The 300-Win Pool

May 9, 2013


                I was answering a question from a reporter, having to do with 300-game winners, and my mind went back over familiar things that I have talked to you about before.   Early Wynn in 1963, asked if he was disappointed that Warren Spahn had beaten him to 300 wins, said that no, he was delighted, because this way he (Wynn) would always be the last pitcher to win 300 games.   Nobody would ever win 300 games again

                In the late 1970s I tried to publish an article entitled "300 Game Winners:  There is going to be a flood", the premise of the article being that we were positioned to see a whole bunch of pitchers win 300 games in the 1980s—Carlton, Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Sutton, Niekro, Nolan Ryan.   The editor thought I was nuts.   It was obvious that this was going to happen, if you looked at their ages and win totals, but the editor wouldn’t believe it.     After those guys there was another round of sportswriters claiming that Nolan Ryan would be the last-ever 300-game winner, and then there was another round of them—Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Glavine.   People for some reason want to believe that 300-game winners are going extinct, and will rush to that conclusion at any opportunity.

                There are certain factors operating over time to make 300-game winners less common, and there are certain factors operating to make them more common.    My analysis of these various factors would be no better than yours, and, honestly, I’m not sure that anything relevant to this issue has changed in the last 25 years, except perhaps for the expansions of the 1990s creating a few more 300-win candidates.   The other things that changed—the DH Rule, the change from the 4-man to the 5-man rotation, the lengthening of the schedule to 162 games—all happened more than 25 years ago, and several pitchers have already won 300 games entirely after all of those changes, clearly establishing that it is still possible for a pitcher to win 300 games.

                The bullpens?   Well. . .but starting pitchers get about as many decisions (per team) now as they did 25 years ago.    In 1987 starting pitchers accounted for 115 decisions per team; the bullpens, for 47.   In 2012 starting pitchers accounted for 117 per team; the bullpens, 45.     There has been no shift of decisions to the bullpen in the last 25 years; thus, nothing has happened there that seems relevant to a pitcher’s chance of winning 300 games.

                That is all old business.    I had a new thought here, which was that we could easily measure the pool of potential 300-game winners.    What I have done before is to estimate a given pitcher’s chance of winning 300 games.   What is James Shields’ chance of winning 300 games?   What is CC Sabathia’s chance?    What I realized we could do, thinking about this now, is to measure the pool of candidates—comparing not CC Sabathia to James Shields, but 2012 to 1974.   

                First, we set up a very simple set of rules to assess the strength of each 300-win candidate.   The rules are:

                1)  The pitcher gets one point for each 20 wins that he has in his career.

                2)  The pitcher gets one point for each 3 years than he is younger than 45 years of age.

                3)  Points awarded under rules one and two are discounted by 20% if the pitcher pitched less than 200 innings, 40% if less than 150 innings, 60% if less than 100 innings, and 80% if less than 50 innings.

                And there’s a fourth rule that we’ll get to in a minute.  The highest-scoring pitchers of all time are two 19th-century pitchers and Christy Mathewson after the 1911 season; they all score at "19".   Mathewson after the 1911 season had 289 wins, which is 14 points, and he was 30 years old, so he gets 5 points for that.   That’s a total of 19.    All of the (three) pitchers who score at 19 did in fact go on to win 300 games.

                A bunch of pitchers score at 18, but the last one of those was Walter Johnson in 1919, so that’s not too relevant to today.   A bunch of pitchers score at 17, but the last one of those was Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1923.    Greg Maddux after the 2003 season and Roger Clemens after the 2001 season scored at 16.    Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, and Tom Glavine got to 15, as well as Clemens and Maddux.

                The fourth rule is that if a pitcher has more than 280 career wins, his score cannot be less than his career win total, minus 280, regardless of age or innings pitched.    I said there were three pitchers at "19", but actually there was a fourth.   Early Wynn after the 1962 season had 299 career wins, so he also was at "19". 

