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April 26, 2023


            A week ago when Clayton Kershaw reached 200 Career Wins there were a spate of commentators tatoring about whether or not any pitcher would ever again win 300 games.

            As a young’un I wrote some articles for The Baseball Digest, and I wrote one entitled 300 Game Winners:  There is Going to be a Flood.  That was 1977.  They would not print it, and the editor, John Kuenstler, wrote me a letter explaining why I was wrong.   I should have saved that kind of stuff.  For all I know maybe I did; it could be around here somewhere, maybe in one of the storage lockers. 

            Anyway, I wrote that article in response to wide, general comments by many people that there would never be another 300 game winner.   Early Wynn, after wynning his 300th in 1963, had predicted that he would be the last, and. . .well, there is a bias in the media toward believing that whatever happened recently must inevitably happen again, and that whatever hasn’t happened in the last ten years can absolutely never happen again. 

I tend toward the opposite bias.  When Sports Illustrated did an article about me in 1981, taking pictures of me sitting on the field at Royals Stadium, they asked for something to put on the scoreboard behind me.   I chose something like, forget the exact wording, but something like "there is a 98% chance that some active player will break Lou Brock’s career stolen base record."   Same thing; I was speaking up for the opposite bias.

            So here we are again, people saying there will never be another 300 game winner, so I had to take a look at that.  Fluke events cannot be predicted.  Natural outcomes generally can.  Natural outcomes have precursors.  Smoking is a precursor to cancer.  Spring flowers on fruit trees are a precursor to fruit.  Sex is a precursor to pregnancy.  Winning 250 games is a precursor to winning 300.  Winning 200 is a precursor to 250.   In regard to the 300-game winners, there were five 300-game winners in the 1980s, and there were many precursors to that in the 1970s.  I wouldn’t have guessed that Don Sutton would win 300, or Phil Niekro; I would probably have guessed Ferguson Jenkins, Catfish Hunter or Jim Palmer, but the precursors were there.   All you had to do to see what would happen was to count the precursors. 

            My conclusion here, looking at the precursors, is that the statement that there will be no more 300-game winners from now on is premature, but there is little or no reason to believe that it is wrong.   Let’s line up the precursors. 

            To win 300 games in a career, a pitcher would have to win an average of 15 games a year from ages 21 through 40, right?  We could say as a first step, then, that any pitcher who has averaged 15 wins a year since age 21 is on a pathway that could reasonably lead to 300 wins.  He is a precursor. 

            OK, so at first blush we will regard any pitcher as a 300-win precursor if he has:

            15 wins at age 21

            30 wins at age 22

            75 wins at age 25

            150 wins at age 30

            225 wins at age 35


Et cetera.  Second revolutionary insight of the paragraph, a pitcher who is on that path at age 35 carries a lot more weight than a pitcher who is on that track at age 22.  

            OK, we’ll adjust for that, and we will say that any pitcher who is on that track carries a weight of one point at age 21, two points at age 22, three points at age 23, sixteen points at age 36.

            But there is a problem with that, too.  This method would say that a pitcher who had 240 wins at age 36 was a 16-point precursor, but a pitcher who had 239 wins at age 36 was a zero, not relevant to the discussion.  Obviously that doesn’t make sense. 

            Adjusting.  If a player is below the "absolute" standard we will still count him, but discount the weight that he is given.   At first I was going to suggest a one-point discount for each win that the pitcher was short, like this:

 36 year old pitcher with 240 wins counts 16 points 

36 year old pitcher with 239 wins counts 15 points 

36 year old pitcher with 238 wins counts 14 points 

36 year old pitcher with 237 wins counts 13 points   


And so on.  Studying data from the past, I realized that this was not right.  At age 36, Warren Spahn had only 224 career wins, so he wouldn’t be a precursor.  At all.  He wouldn’t count anything.   36-year-old Warren Spahn, you’ve got to figure that he might be a part of the conversation.  Maybe you have to be my age to get the reference.   Nolan Ryan.  37-year-old Nolan Ryan would not have been a precursor, because he did not have 238 wins by age 37.   He had 231. 

