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Please, please stop saying there will never be a 300-win pitcher again

Apr 9, 2010, 4:15 PM EST

Perry 300.jpgOne of the reasons sports journalism gets disrespected so much is that it is standard operating procedure for sports writers to simply repeat evidence-free and even counter-factual assertions about things with little regard for how easily disprovable or unprovable the assertion may be. Case in point: the “no one will ever reach 300 wins again” meme, which gets repeated three or four times a year by people who should know better.

Today’s example: Tim Kurkjian, who writes an otherwise acceptable passing-of-the-torch article about the great pitchers of yesterday and today, but feels it necessary to end with this note:

With five-man rotations and pitch counts and loaded bullpens with
relievers who make millions, it’s going to be hard to find any pitcher
who will pitch long enough in a career, or pitch long enough in games,
to get to 300 wins.

People have been saying that we’ve seen the last 300 winner for years. They said it after Early Wynn did it. They said it after Nolan Ryan did it. They said it after Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine did it. And since last year they’ve been saying that Randy Johnson was the last of the breed. Cut. It. Out.

The last four 300 game winners all pitched in five man rotations and in the era of bullpen specialization. Only Greg Maddux had more than 36 starts in any one season. A five man rotation may cut down on wins per season, but in reducing workloads it may very well lengthen careers.  To cite these factors as bars to another pitcher winning 300 games is simply and inexcusably ignorant.

Sure, you can look around now and say that you don’t see any 300 game winners on the horizon, but that’s simply because (a) it’s rare; and (b) we tend not to think of someone as a 300 game winner until, you know, they win something like 250 games or so and there’s not anyone out there that really fits the profile at the moment (though I could totally see Sabathia doing it).

The thing, is, gaps in 300-game winners are really common. There were 20 years between Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn hitting the plateau. There was a bigger gap between Early Wynn doing it in 1963 and Gaylord Perry doing it in 1982. There was a big gap between Ryan in 1990 and Clemens in 2003 as well.  Indeed, I think the only reason that guys like Kurkjian like to say that there will never be 300 game winners again is because for a brief shining moment during their early adulthood — the 80s — a handful of guys who pitched through the low-offense, heavy pitcher use 60s and 70s made the mark. That was the historical exception, however, not the rule.

Someone will win 300 games again. It may not be a currently active pitcher, but someone will do it.  And I’m sure that the moment they do it, someone will say that we’ll never see it done again. 

  1. Paul C - Apr 9, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    this happens all the time. If I hear someone tell me the Willie Mays catch was the greatest of all time I’m going to throw up. It was good, and I’m sure the throw back to the infield was great, but did you see Jim Edmonds dive to catch a ball directly over his head? Did you see Gary Matthews Jr make a catch that was the impetus for one of the worst contacts of all time? Kurkjian loves to live in the past though so this is no surprise. Thanks for ripping him on it Craig.

  2. lar @ wezen-ball - Apr 9, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    You aren’t going to get an argument from me, Craig. Remember, Nolan Ryan was considered “the last 300 game winner” at one point, and *that week* four other future 300-game winners were pitching: Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, and Glavine ( http://wezen-ball.com/2009-articles/may/the-last-300-game-winner.html ). People writing these articles are just being lazy.

  3. RobRob - Apr 9, 2010 at 4:39 PM

    Halladay is 33 and needs 151 wins to make it. He’ll have to average 19 wins a season until he’s 40.

    Sabbathia is 29 and needs 164 wins to make it. He’ll have to average 15 wins a season until he’s 40.

    Beckett is 30 and needs 194 wins to make it. He’ll have to average 18 wins a season until he’s 40.

    So yeah, one of these three will probably do it if he stays healthy and pitches until he’s 40. Is it likely that any of these guys will pitch until he’s 40? Probably not, but it certainly won’t be reduced workload or specialized bullpens or 5-man rotations or anything similar that will stop them. It will be health and the good luck to play with great run-support.

    As you pointed out, Craig, lower pitch counts, or innings pitched will probably extend careers. I’ll add that specialized bullpens probably save as many wins as they lose.