                Historically, four pitchers have scored at "19", and all four did go on to 300 wins.   In terms of exact numbers, 9 of 11 have reached 300 who have been at 18 (82%), 10 of 12 who have been at 17 (83%), 20 of 36 who have been at 16 (56%), 26 of 51 from 15 (51%), 35 of 90 from 14 (39%), 32 of 143 from 13 (22%), 40 of 247 from 12 (16%), and 38 of 373 from 11 (10%).    5% of pitchers who have been at "10" have gone on to win 300 games, 3% of pitchers from "9", 1% of pitchers from "8", and 2/10ths of one percent from "7".   

                It is essentially consistent with the record, then, to value a pitcher at 19 at "90", 18 at "80", 17 at "70". ..on down to 11 at "10".   That’s a simple image of the "pool value" of a pitcher at each level.    We will assign a pitcher at 10 a pool value of 5, a pitcher at 9 a pool value of 3, and a pitcher at 8 a pool value of 1.   Pitchers at 7 or less we will just ignore, since they haven’t shown us anything that suggests they will be 300-game winners.

                In this way we can measure the pool of potential 300-game winners after each season in major league history.     After the first season of major league baseball there were 8 pitchers who qualified for the pool, but their total pool value was just 14. . ..obviously, nobody could establish himself as a serious 300-win candidate in just one season.    These numbers went up quickly in the first few years

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1876

8

14

1877

4

19

1878

6

33

1879

9

69

 

And continued to ascend rapidly through the 1880s:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1880

10

117

1881

11

86

1882

21

147

1883

26

245

1884

39

442

1885

32

386

1886

40

486

1887

41

606

1888

44

560

1889

45

610

 

                A pool value of 610 indicates, in general terms, that there should be about six active pitchers who will get to 300 career wins—not counting any active pitcher who already has 300 career wins; those are not 300-win "candidates", so we ignore them.   In fact, only four of the 1889 pitchers did go on to 300 wins (Mickey Welch, John Clarkson, Tim Keefe and Old Hoss Radbourne), so they underachieved a little bit, as a group.

                Pitchers from the 1880s often were credited with 40 wins a year, sometimes 50, so it didn’t take a pitcher 20 years to get to 300 wins.   The pitching business changed substantially in 1893, when the pitcher’s mound was moved back to 60 feet, 6 inches.    Keefe and Welch won their 300th games in 1890, which made them no longer 300-win candidates, so that immediately shrank the pool, and then the game changed in the mid-1890s.  

                Well. . .I suppose I should dwell on that a moment, make sure people are keeping up.   In 1876 most teams used one starting pitcher every game.   The pitching distance was shorter, and pitchers threw underhanded, delivering the ball at the height requested by the hitter; the pitcher was more the initiator of the action than the determiner of the outcome.    These things changed quickly.   By the mid-1880s most teams used two starting pitchers; by the early 1890s, three.  By 1900 some teams were using four-man starting rotations.

                However, the conditions of the game, which involved many double-headers and frequent rainouts and longer breaks for travel, did not allow for great regularity in pitcher usage patterns.   Even though a team might have a four-man pitching "rotation", they also might have a five-game, three-day series or a four-day, seven-game series, so pitchers would start on short rest or long rest with no great predictability.    Up until 1920, teams would sometimes start a pitcher Friday and again on Sunday in a big series—or if a starting pitcher pitched poorly, he might disappear from the rotation for ten days without any explanation.    It was a rotation/catch-as-catch can.  