            So I decided to discount precursors from the absolute standard by one point for each TWO wins short of the marker:


36 year old pitcher with 240 wins counts 16 points 

36 year old pitcher with 238 wins counts 15 points 

36 year old pitcher with 236 wins counts 14 points 

36 year old pitcher with 234 wins counts 13 points 

            OK, one last thing.  This wasn’t a giant undertaking; this was a one-day research project.   Last thing:  I decided that any pitcher with less than 100 career wins would not be counted as a precursor.   An absolute line:  less than 100 wins, we don’t count you. 

            There are too many candidates there.  They’re just a nuisance to count.  A 26-year-old pitcher with 91 wins. . . it’s nothing.  He’s not a serious candidate to win 300 games.  Dave McNally would be on the list, and Frank Tanana, and Rick Wise.  You don’t put on your bathing suit today if you’re going to the beach next Thursday. 

            So that’s the system; a precursor is any pitcher who has averaged 15 wins a year since the age of 21, or is fairly close to that standard, and who has at least 100 career wins. 


            When Early Wynn passed 300 wins in 1963, there were four other pitchers who qualified at that time as precursors:  Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, Bob Friend and Don Drysdale.  Roberts, 36 years old and with 258 career wins, counted as a 16-point precursor.   Whitey Ford counted as an 8-point precursor, Bob Friend as 7 points, and Don Drysdale as 6.   None of these four pitchers went on to win 300 games, but the weight of the four precursors was 37 points by our system. 

            By 1965 the number and weight of the precursors had grown to 7 and 64, with the additions of Koufax, Marichal and Milt Pappas.   The weight had dropped to 41 by 1967, but had increased to 10 and 76 by 1971.  There was still no one on that list of 10 pitchers who would actually go on to win 300 games; the list included Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins, but no one who got to 300. 

            In 1972, however, those counts suddenly exploded to 16 and 122, with three future 300-game winners joining the list:  Seaver, Sutton and Steve Carlton.   By 1974 it was up to 18 and 144.  In 1976 it was 16 and 143, with Gaylord Perry and Nolan Ryan joining the list.   That’s why I was confident that there would be several 300-game winners.  The numbers from the 1970s were historic.  I guess I would have to go back to the 1920s and 1930s to illustrate the point—no thanks—but we hadn’t seen a posse of good candidates like that since. . .well, ever.  These guys were all in position to do it.  They couldn’t ALL do it, but they couldn’t all fail, either. 

            The 144 points from 1974 was the high-water mark for 300-win precursors. By 1979 the precursor weight was down to  111 , with Larry Dierker, Ken Holtzman, Jim Kaat and others dropping behind schedule.   But by 1988, five pitchers had rolled past 300—Seaver, Carlton, Niekro, Sutton and Gaylord.  And by then, a new generation of candidates was shaping up.  Bert Blyleven, Fernando Valenzuela, Jack Morris.  OK, none of them made it, but by 1995 there was a three-person list:  Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Roger Clemens.  3 for 3.  The 1995 list of precursors was the shortest (and weakest) it had been since 1952, in part because of the 1994-1995 strike, but mostly because the greats of the previous generation had moved on. 

            Three and 24 in 1995, but by 2003 it had rebuilt to 6 and 67.  Randy Johnson was in there pitching.    After Randy Johnson won his 300th game in 2009—and thus exited the list—the count dropped to 3 and 14.

            But then the numbers headed back up.   The numbers went up every year:  16, 18, 24, 27, 33, 47, 48.  By 2017 the numbers were 7 and 48.    The seven pitchers contributing to the total were CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Rick Porcello, Madison Bumgarner, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.  If we had had this conversation in 2017, then I would have argued with you vigorously, loudly and probably rudely, supporting the proposition that yes, goddammit, there WOULD be more 300-game winners. 

            But 2018 wasn’t a good year for the group, and 2019 wasn’t, and 2020 wasn’t a good year for anybody.  By 2022 the list of 300 win precursors was down to one—Kershaw—and he’s weak.  8 points.  The list and weight of precursors is weaker than it has ever been.  Ever. 

