Monday, September 10, 2007

The 300-Game winner is not dead

Immediately after Tom Glavine won his 300th game, talk of Glavine being the last member of the 300-win club spread like wild fire. There wasn’t a single ESPN personality—to my knowledge—who said something to the contrary. I respect people that devote their life to following baseball. The various members of the Baseball Tonight crew do a pretty good job of dissecting games and do it in an entertaining manner. However, I don’t necessarily respect opinions that largely result from getting caught up in the moment. What better way to sell the Glavine/300-win story than to market it as the last member of the 300-win club? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that seemingly everyone on TV repeated the exact same thing verbatim. People get caught up in sensationalizing events to the point that over-sensationalizing almost becomes inevitable. I understand that people get excited about things and often find it hard to adequately portray the significance of certain events. However, I think it’s important to refrain from making unsubstantiated proclamations to attempt to further a story.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with asking the question, “Is Tom Glavine the last 300-game winner?” I love that sort of conversation. My problem is that everyone with a microphone concluded that he was the last 300-game winner without so much as a whimper from the opposing view. A few days after the story reached its pinnacle, there was a caveat to the argument presented by a few people that basically went, “Randy Johnson is at 284 wins but with his back problems, there’s no guarantee he’s going to pitch again. If Johnson doesn’t do it, we may never see another 300-game winner again.” I actually think Johnson will reach 300 wins which will only guarantee a redux of the “last 300-game winner ever” story.

You might be wondering why I have such a problem with the notion that we’re likely to never see another 300-game winner again. It doesn’t seem like a big deal. Winning 300 games is an extremely difficult feat. Nobody outside of Johnson has a reasonable chance at this point. However, a legitimate discussion on whether there will ever be a 300-game winner again is supposed to consider all of the relevant factors that would need to go into seeing a 300-game winner, not a prediction based on whether someone is set to do it in the next 15 years. Chances are that nobody will remember these proclamations 15-20 years from now when it happens again. The biggest problem I have is that these people are getting paid to look deeper into this stuff and still somehow came to the ridiculous conclusion that we have seen the last 300-game winner.

The fact that there isn’t an active player—aside from Randy Johnson and possibly Mike Mussina—who is close to the 300-game mark, is only one of a plethora of shady reasons people have used to pronounce the death of the 300-game winner. I’m going to list the myths and discuss the faulty reasoning for each one.

Myth #1

Nobody is even close to 300 games so that proves it won’t happen again.

There wasn’t a 300-game winner from 1963-1982. If the baseball world would have predicted the death of the 300-game winner after Early Wynn won his 300th-game in 1963, it would have been wrong by nine and counting. The fact that nobody is “expected” to reach 300-wins in the foreseeable future is not a reasonable argument to predict that it will never happen again. Following the 19-year drought after Wynn reached the mark, five pitchers reached 300 wins between 1982 and 1986. There was another drought from 1991 to 2003 where no pitchers reached the mark. That was followed by another mini-run of 300 game winners that saw Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and possibly Randy Johnson reach the mark. This myth could have doubled as an argument for there never being another 300-game winner again in 1941, 1963 and 1991. History has proven on three different occasions that 300-game winners can come in clusters after 20 years of not seeing a single 300-game winner. This myth has been proven wrong time and time again.

Myth #2

Nobody will win 300 games again because teams don’t use four-man rotations anymore.

Somewhere along the way, the four-man rotation became associated with the rich-tradition of baseball. In fact, upon doing a google-search of “four-man rotations”, every hit that discussed the issue attributed the four-man rotation to being the rotation of choice for the first 70 years of baseball. I’m not sure where that notion came from but it is wrong. The five-man rotation has been the dominant rotation over the history of MLB. One of the articles even attributes the five-man rotation to being a product of “free experimentation in our society that leeched its way into baseball” in the early 70’s. Again, I’m not sure where that information comes from but it is erroneous. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The four-man rotation was only around en masse for parts of the 60’s and 70’s—and that was for some teams in some years. One only needs to look at the “games started” leaders for every season in MLB history to see that the four-man rotation was not ruined by “free experimentation in the 70s.” In fact, it’s even possible that the four-man rotation was a product of the free experimentation of the 60’s. Talk about having the story backwards. Before the 60’s and 70’s—and even during a good portion of the 60’s and 70’s—an average front-of-the-rotation starter would pitch 32-36 games per season which is right in line with the number starters pitch today. For parts of the 60’s and 70’s, that number jumped to 37-41 starts. Phil Niekro’s career provides a perfect glimpse into the coming and going of the four-man rotation. Here are his starts by season:


Nolan Ryan pitched 27 years and only had more than 35 starts in a season five times. Not-coincidentally, those five seasons fell between 1974-1980 when Niekro had his peak as well. A four-man rotation will yield around 40 starts per season. A five-man rotation yields closer to 34-35 starters per season. While a six-start difference over 20 seasons would significantly impact a player’s chances of winning 300 games, the four-man rotation wasn’t around for that long so we can’t attribute the vast majority of 300-game winners to benefiting from the four-man rotation.

Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine have pitched their careers entirely in a five-man rotation. Both Clemens and Maddux are well-beyond the 300-win mark. I don’t doubt that a four-man rotation would increase the membership of the 300-win club. I’m sure Tommy John, Bert Blyleven, Robin Roberts, and Fergie Jenkins would have reached 300 wins if they pitched their entire careers in a four-man rotation. But that’s no different than saying more people would reach 500 home runs if the number of games was expanded from 162 to 170. The four-man rotation became chic in the 60’s, came to a crescendo in the 70’s, and then went away. Even the pitchers that did pitch in the four-man rotation era only saw their “games started” increased for a few seasons. Over the 100 years of baseball, most starting pitchers have started anywhere from 33-36 starts per season with few exceptions. Go down the list of post-dead ball-era 300-game winners and you will see this. The five-man rotation is not preventing anybody from reaching 300 career wins anymore now than it ever has. There are some instances where a pitcher’s games started spikes for a few years outside of the 60’s and 70’s. This happened with Robin Roberts for a few years in the 50’s. In seven seasons from 1950-1956, Roberts averaged 38 starts per season. Early Wynn--pitching during those same years--averaged about 34 starts per season which was the average then like it is now. Warren Spahn--during those same seasons--averaged just over 34 starts per season. Even going back to the 30’s with the great Lefty Grove yields a similar number of starts per season. Grove only started more than 33 games in a season one time. Tom Seaver—having pitched through the entirety of the four-man rotation fad in the 70’s--never started more than 36 times in a season and he only reached 36 starts four times. Bob Gibson pitched through the entirety of the 60's and half of the 70's and never started more than 36 games in a season and he only did that twice. Today’s pitchers pitch—or I should say “start”—just as much as pitchers from every post-era decade with the exception of a few isolated cases. In honor of the MythBusters, I pronounce this myth “busted.”

Myth #3

Pitchers don’t pitch as many innings per game so they don’t win as much.

There is some truth to this myth. Let’s say a starting pitcher goes six innings and gives up one-earned run and leaves the game tied 1-1. If his team comes back and wins, that pitcher gets a no-decision. Had that pitcher stayed in for another inning or two, he may have been around to get the decision. Pitching longer into games guarantees more decisions—wins and losses. I’m not sure how much of a difference the extra inning makes over a 20-year career. It probably wouldn’t be much more than 10 wins or so which has never been the difference between a pitcher reaching 300 games or not since 1900. However, having some truth does not keep this from being a myth. The misleading part of this myth is the assumption that starters are losing more games than ever before because “crappy” relievers come into the game and screw everything up. I’ve heard this argument on more than a few occasions. There’s no question that relievers lose games. That’s not what this is about. Relievers would have to lose games more often than the starting pitchers would have lost the games for this point to have any validity. Of course, there is no way of knowing for sure how a starting pitcher would have performed had he stayed in a game longer. However, we can look at starter ERA vs. reliever ERA. Starters fatigue throughout a game to the point where their effectiveness becomes less than what a reliever would do. It’s not a coincidence that almost every pitcher in baseball—with the obvious exception of Jeremy Bonderman—sees an increase in ERA and Batting Average Against (BAA) in the later innings. So, even if starters and relievers had the exact same ERA, relievers would provide the best chance for a win because of “freshness.” While the ERAs would be the same, a starter’s ERA in the 7th inning would not be as good as a reliever’s ERA in one inning of work. That puts a pretty big dent in the “relievers lose too many games for starters these days.” Putting an even bigger dent in that line of thinking is that starters and relievers do not have the exact same ERA. Relievers as a whole have a better ERA than starters as a whole. In fact, relievers had a 10% better ERA than starters in 2006 which is the biggest gap since 1989. The argument could even be made that “specialists” and “closers” are actually giving modern-day pitchers more opportunities for wins. So, the line about “pitch counts” killing the 300-game winner should wither away and die. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening.