                Anyway, the 300-win candidates pool went down in 1890 because two of the leading candidates crossed the wire at 300 wins, whereas the number of possible candidates went up because there was a third league in 1890.     The "610" pool of 300-win candidates in 1890 is the largest the pool has ever been.   We’ve never gotten back to 610:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1890

58

544

1891

46

475

1892

35

405

1893

33

398

1894

37

419

1895

32

409

1896

30

320

1897

33

371

1898

40

472

1899

36

372

 

                Through the 1890s, 30-win seasons were commonplace, so 300 wins was only ten years work.   Thirty-seven pitchers won thirty games in the 1890s, as opposed to ten from 1900-1909, seven from 1910-1919, and four since 1920.   A pitcher could get to be a serious 300-win candidate pretty quickly.     The pool of potential 300-game winners shrank next when Kid Nichols (1899) and Cy Young (1901) crossed the 300-win threshold, then recovered as Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank and others emerged as serious 300-win candidates, the "others" being a series of guys who didn’t make it—Addie Joss, Ed Walsh, Rube Walberg, Iron Man McGinnity, Jack Powell, Vic Willis, etc:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1900

26

226

1901

42

126

1902

44

168

1903

40

200

1904

53

228

1905

52

281

1906

59

364

1907

51

382

1908

45

364

1909

44

360

 

 

 

 

                After 1910 the dominant pitchers in the game were Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander.   Christy Mathewson crossed the 300-win mark in 1912.   After that the pool of 300-win candidates stayed in the range of 200 to 300 points—two to three likely 300-game winners—for the rest of the decade, with Pete and Walter being the biggest part of that:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1910

47

362

1911

49

409

1912

42

274

1913

44

204

1914

65

293

1915

73

283

1916

49

211

1917

54

267

1918

38

207

1919

41

265

 

                The numbers hung in that range for about ten more years, and then dropped sharply in the early 1930s:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1920

51

246

1921

44

216

1922

39

257

1923

45

320

1924

45

246

1925

40

309

1926

38

257

1927

41

220

1928

36

217

1929

43

236

1930

42

177

1931

48

180

1932

50

174

1933

43

149

 

                There was a dramatic "aging" of the major league population in the late 1920s, which I think was driven by economics.   The popularity of baseball exploded after 1920 due to

                1)  Babe Ruth, and

                2)  Throwing the gamblers out the window.

                I think what happened was that, as attendance went up, salaries went up, and as salaries went up, there was a strong incentive for major league players to stay in the game rather than to retire.   In any case there were many, many more older players in the majors in the late 1920s than ten years earlier.    When those players finally gave up the ghost, then there was a youth movement in the 1930 era, and in that era there were increasing numbers of 300-win candidates, but most of them were young pitchers who were a long way from 300 wins.

                The only pitcher to win 300 games between Pete Alexander (early 1920s) and Spahn and Wynn (early 1960s) was Lefty Grove.    Red Ruffing and Bob Feller might have gotten there had it not been for World War II; in fact, I think we should say of each of them that they probably would have made it to 300, had it not been for World War II.

                Anyway, something very interesting happened to the pool of 300-win candidates in the mid-1930s:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1933

43

149

1934

47

151

1935

36

240

1936

39

240

1937

35

223

1938

31

184

1939

35

147

1940

31

230

1941

31

152

1942

31

121

1943

27

52

1944

29

76

1945

26

91

1946

17

67

 

                Between 1934 and 1935, the number of candidates for 300 wins dropped from 47 to 36—but the size of the pool increased from 151 to 240.   What happened?

                In a sense this is a normal maturation process.   You have a group of young pitchers; they all look great, and any one of them has a chance to win 300 games, but only a slim chance.   Over time, most of them fall off the radar, while one or two step forward to be serious 300-win candidates.   It just happened that in 1934-1935, this happened in an accelerated time frame.    In 1934 Lefty Grove had an injury season, and his run appeared to be over.   This left the top 300-win candidates in the game as Ted Lyons (score of 12), Guy Bush (11), Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons (11), and Earl Whitehill (11).   In 1935 Grove won 20 games, re-establishing himself as a serious contender, while his teammate Wes Ferrell, also injured in 1933 and 1934, won 25, putting him in a strong position as well; after the 1935 season he was 27 years old, and had 141 career wins, with five 20-win seasons.   After the 1935 season the leading 300-win candidates were Grove (14), Ferrell (13), Bush (12), Whitehill (12), while five new pitchers had stepped up to 11.