            The talk show hosts, of course, are not thinking of it in these terms.  They are focused on the lack of good candidates, as I am, but they are also extrapolating from conditions in the game that they regard as permanent—the use of openers, the reluctance to let a starting pitcher get back on the Ferris Wheel for a third loop.   Framber Valdez led the American League in innings pitched in 2022, with 201.  After a previous career high of 135.  These are not Bob Feller numbers.  They are not Warren Spahn numbers.  They are not even Greg Maddux numbers. 


            First of all, these new-world numbers do not make it impossible for a pitcher to win 300 games.   Fourteen major league pitchers won 15 or more games last season.   A pitcher can stay on that list year in and year out.

            Second, the fact that no one has done that recently does not mean that no one will do it in the future.

            Third, it is not absolutely clear that the "conditions of the game" from 2022 are permanent. 

            The changes in the game in 2023 seem to me to be really profound.  It seems to me—and maybe I’m wrong; I actually have not checked the stats on this—but it seems to me that more players are putting the first good pitch into play, and fewer are trying to go yard with every swing.  That could mean that more pitchers are in the game in the 6th inning, the 7th inning, the 8th inning, and that more wins go to the starting pitcher. 

            The innovation of "The Opener" doesn’t seem to me to be catching on—again, I’m not sure what the facts are—but assuming it does catch on, it’s not clear that that reduces the win totals of starting pitchers.  It much more probably would INCREASE them.   A two-inning opener CAN’T be credited with the win, by rule.  If two innings are taken away from the bullpen at the end of the game and moved to the start of the game so that the starter pitches inning 3 to 7 rather than 1 to 5, that will obviously increase the wins for starting pitchers, not decrease them. 

            Also, it is not clear to me that the current 13-man pitching staffs are an effective use of the roster space.   I wonder if it is possible that there is some bright young woman out there who will, at some point, make an argument that the benefits of the very deep bullpens are actually less than the benefits of keeping right-handed and left-handed pinch hitters and reserve defensive infielders on the bench, that you actually win more games if you do THAT than if you do THIS.  Nobody has made that argument so far, because it requires a level of "modeling" the game that we have not reached yet, but we will.  

            Baseball history shows that there always appear to be better strategic options than what we are doing right now.   The way that bullpens are used has changed dramatically in every ten-year period since 1930.  Not merely changed, but changed A LOT.  1965 bullpens were A LOT different from bullpens of 1955 or 1975.  Always.

            Well, if the strategies for using relievers have always changed, what is the evidence that what we are doing now is permanent?   What is the reasoning for thinking that we have it right now.  From my standpoint, if I am not convinced that the current usage patterns for bullpens are optimal, then I cannot be convinced that they are permanent. 

            Because of these concerns, I believe it is premature to say that we will not see a 300-game winner again, or that we will not see ten more of them before 2050.  We could. 

            But having said that, I see no reason to believe that we WILL.  The cycle of 300-win precursors is at a very, very low ebb, lower than it has ever been.  So. . .the people who are saying that we will never see a 300-game winner again.  In my judgement it is too early to say that they are right, but there is no evidence that they are wrong.  They would seem to be more probably right than wrong.  


COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

My healrh aint what it used to be, lemme tell ya...
12:40 AM Apr 28th
Joe Posnanski wrote an article a week and a half ago that we might never see another TWO-hundred game winner (after Gerrit Cole), which... yeah, I'll gladly bet Poz's next book advance on that and put aside a little nest egg for myself, because conditions in the game would have to change tremendously for that to happen. Anyway, here are two things I think are worth thinking about:

No one talks about Max Scherzer as a legitimate, 300-win candidate. Through the end of last season, Scherzer had 201 wins... one ahead of Randy Johnson through the same age. It has always been the case that the majority of the guys who get to 300 have needed great seasons into their late 30s or even 40s to get there. That's just the way accumulating wins works. So it seems weird to me to look at a crop of guys in their late 20s now and say "Oh, they're WAY off the pace." You need good years in your 20s to open the door, but you need very good to great years in your late 30s to have a real shot.

