April 29, 2005
The 300 Club revisited

Roger Clemens faces off against Greg Maddux tonight in a rare battle of 300-game winners. Not counting four matchups between Pud Galvin and Tim Keefe in the 1890s, such an event has happened only four times before, all involving Don Sutton, and all in the 1980s. If you're at the Juice Box tonight, be sure to enjoy being a part of history.

Of course, we can't have a story about 300-game winners squaring off without a bit of existential woolgathering on the nature of winning 300 games as a Major League pitcher.

Sutton doubts there will be many more of these types of games once Clemens and Maddux retire. With 263 career victories, Mets lefthander Tom Glavine is the closest active player to 300 victories, but he's 39 and hasn't won as many as 12 games since 2002. Randy Johnson, 41, is next on the active victories list at 248, followed by David Wells, 41, at 214 and Mike Mussina, 36, at 212.


Clemens tends to agree with Sutton's assessment that specialization in relief roles and the money invested in pitchers are reasons why today's young starters might find it more difficult to claim 300 victories.

"With specialization now, everybody watches pitch counts," Clemens said. "Early in my career, I was able to complete games and reach 125 pitches. You don't see that much anymore. And it's really hard to control whether you're going to get a win or not."

Once a starter gets to 100 pitches these days, the manager and pitching coach start plotting a plan to call on the bullpen. And some of today's pitchers actually take pride in going six innings without giving up more than three runs.

When Seaver, Sutton, Carlton and Niekro were active, a pitcher would want to fight a manager who called on the bullpen in the sixth of seventh inning. Nolan Ryan, another of Sutton's contemporaries in the 300 club, was only getting warm at 100 pitches.

"Unless there's a change in philosophy in managing and coaching, there won't be many more 300-game winners," said Sutton, who is tied with Ryan for 13th on the all-time list with 324 wins. "There are some very talented young men pitching who are probably more talented than I was but probably won't have a chance to win 300."

If Sutton lasted only six innings, he would be embarrassed. His motto was simple: "Go nine innings and either win it or lose it."

There is, of course, a growing body of research which demonstrates that a pitcher's risk of injury greatly increases with each outing of 120 pitches or more. Pitchers with arm problems don't win 300 games, but the fact that there exist superhuman freaks like Clemens and Ryan are held up as examples of How Things Should Be. But that's a rant for another day.

In any event, I don't believe the macho ethic of completing games has much of anything to do with winning 300 games. I think the two biggest factors are the levels of offense and the five-man rotation.

Here are the all-time leaders in wins. Twenty-two pitchers have 300 or more victories to their credit. Of those, eleven debuted in 1911 or earlier, in the original dead-ball era. Eight others came into the league in 1962 or later, with six of them clustering their rookie seasons between 1962 and 1967, at the beginning of a 30-year stretch of relatively low offense (you can see season-by-season league totals, including ERA, here and here). Only three began their careers in between 1912 and 1961 - Warren Spahn, Early Wynn, and Lefty Grove.

What I'm getting at is this: You're more likely to have pitchers with long careers and gaudy win totals in an era that depresses offense, which in turn favors pitchers. If and when conditions in the leagues begin to turn in the hurlers' direction - and though I remain a skeptic of the whole thing, perhaps the focus on steroids will help to accomplish that - then the odds that someone will have the kind of long and fruitful career needed to win 300 games will increase.

By the same token, the five-man rotation, which reduces the number of starts a pitcher can make over the course of a season, is a factor. Look at the yearly leaderboard for games started. The high-water mark these days is 35 or 36. Thirty years ago, in the four-man rotation days, workhorse pitchers would regularly get 40 or more starts. No one has had that many since Charlie Hough in 1987; no one has done it in the NL since Phil Niekro took the hill 44 times in 1979. That can be the difference between winning 18 or 19 games and winning 21 or 22, which over the course of a 15 or 20 year career can really add up.

But everything in baseball is cyclical. I believe that we'll see a lower-scoring period again, I believe some innovative managers will experiment with a four-man rotation again, and I believe we will see 300 game winners again, though it may well be that the next one is in Little League right now. Who knew in 1962, as Warren Spahn's career was winding down and no heir to the 300-win club was in sight, that we were about to usher in the next great wave of pitching stars? Never say never in this game.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 29, 2005 to Baseball | TrackBack

Charles, Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus keeps up with the latest research on arm injuries in baseball. More than number of total pitches in a game, the research is showing that the two most common reasons for arm injuries in pitchers are (i) an abnormally high number of pitches in any one inning, and (ii) excessive number of innings at a relatively young age before arm strength is developed.

Posted by: Tom Kirkendall on April 29, 2005 4:41 PM

True enough. My point here is simply that the kind of (admirable but often misguided) mindset that values complete games puts young pitchers' arms in jeopardy, and that I don't believe the decline in CGs is a big factor in whether or not we'll see more 300-game winners in the future.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on April 29, 2005 9:33 PM

The game just ended with a Cubs' victory.

I know it's early, but signing Burnitz really looks like it might have been a good idea.

Posted by: Roy Mitchell on April 29, 2005 10:07 PM

Take note also that the two 40-start guys you mentioned were both knuckleball pitchers. There's very little if any strain on the arm when that pitch is thrown.

Posted by: Linkmeister on April 30, 2005 2:20 AM

I think there's too much mismanagement of pitchers at early ages these days, and that's not going to help. I remember watching Kerry Wood pitch during his rookie season and hearing somebody talk about the fact that he was risking his career by relying so much on one of his pitches (I want to say it's a curve ball, but I can't be sure of that) too early in his career. Whoever it was, he was right.

Posted by: Sue on April 30, 2005 8:14 AM