                During the War the number of 300-win candidates in the game fell to historic lows, while 1946 was a "starting-over" season, almost like 1876.    After 1946 the number of 300-win candidates began to grow steadily:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1946

17

67

1947

25

94

1948

26

106

1949

37

119

1950

36

149

1951

30

113

1952

29

101

1953

28

114

1954

33

134

1955

28

146

1956

32

198

1957

33

185

1958

28

188

1959

38

257

1960

37

255

 

                In the 1950s there were three obvious candidates for 300 career wins:   Warren Spahn, Early Wynn, and Robin Roberts.    Roberts was actually the best 300-win candidate, among the three of them, for most of his career.    Roberts won his 200th game at age 31, whereas Wynn and Spahn didn’t win their 35th games until they were 35.    But Roberts was worked very, very hard by a series of bad Philadelphia teams in the late 1950s, had some difficult years, and fell short of 300, whereas Spahn and Wynn held on to reach the target.

                Spahn crossed 300 wins in 1961, Wynn in 1963, but the 300-win pool hardly noticed, as expansion, a longer schedule, and a pitcher-friendly environment created a pool of 300-win candidates behind them—Koufax, Gibson, Marichal, Drysdale, etc.   None of those guys made it, but in the mid-1960s, they were all good candidates:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1960

37

255

1961

38

121

1962

40

237

1963

46

215

1964

40

252

1965

46

259

1966

45

204

1967

47

202

1968

58

250

1969

61

235

 

                What followed, emerging about 1970, was the most remarkable group of starting pitchers in the history of baseball.    I mentioned before the ones who won 300 games—Carlton, Seaver, Niekro, Perry, Nolan Ryan, Sutton—but the list of outstanding pitchers in that generation who didn’t get to 300 wins is even longer:   Ferguson Jenkins, Tommy John, Luis Tiant, Blyleven, Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Jim Kaat, Mickey Lolich.  

                The mind searches endlessly for the causes of every effect, and it will never come up empty.   It may come up with the wrong answer, but it will always come up with an answer; this is just how we are wired.    What I note about this generation of pitchers is how many of them were born during World War II or else very early in the Baby Boom era.  Carlton and Seaver were born in 1944, Ferguson Jenkins in late 1943, Sutton in early 1945.  Denny McLain was born in ’44, Jim Palmer in ’45.  I always think that these guys had an edge in their youth because, competing with the Baby Boomers as kids in the less-organized play of that era,  they were always the big kids, the kids who were a year older than the guys they were playing against.    Maybe it’s an arbitrary explanation.

                In any case, in the 1970s there was a remarkable explosion of pitchers who pitched very large numbers of innings every year, with great effectiveness, and did it for a long time.    Catfish Hunter got into the Hall of Fame for a simple reason:   he retired in time to get to the ballot first.   Catfish Hunter was 7 and a half years younger than Jim Kaat—but retired four years before Kaat did.    When Catfish hit the ballot in the mid-1980s he was the best pitcher on the ballot.   By the time Kaat got there, the ballot had been invaded by 300-game winners and near-300 game winners like Ferguson Jenkins and Jim Palmer.    Kaat was pushed way back in the line.    Jack Morris was a very, very good pitcher who had a wonderful career—but if had come up ten years earlier, he would have been just another one of those guys, another one of that long list of magnificent starting pitchers from that era.   I won’t even mention Jerry Koosman and Jerry Reuss and Rick Reuschel—but in another generation, they’d be near the top of the list.    It was an amazing time.