  4. Curious George - Apr 9, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    A factor that could indirectly contribute to higher pitcher win totals would be a drop in league-wide offensive levels (due to, say, bigger parks, bigger strike zones, humidored baseballs, increased preference given to defensively skilled players than offense-only players… whatever). A drop in offense would result in lower pitch counts and keep starting pitchers in the game longer, improving their chances of getting a decision.
    .
    Thinking that today’s playing conditions, whatever they may be, will always be so, is naive.

  5. Chipmaker - Apr 9, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    A big reason for the gap between Grove and Spahn was WWII right in the middle, which cost several pitchers a plurality of prime seasons by enlisting for the greater cause. Feller surely would have reached 300, and possibly Ruffing and Lyons. Not that this changes anything (all three are in the Hall) in terms of historical perspective or trends (such as they are) among 300-game winners.
    But, yes, this is a hoary, nay, ROTTING old chestnut that gets tossed out based upon nothing substantive. There will be another 300 game winner someday, but we don’t know his name, and without knowing his name (because, if they say there will be another, readers will ask Who?), writers prefer to play it safe and say No, the breed is extinct.

  6. Levi Stahl - Apr 9, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    The older I get, the more I begin to believe that the conditions prevailing in various spheres of life when we are children are far, far, far more important for our understanding of how the world is, was, and should be than almost any other factor.

  7. Levi Stahl - Apr 9, 2010 at 5:18 PM

    The older I get, the more I begin to believe that the conditions prevailing in various spheres of life when we are children are far, far, far more important for our understanding of how the world is, was, and should be than almost any other factor.

  8. Chris Carlson - Apr 9, 2010 at 6:01 PM

    Seriously guys,there will NEVER be another 300 game winner in the MLB. It is a fact!

  9. Ryan - Apr 9, 2010 at 6:28 PM

    In addition to the excellent points in the post, what none of this seems to take into account is the fact that the game can change.
    What happens when one bold GM/manager decides that the data support a 4 man rotation, and SP start getting 40 starts per year?
    What happens when someone realizes that the game would be better served if it were faster, and they change the rules so that the count automatically starts at 1-1 (great article here re this: http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2009/07/two_strikes_you.php)?
    What happens when an innovative manager decides to have no SP and removes his pitcher every AB, with a designated middle guy who pitches the 5th and gets the W?
    What happens when new medical technology allows people to use their to be able to pitch effectively every other day (every day?) and make 80-100 starts per year?
    You just never know.

  10. willmose - Apr 9, 2010 at 6:47 PM

    No one will hit 73 HRs in a season again.

  11. davidc45629 - Apr 9, 2010 at 7:01 PM

    Great point, Chipmaker. Spahn won 364 and killed just as many nazi’s. Imagine if he wouldn’t have lost those years. 400 wins?

  12. Grant - Apr 9, 2010 at 7:08 PM

    Wait, Craig, you’re saying that the Baby Boomers have an outsized sense of their own historical importance? I am SHOCKED!

  13. Mike Emerson - Apr 10, 2010 at 12:29 AM

    I would only slightly amend the statement to say, “Barring a major philosophical change in the way games are managed, we have seen our last 300-game winner.” I submit as my primary evidence the drastic decrease in complete games. So many pitchers, even good ones, exit the game after pitching 6 innings, sometimes 7. This leaves the wins and losses in close games to be picked up by relievers instead of starters being around to settle it. If someone wanted a good statistical study, I would love to see the percentage of games won by the starting pitcher now, vs. 10 years ago, 20 years ago, etc. I am certain that the percentage has probably dropped 20-25 percent over the past 25 years.

