh, as the chart above reminds us.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
If Kershaw is going to win 300, he'll need a few more seasons like his 21-win 2011, when he won the NL Cy Young.

In fact, Kershaw will have to be at his most productive from 26 through 32 if he wants to make a run at 300. That seems like common sense, since those years typically encompass a pitcher's prime.

Plus, as the chart shows, it took the average 300-game winner fewer than five years to go from win No. 100 to No. 200; whereas it took nearly six years to go from No. 200 to No. 300. Simply put, a pitcher typically has to win the second hundred faster than the third hundred.

Let's paint an optimistic picture here and say Kershaw wins an average of 18 games a year in his prime from ages 26 through 32 (2014-2020). That's 126 wins over those seven seasons, which when added to the 75 we're giving him through 2013, allows Kershaw to cross the 200-win barrier at 201 career double-yoos through age 32.

Whaddaya know? That keeps him right on pace with our chart. So far, so good.

KERSHAW VERSUS THE LAST 100

We've made it here by adopting an optimistic point of view (and perhaps by donning a pair of rose-colored glasses), but this is where a leap of faith is required.

Remember, Kershaw has crossed the 200-win line through age 32, but he's done so by the skin of his teeth at 201, so he'll need to make that up on the back end.

Only 54 pitchers have won at least 99 games after turning age 33, which is the exact win total to get Kershaw to No. 300 and the exact age Kershaw would be at this stage in his mythical career arc.

Now, if we limit the parameters to only since 1969, when MLB adopted divisions, to help make things a little more current, that number is cut in half to 27.

And if we go from 1980 on, well, it's almost lopped in half again: only 14 pitchers have won at least 99 from age 33 on.

Here's how it looks in graph form:

So it can be—and has been—done. In fact, of the 14 to do so since 1980, five have gone on to win 300. Pretty good odds at 36 percent, actually, and in our scenario, Kershaw is going to have to make it six out of 15.

Now, of those five—the five most-recent 300-game winners—Maddux was the youngest to reach No. 300 at 38, whereas Clemens was 40, Glavine was 41, Ryan was 43 and Johnson was 45.

In all likelihood, then, Kershaw won't hit 300 until he's an age that begins with a "4."

Remember, Kershaw is starting with 201 wins entering his age-33 season, so to get 99 wins before he turns 40, that would mean he averages just over 14 wins a year. Probably not happening, right?

But over 10 years, at which point Kershaw would be 42, he would have to average only 10 wins a year, which actually sounds possible, especially if he starts out that post-prime stretch with a 20-win season or two, or at least a few high-teen win-total campaigns.

KERSHAW REINVENTING HIMSELF

As Kershaw ages and loses velocity—both of which are inevitable—there will be the question of whether he can reinvent himself to stay afloat in his mid-to-late-30s and even into his 40s.

Based on what he's done to this point in his career, signs point to yes. Kershaw broke into the majors at 20 years old, throwing primarily a mid-90s fastball and a knee-buckling curve, as FanGraphs' pitch types show.

Hunter Martin/Getty Images
We're not saying Kershaw will have to become Jamie Moyer as he gets older, but that also wouldn't be such a bad thing.

He's since advanced that repertoire to also include one of the game's best sliders and a changeup that's not half-bad, per FanGraphs' pitch type values since 2010.

Given his aptitude for learning and perfecting pitches, it wouldn't be surprising to see Kershaw morph himself from a hard-thrower into a crafty lefty who gets by on poise, guile and an ability to exploit hitters' weaknesses.

A HEALTHY KERSHAW

Of course, this whole script doesn't take into account much in the way of injury, which is an obvious concern for a pitcher. But again, we're trying to get Kershaw to 3-0-0, and if he suffers any sort of severe injury at any point along the way, well, it's not going to happen. So we'll just pretend it won't.

KERSHAW AT 300

So that's how Kershaw gets to 300...

  • Win 12 more games in 2013
  • Average 18 wins a season in his prime from 2014 through 2020
  • Reinvent himself as he enters his mid-30s
  • Close out his career with by a 10-year run of 10 wins on average
  • Stay healthy the entire time

If the real Kershaw can follow the formula drawn up for our fantasy version, that gives him 301 victories in 2030 at age 42.

At which point, Kershaw may be the last 300-game winner. Even in our imaginary world.

 

All statistics come from Baseball Reference, except when otherwise noted.

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