300 Game Winners
A recent article by Ken Rosenthal presents several barriers that could prevent pitchers in the future from winning 300 games.
The barriers are
1) Five Man Rotations
2) Fewer complete games (and thus, fewer decisions)
2b) Specialized Bullpens
2c) Injury Paranoia
3) Emphasis on power pitchers
4) Late starts to careers
Are any of these factors truly obstacles though?
For the purposes of this article, the 300 game winners I will look at will all be post-WWII pitchers – there really is no point in comparing today’s pitchers to say, Cy Young or Christy Mathewson. The post-WWII group comprises 10 of the 22 individuals to win 300 games.
1) Five Man Rotations
Warren Spahn never started more than 40 games in a season in his career – but he did start 35 or more games a total of 10 times. In comparison, Greg Maddux has also never started 40 games in a season. But he has started 35 games or more 9 times in his career. One thing to remember for Spahn and Early Wynn is that they pitched most of their careers in a 154 game format, which depresses the start total slightly. The overall effect is that a 4 man rotation doesn’t factor in nearly as much as one might think.
In fact, if we take a 300 game winner’s games started and divide by total seasons pitched, we see that there is a very small range of starts in a season. At the low end, Early Wynn averaged 26.6 games started a season en route to 300 wins. This is significantly lower than the next 300 game winner however – the next individual, Nolan Ryan, averaged 28.6 starts a season, a full two more starts per season than Wynn. Don Sutton represents the high end of the spectrum with 32.9 starts a season – and Sutton pitched in numerous 5-man rotations. The small range just shows that more than 4-man rotations, longevity and health have a much larger impact on how many starts someone will get. In addition, Sutton began his career with a full season starting, something few of the other pitchers on the list can claim. It is a fairly intuitive conclusion, but it needs to be stated in order to emphasize how one full season at the beginning of a career or one fewer injury can compensate for the effects of a 5 man rotation.
2) Fewer complete games and more decisions.
While complete games have obviously diminished, this does not mean that future star pitchers will win less. Dominance and good offensive support have a much larger impact on win percentage – the individuals highest on the list in terms of win percentage are Clemens and Maddux.
By adding wins and losses, and subtracting that number from games started, we can get an approximation of how many no decisions a pitcher had (approximate because some pitchers, especially older ones like Perry, appeared in many games they did not start, and recorded wins or losses in those games). We can then calculate a % of No Decisions over a career (henceforth ND%).
We find that while the newest members of the club (Ryan, Clemens, Maddux) all have ND % over 20%, the only 300 game winners with a ND% below 16% were Warren Spahn and Early Wynn.
In addition, ND% has little correlation with complete games pitched for the more recent 300 game winners. For example, Tom Seaver pitched 231 complete games, 123 more than Greg Maddux’s 108. His ND% and Maddux’s ND% are extremely similar (20.25% for Seaver and 20.66 for Maddux).
3) Emphasis on power pitchers
I don't really buy this. Sure, everyone loves the Kazmir and Verlander types, and these guys do rank high on prospect lists. But no one tells crafty lefty control artists with 90 mph fastballs that they should go take a hike. There have always been power pitchers and control artists.
Power pitchers also don't really factor into the argument because it's not a given that a power pitcher or a strikeout based pitcher is more prone to injury.
4) Late Starts to Careers
There is something to this one, although there are exceptions. Most of the 300 game winners did in fact start their careers early. Phil Niekro stands out as the only one to start his career in his mid twenties, and had the most wins after age 40.
None of the above factors make it impossible for a pitcher to reach 300 wins – consider that the effects of a 4 man rotation are outweighed by the longer season and service time, that complete games may also have but a small effect on wins, and that there are still pitchers who are starting their careers early, it strikes me that it is entirely possible, and in fact very likely that we will have another 300 game winner in the next 40 years.
Look at it this way – There were two 300 game winners from the post WWII era – Warren Spahn and Early Wynn. Robin Roberts came close as well with 286 wins, and was actually a slightly better pitcher than Early Winn. Bob Feller was probably better than both Wynn and Roberts, but lost three years to WWII.
Other than those men, there were few other candidates for 300 wins from the era. But starting in the early 60’s numerous pitchers entered the scene that would challenge 300 wins. Perry, Niekro, Carlton, Ryan, Sutton and Seaver all made their debuts in the 60’s. As did stalwarts Juan Marichal, Tommy John, Fergie Jenkins, and Jim Palmer. Jim Kaat made his debut in 1959, as did Bob Gibson. They make up 12 of the top 51 winningest pitchers of all time (Marichal is #51, but I included him just for the sake of completeness).
Periodically, a pitcher enters the scene who has the longevity and luck to have a chance at 300 wins. The 70’s saw the careers of Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris and Dennis Martinez start. The 80’s was another good decade to say the least, as we witnessed the births of the careers of Glavine, Maddux, Clemens and Randy Johnson.
More importantly, the 80’s spoiled us by giving us a decade where 5 pitchers reached 300 wins – Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver. Nolan Ryan reached the mark in 1993.
To have such a large group of pitchers reach a landmark in the same decade was unprecedented. And it is happening again with Clemens, Maddux and possibly Glavine. The clustering of 300 game winners appears to be by chance, but that has simply been the pattern we have seen recently.
The other reason we’re currently debating 300 game winners is because the 90’s were like the 70’s – while we saw great pitchers like Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, and Pedro Martinez, they are not looking durable enough to reach 300. Neither are we far enough removed to make any conclusions about their greatness. It is distinctly possible that at 34, Pedro has 8 years left in him. If he wins 13 games a year, he will reach 300.
300 Wins is a very difficult task, requiring a long period of active duty as a starter, few injuries, if any, at least decent offensive support, and quite a bit of luck. Size of rotations, complete games, and bullpens actually have a much smaller effect that Rosenthal surmises.