  14. jwb - Apr 10, 2010 at 12:34 AM

    There has been a 300 game winner or future 300 game winner active in every season since 1879 except 1945 (Spahn and Wynn had better things to do). To suggest that this has changed is at best silly.
    “like derelict”

  15. Jval13 - Apr 10, 2010 at 11:16 AM

    Jamie Moyer needs to win 14 games per year until he is 50! Go Jamie Moyer! :)

  16. jwb - Apr 10, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    “I submit as my primary evidence the drastic decrease in complete games. So many pitchers, even good ones, exit the game after pitching 6 innings, sometimes 7.”
    Average IP per start:
    Clemens: 7.0
    Maddux: 6.8
    JohnsonR: 6.8
    Glavine: 6.5
    Some good current pitchers:
    Lincecum: 6.7
    Sabathia: 6.6
    Lee: 6.3
    Peavy: 6.3
    Greinke: 6.1
    Which really doesn’t answer your question (or mine), Mike Emerson.
    “any misprint”

  17. MLB - Apr 10, 2010 at 1:19 PM

    Yes, someone may win 300 games again, someone may hit .400 again, someone may win 40 games in a season, someone may strikeout 382 batters in a season, they might; but it doesn’t happen very often. There are 23 pitchers that have won over 300 games. Tommy John comes in #26 with 288 wins, Bert Blyleven #27 with 287 wins, Jim Katt #31 with 283 wins, sorry guys close but no cigar.

  18. Matt - Apr 10, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    Sabathia needs to average 15 wins for the next 11 years (counting this one). He will then be 40. He will be on the Yankees for a lot of those years.
    That is an average- how does he not win 300?
    And what’s all this complete game stuff? Guys lose complete games too. In fact, the reason there are fewer complete games is because the team is more likely to win if they pull out their leading starter for a middle reliever or closer.
    THAT’S WHY THEY DO IT.

  19. Larry - Apr 10, 2010 at 3:28 PM

    I think the interesting thing about the 300 game winner argument is that everyone thinks the 300 game winners just squeak over the line. While that is true (Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine) we seem to forget that Clemens (354) and Maddux (355) both reached 300 wins and then just kept going.
    300 game winners aren’t always predictable. I always thought JOhnson would get into the 330 win range, but he always seemed top have zero run support, and his 1-0 losses and no decisions killed his chances at that. Oh, and he had to pitch till he was 45 to win 300.
    Who’s next? Who knows. Someone, maybe someone who we don’t recognize at this point.

  20. Van - Apr 10, 2010 at 4:32 PM

    It appears the HOF voters are not impressed with the amount of lifetime wins a pitcher has. Would it be possible to win 300 games and still not get into the Hall of Fame. How about hitting 500 homers and not getting in. 450 homers. 280 wins.

  21. Jon Heyman - Apr 10, 2010 at 5:26 PM

    A little birdie told me that Stephen Strasburg is going to win 300.

  22. Harry - Apr 11, 2010 at 4:52 PM

    I do not necessarily think the 300 game winner is extinct, but I think we are going through a major “dry spell” much like that in the middle of the 20th century.
    The major lack of complete games plus the 5 man rotation DOES drop potential wins for starters. It gives them less chances to pitch and a bigger chance that even if they are slated for the win, the reliever blows it and someone else gets the decision. The fact that very few active players even have 200 wins anymore, let alone 300 and that we have many seasons with just one or even NO 20 game winners (and no one with more than 24 since 1990) is telling as well. I think at least for the next few decades it may be much like the .400 hitter, it just isn’t happening and a lower “extraordinary” standard compared to decades past will ensue to rank total wins. I think through mid-century 250, maybe even 200 wins will become the new standard that was once 300 and 300 wins will be like 350 or 400, something only a very very select few, if any, may get.
    But with that, that is why I think we can’t say for sure. If Clemens and Maddux could get 350 wins with at least half their careers in the “pitch count/no complete games” era, then I think they would’ve gotten 300 (but not 350+) even if their careers started today. A pitcher like this is going to be one whose career is just starting today, or not yet started, or maybe not even born yet that we just can’t foresee. Also, my projection (going out to the 2050s) is a LONG time, I’m sure 30 years ago no one thought that complete games would be so rare and pitch counts such a big deal that a manager would consider pulling a pitcher like CC Sabathia in the final inning of a no-hitter with a large lead, and maybe somehow in some unforeseen way come 2025 or 2040, etc. the “pendulum” will swing back and for example, maybe we’ll see 4 man rotations again.

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