Myth #4

Pitchers suffer too many injuries for anyone to stay healthy enough to reach 300.

I’ve heard this one a million times. I’m convinced that this is kind of a “pile-on” argument that isn’t necessarily meant to be that convincing. I know there are a lot of people that believe a lot of different things but this argument doesn’t even make sense. Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux spent the bulk of their careers pitching in “this” era. They made it to 300 wins easily. Pitchers don’t have to get hurt. Some do and some don’t. Bret Saberhagen, David Cone, and Doc Gooden did. Clemens, Maddux and Glavine didn’t. In the history of the game, there have always been more good pitchers who suffer devastating injuries than pitchers who win 300 games. Yet, people keep winning 300 games. While the other myths can be discredited with statistics, this one is more of a common-sense thing.

I’m probably leaving a few myths out. Feel free to let me know if I missed any. As long as MLB exists in its current 162-game format, there will be more 300-game winners. Unless the game undergoes a significant makeover, it would be virtually impossible for there not to be another 300-game winner.


Shawn said...

So if you had to make a very early prediction now, who would you say will be the next 300 game winner, after Randy Johnson reaches it?

Jake said...

Hey Shawn,

I wouldn’t be surprised if no other active player reaches 300 wins other than Randy Johnson. I think it’s about 50/50 for him. Aside from Johnson, I think the following players have a decent chance…

Pedro Martinez—He’s only 35. If he pitches until he is 42, I think he’ll get there. I’m not sure his body can hold out that long but do not be surprised if he makes it.

Andy Pettitte--He is the same age as Pedro and only has nine fewer wins. If Pettitte sticks with a winning team (Yankees would give him the best shot) until he’s 42, I think he would make it too.

Tim Hudson—He would have to average 15 wins over the next 11 years to get there by the age of 42. If he pitches longer, then his chances increase.

Roy Oswalt—Hudson and Oswalt have just about the same chances. I would not be surprised if one of them made it.

Mark Buerhle—He is one year younger than Oswalt and only has six fewer wins.

C.C. Sabathia—Of all active pitchers under the age of 35, I think C.C. has, by far, the best chance. He only has to average 13 wins per season until he is 42. If he pitches until he’s 42, you would have to think he’ll make it barring a major injury.

Johan Santana—He has many elite seasons ahead. If he leaves the Twins for a better offensive organization, he could really make a push.

Jake Peavy—I have a feeling he is about to explode. He is young like C.C. but about 20 wins behind.

Dontrelle Willis—I’m not sure if Willis has flamed out or not. If he can bounce back to his pre 2007 form, then he’ll have a great shot.

It’ll be interesting to see how long these pitchers last. Pitchers keep pitching longer and longer. Clemens, Jamie Moyer, Maddux, Kenny Rogers, Schilling, Smoltz and Tom Glavine are all over 40 and pitching well. If that becomes the norm, then you’ll see a few of the above players reach 300 wins.

Take care!


Justin S. said...

A few years ago, I really thought Mark Mulder had a shot.... He had 97 wins at age 28. If he stayed healthy and productive he'd be at about 130 right now... instead he's only won 6 games in the last 2 years for 103 in his career. I don't think he'll ever be the same Mark Mulder again.... such a shame.

Anonymous said...

Please give me a list of 50 active pitchers with the most wins.

Jake said...

Zachary Schunn said...

Interesting to read this post from 2007--especially including the players with "a decent chance" of reaching 300 games. Johnson did it. CC still has a good shot (205 wins at age 33). Buehrle might have an outside chance (186 wins at age 34). No one else under 35 is even halfway there.

I generally agree with your myths, and I definitely agree another 300-win pitcher is likely, even if not in the imminent future. But in retrospect, the aftermath of the steroid era may be taking its toll on pitchers. Compared to 10 years ago, it does seem like pitching injuries are much more common and last much longer.


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