                This abundance of starting pitchers is reflected in the growth of the 300-win pool in those years:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1970

56

239

1971

66

350

1972

58

330

1973

67

396

1974

67

435

1975

64

455

1976

64

473

1977

63

374

1978

63

478

1979

58

452

1980

67

481

 

                In 1967 the 300-win pool was 202 points—likely about two 300-game winners.   There were actually at least six 300-game winners active at that time, but in 1967 we had no way of suspecting that.    By 1980 the 300-win pool had expanded to 481 points—the largest it has been since 1890.   For 1981 we get a bad read on the data because of the strike, and after 1981 the pool begins to shrink as pitchers began to roll past 300 wins.

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1980

67

481

1981

20

118

1982

57

430

1983

60

335

1984

61

331

1985

61

282

1986

59

206

1987

54

257

1988

58

294

1989

57

275

 

                As there are remarkably many #1 starters in the 1970s, there are remarkably few in the 1980s.   Most of the 1980s data is accounted for, actually, by holdovers from the 1970s.    The top four pitchers on the list from 1985 are Sutton, Ryan, Blyleven and Jerry Reuss.   Even in 1988 the top two names on the list are Blyleven and Nolan Ryan.

                Gradually, another generation of star pitchers began to emerge.   By 1990 Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine were in the majors and in the rotation, as well as worthy candidates like David Cone, Bret Saberhagen, Dwight Gooden, Frank Viola and Fernando Valenzuela.   The pool from the 1990s was not small; it merely looked small compared to the lake from the 1970s.    It was in this generation, the early 1990s, that it once more became fashionable to say that there would never be another 300-game winner.   By 2001 the fallacy of this had become apparent:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

1990

49

206

1991

54

218

1992

61

252

1993

65

254

1994

24

46

1995

36

105

1996

53

181

1997

52

203

1998

57

235

1999

52

233

2000

43

257

2001

43

281

 

                And where are we now?   Well, the pool of 300-win candidates is thinner than it has been since the mid-1950s, discounting the "bad data reads" from the strike seasons.   This is the data since 2000:

Year

Candidates

Total Pool

2000

43

257

2001

43

281

2002

49

257

2003

52

219

2004

47

224

2005

55

277

2006

54

252

2007

42

153

2008

52

249

2009

49

136

2010

53

189

2011

50

190

2012

49

153

 

                The pool is smaller than it has been in many years, and, a month into the 2013 season, the pool is much smaller than it appears to be here.   The leading candidates among current pitchers include (or included, at the end of the 2012 season) Roy Halladay, Verlander and Greinke, all of whom have had some setbacks, not wanting to make too much of Verlander’s thumb issue until we know what the facts are.

                Are 300-game winners dead?    300 game winners would be dead if the pool size was 18, or 20, or zero.    153. ..that still means there are probably one or two now-active pitchers who will get to 300 wins.   As I see it, nothing really has changed, in regard to winning 300 games, since the transition from four-man to five-man rotations was completed by the late 1980s.   But the 300-win pool is, in fact, smaller than it has been since I became a baseball fan.

 
 

COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

David Kowalski
The number of 200 inning pitchers peaked in the 1970s with a high of 65 in 1974. This is the highest total ever except for 1914-15 when the Federal League was in business. In 2012, the pool of 200 inning pitchers reached a long term low at 31 (except for shortened seasons. The last time that the pool was that low was 1958.

Over the nine seasons from 2005 through 2013, the number of 250 inning seasons was 4. In 1974 it was 34. The 1970s just saw a large number of innings pitched by starters. I've seen a number of claims made to the point of a starting rotation's goal being 1,000 innings pitched. Those claiming that seem to have ties to that era.
4:23 PM Oct 18th
 
ajmilner
As for labor strikes affecting 300-win chances, a case could be made that the 1981 strike knocked out Bert Blyleven's shot: He went 11-7 in '81. No strike, and he would have probably won 5 more games which would have bumped him up to 292 career wins, at which point (a la Early Wynn or Gaylord Perry) SOME team would have likely signed him in 1993 to get him the final eight.
8:10 AM May 26th
 
