Why 250 Career Wins Is Pitching's New 300, and Who Will Get There
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Welcome to the club, Mr. Pettitte.
The 250-win club, that is. Here's your ID card and hand stamp so you can come on in and join the gang.
Andy Pettitte won his 250th career game Saturday against the Mariners. The Yankees left-hander needed a few tries, surrounding an ill-timed stint on the disabled list, to finally get in, but here he is.
Of course, the victory leaves Pettitte 50 shy of the 300 barrier that has forever been used to measure the greatest of the great pitchers. Considering his age (40) and intention to retire at some point in the near future, he's not going to reach that mark.
That doesn't mean 250 wins shouldn't be celebrated. After all, it's actually an achievement that should be thought of on par with the big 3-0-0.
In other words, almost exactly the same number of pitchers have at least 250 wins but fewer than 300 as those who have a total beginning with the number "3." That means the 250-win club is just as exclusive—if not quite as impressive—as the 300-win club.
It also makes for a neat and tidy way of recalibrating our brains to accept that 250 is the new 300.
The 250-Win Club
The table below shows the 23 pitchers who have between 250 and 299 wins in history. It also has their career win totals, the ages at which they earned career victory No. 100, No. 175 and No. 250, and the seasons in which they earned their 250th wins.
The average ages for each plateau—100th win, 175th win and 250th win—are noted in the final row at the bottom.
As you can tell from the chart, Pettitte actually was pretty much right on target at the first marker, as he made it to No. 100 at 28 years old, compared to the 27.5 average age.
Things backed up on the veteran left-hander from there, though, at least compared to the averages. Pettitte reached No. 175—halfway between No. 100 and No. 250—six birthdays later, at age 34, two full years behind the pace.
Then, in order to get to his 250th, Pettitte needed seven more years, compared to the average of five more. As such, the longtime Yankees starter, in his age-41 season,* came in four years older than the average age.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you.
*Technically, Pettitte won his 250th game while still 40 years old, but because his birthday is June 15, he's in his age-41 season. In other words, his baseball age for 2013 is 41, according to Baseball Reference.
Post-World War II Members
For comparison's sake going forward, let's whittle this list down by focusing solely on those members who debuted after World War II, which eliminates some of the statistics and performances that belong to a time when baseball was an entirely different game.
For instance, you might've noticed above that Al Spalding, who debuted all the way back in 1871, managed to get his 100th win at age 23, then his 175th at 24, followed by his 250th at 25. That's incredible—Spalding won 52, 54 and 57 games from 1874 to 1876—but it's the type of anomaly that skews the numbers a bit too much for the purpose of comparison to a more relevant era.
Here, then, are the 11 mound men who fall in the 250-to-299-win group and started their careers after World War II:
It's easy to see that Pettitte falls much closer to the averages for each plateau.
Why 250 Is the New 300
As alluded to above, baseball has changed dramatically over the years when it comes to pitcher usage—and it's doing so in ways that are hurting starters' chances at reaching 300 victories.
For one, starters are throwing fewer innings per outing on average, as the chart at the right shows. By using FanGraphs to tally the number of total games started and total innings pitched by starters during each of the past six decades, we can determine the average number of innings per start, which has unsurprisingly declined every 10-year period since the 1950s.
This, of course, is directly related to the proliferation of relievers over the past few decades, as well as teams becoming extra cautious about not overtaxing and risking injury to their multimillion-dollar starting pitchers.
Obviously, fewer innings pitched by starters means fewer opportunities for them to earn a decision—and a win, which is the point of all this.
Think about it in simple terms: If a starting pitcher lasts only five or six innings, which is the norm today, he basically needs his team to be ahead at the time he exits the game and then stay ahead the rest of the way.
To that end, here's a table that shows the percentage of all wins achieved by starting pitchers every decade since 1950 (again, using FanGraphs):
Plain as day: The percentage of wins starters have accounted for has declined for six straight decades, starting with the 1950s.
Fewer innings per start...fewer opportunities for wins...fewer wins.
The Next Members
Given all of the above, which hurlers have the best shot at joining Pettitte in reaching 250 wins?
Let's use our table from above, the one that lists the average ages at which various win totals were reached by those who debuted after World War II and got to the 250-to-299 range.
These are the 15 active arms who have made it to win No. 100 by their age-29 season:
That's a talented bunch of pitchers, no? Most of them are or have been elite starters at some point in their careers.
But even among this group, when you check their current win totals against their current ages, how many are you ready to say with any real confidence will get to 250 wins?
Sabathia is in good shape, obviously, and would have to be the top candidate.
Verlander, of course, is at the top of his game and looks like a strong possibility, but a lot can happen to keep him from getting 118 more wins.
Hudson and Hernandez are on opposite ends of the age spectrum, but if the former can hang around for a few more years, he's got at least an outside shot because he's already crossed the 200-win plateau. The latter has more time on his side but has only just surpassed 100 career wins.
And here are the four hurlers who are still pitching after earning their 175th wins by their age-34 campaigns:
The only new name here is Roy Halladay. While he seemed like a sure shot as recently as a year ago, he's a perfect example of how quickly a pitcher's career can take a turn for the worse.
Mark Buehrle, by the way, always flies under the radar in these sort of lists, and he should certainly be considered. But it's also tough to get behind a guy who has won just two of his 12 starts this year and currently sports an ERA north of five.
Surely, there are plenty of supremely talented younger pitchers who could be considered candidates to get to 250 if everything goes just right.
Clayton Kershaw, of course, comes to mind, as does David Price, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and, really, a host of others.
But as this is an old man's achievement, it's a bit presumptuous to throw names out there just because they're hot and young and their careers are off to fantastic beginnings.
When it comes to the 250-win club, after all, it's not how you start but how you finish.
300 versus 250
Will we see another 300-game winner? It's a fair question to ponder given the trends.
In all likelihood, someone will reach that mark at some point, but an already-exclusive club isn't going to be adding many more members.
So, instead of holding onto such an impossibly high standard, let's lower the measurement a notch without actually lowering the performance level.
While "300" looks impressive, "250" is not only equally appealing to the eye as a nice, round number, but it's also just as hard a club to get into.
Just ask the newest member.
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