But the real question to me is if guys can get enough starts. HOF pitchers typically win about half their starts. (This ratio holds for all but the slew of 300- and near-300-game winners of the '60s-80s, who won at a significantly lower pace: Niekro, Sutton, Blyleven, Kaat, Seaver, Carlton, John, Perry, etc. I do not know WHY this is true; maybe Bill knows).

But whether it's Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Roger Clemens, Justin Verlander, or Gerrit Cole, the ratio stays pretty straight across baseball - again, with one very exceptional period in which a bunch of Hall of Fame pitchers won less than that. Knowing that information, that means that, to get 300-game-winners, you need guys who start 600 games. In current conditions, in which players get 32-33 starts to lead the league, you need basically 18.5 years of perfect health and no labor disputes or global pandemics, plus Hall of Fame talent. What was Bill's formula for record breaking? 20 years at league-leading performance? Something like that. Anyway, that would SEEM to indicate that, in the right circumstances, it is POSSIBLE for a player to get to 300 wins. Not terribly likely, but possible. But 250 wins? Yeah; I think we'll see plenty of guys (not dozens or anything; but historically normal numbers of guys) get to that mark.

I'm 36 years old. I know more of the folks around here are about my dad's age than mine. But even in my life, I remember Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson ALL being called the "last 300 game winner." (I don't really remember if the narrative existed for Clemens, actually; I checked, and when he won his 300th, Maddux was at 278. I recall having a vague sense of the inevitability of Maddux joining Clemens, but I really don't remember what "people" were saying at the time.)

Winning 300 games is very hard, and it will occur rarely. But it usually occurs in bunches when it DOES happen. We might be in a drought right now, but that simply doesn't mean that it's done forever. MAYBE it is. But it's too early to write the epitaph, I think.
9:30 AM Apr 27th
It is quite clear to me that advancements in medicine will help player longevity. 40 might become the new 35. We have already seen some pitchers remain effective through their age 45 season; I'd expect there to be a good bit more of those as time goes by and science improves.
11:06 PM Apr 26th
If the plethora of relievers continues or even expands, the definition of 'the winning pitcher' must change. If everybody pitches one or two innings, which pitcher 'won' the game? Now we are getting into the realm of the discredited stat of 'Game Winning RBI' vis a vis, so many pitchers in a single game, who gets the win? Which ever pitcher leaves the game with the lead and the team wins, does that pitcher get the win. The old 'GWRBI' was like that, the rbi that put the winning team into the lead that was never relinquished was the 'GWRBI'.
11:03 PM Apr 26th
It would help if they changed the scoring rule such that, if the starter leaves the game with a lead that his team never gives up, the win goes to the pitcher who recorded the most outs--which could be the starter even if he didn't go 5.

If they did this, some team could try going with a 3-man rotation, with the starter being removed after two times through the order or 60 pitches, whichever came first. With that system, a pitcher would have as many as 54 starts. If he won only 30% of them, that's 16 wins.

8:30 PM Apr 26th
To state thevpainfully obvious, healrh has a lot to do with it...full healrh. At Age 27, Kershaw had 114 wins and was averaging 32 starts a year in the seven years since his debut year. In the next seven years he averaged 22 starts (yeah, that includes 2020). And in an awful lot of those starts, given his nagging injuries, I'm sure he was on a pitch count, crippling his ability to get a win.

Over his career, he has won about 50 percent of his starts. So the 50ish he missed might add up to 225 at Age 35...making it interesting.
6:21 PM Apr 26th
Verlander seems motivated to try to make a run at 300 career wins.

56 more wins entering one's age 40 season is a lot though. In the AL and NL, there are 45 pitchers who started 25+ games in their age 39 season (Verlander started 28). That's roughly the pool of pitchers who have a shot. 8 of those guys (plus 2 others) won 56 or more AL and NL games from age 40 onward. So by this method, Verlander has an 18% (8 / 45) shot at it.

I know that you have a different method.

Verlander might be more motivated than average. On the other hand, wins are spread throughout the pitching staff, not concentrated in the top starters, more today than has been true through most of MLB history.
5:30 PM Apr 26th
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