Brock Hanke
Ever since I read Diamond Appraised, I've wondered whether the big jump in long-career guys in the early 1970s might have been caused by the pitching conditions of the late 1960s. When people like Carlton came into MLB - when they were young pitchers - they were, in effect, getting light "workloads", due not to few innings pitched, but due to the ease of getting through each inning. These are the guys who had their peaks in the early 1970s, and the results sound exactly like what Craig Wright might have predicted in, say, 1967.
4:53 AM May 17th
 
shthar
I'll bet the 300 save pool is HUGE now.
4:40 PM May 14th
 
bjames
A strike does distort the data, and render the data for that season essentially useless, because the system discounts pitchers who pitch less than 200 innings in a season. If you look at Spahn, Carlton, Seaver, the guys who get 300 wins, one of the things that MOST stands out about them is that they pitch 200 innings every year. Because of that, this system (and the other one) discount pitchers who DON'T pitch 200 innings.

We could, of course, adjust the "discount" standards for the strike schedule, but on the other hand:

1) It's not that big a deal,
2) I'm not that much inclined to cut the strikers a break, and
3) A prolonged strike DOES damage a player's chance to get 300 career wins, so its not inappropriate to take note of that.
1:10 AM May 11th
 
TJNawrocki
The only pitcher on CWright's list who made a majority of his starts on less than four days rest was Jim Kaat (and of course, Kaat didn't win 300 games). Don Sutton, for example, made more than 75% of his career starts on four days' rest or more.
4:28 PM May 10th
 
StatsGuru
I would have thought CC Sabathia would be a big contributor to the 300 win pool at this point. He pitches for a good team and stays fairly healthy.
3:37 PM May 10th
 
mpiafsky
Regarding my earlier question, as Ventboys points out, there was a strike in 1994. As an Expos season ticket holder that did not escape my notice. However, as I understand both candidates and points, that would have almost no effect on the data (none at all on candidates and by my rough math about 2% on the points-- assuming 30% loss on 1 season of a 16 season career) so I don't quite think that's the answer. It MAY be that a group of aging pitchers decided it wasn't quite worth it to stick around because of a strike but that would impact 1995 data (again, as I understand the formulation) rather than 1994.
9:51 AM May 10th
 
wovenstrap
If I'm understanding this correctly, for almost every pitcher in baseball history, you generated a series of year-values that would look like this -- 13 14 14 15 12 12 12 13 15 16 15? That's some potentially very interesting data right there.
2:04 AM May 10th
 
CWright
answering TJNawrocki's question on the 5-man rotation, it was exactly the opposite. While Tom Seaver was almost always in a 5-man rotation, the other main 300-win threats of that era were not.

Starts on less than 4 days rest
329 Jim Kaat
295 Phil Niekro
289 Gaylord Perry
259 Jim Palmer
240 Fergie Jenkins
198 Steve Carlton
178 Don Sutton
177 Tommy John
62 Tom Seaver

12:42 AM May 10th
 
TJNawrocki
Is it possible that pitching in a regular five-man rotation is just much more conducive to good pitching than anyone expected, and that's why so many pitchers whose careers centered around the 1970s won 300 games?
11:15 PM May 9th
 
ventboys
strike.
8:03 PM May 9th
 
izzy24
Thanks for the article, Bill. How well do you think this predicts future 300 game winners in comparison to the method you use in your Handbook?
7:28 PM May 9th
 
mpiafsky
Sorry, about a decade after the Civil War...

5:47 PM May 9th
 
mpiafsky
Bill,
Care to follow up a bit on 1994's rather remarkable dearth of both candidates and total pool numbers? The 24 candidates were the lowest since the war and the total pool contribution the lowest since the middle of the Civil War.
5:46 PM May 9th
 
Steven Goldleaf
typo alert:
"Roberts won his 200th game at age 31, whereas Wynn and Spahn didn’t win their 35th games until they were 35" should be "Roberts won his 200th game at age 31, whereas Wynn and Spahn didn’t win their 200th games until they were 35. "
4:20 PM May 9th
 
 
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