Evolution of the Pitching Staff: Why Randy Johnson Is the Last to Win 300

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Evolution of the Pitching Staff: Why Randy Johnson Is the Last to Win 300
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Randy Johnson won his 300th career game on Thursday afternoon.

I hope you had the DVR set, because Johnson will be the last pitcher we ever see reaching the 300-win milestone.

The evolution of a manager’s approach to his pitching staff has presented two factors that are going to prevent future pitchers from reaching 300 wins: longevity and pitch counts.

 

Longevity

Long gone are the days of 30-win seasons.

That means in this era, a pitcher needs to win 15 games per year for 20 seasons to tally 300 wins.

Johan Santana is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, and 10 years into his career, he has 116 wins. He is averaging exactly 15 wins a year. This would require him to pitch 10 more seasons at the same level to reach 300 wins.

As a comparison, let’s look at Juan Marichal to see how difficult it is to reach 300 wins. Here is a breakdown of Marichal’s win totals (Note: Marichal appeared in two games in 1975 without recording a victory):

Year

Wins

Year

Wins

1960

6

1968

26

1961

13

1969

21

1962

18

1970

12

1963

25

1971

18

1964

21

1972

6

1965

22

1973

11

1966

25

1974

5

1967

14

Total

243

Marichal accumulated 20 wins in six out of seven seasons from '63-'69 (Santana has won 20 games just once, in '04). He was a nine-time all-star and one of the premier pitchers of his era.

However, he still ended his career 57 victories shy of 300. He experienced back problems starting in 1970 and was clearly never the same since.

From this example, we can draw the obvious conclusion that in order to win 300 games, a pitcher must achieve above-average success on the mound for an extended period of time. Even for a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher like Marichal, it is incredibly difficult to stay healthy and keep performing for such a long period of time.

Consider this:

From 1901-1980, the league leader in wins, in either the American or National league, had at least 20 wins in all but three seasons:

1931: (NL) Jumbo Elliot, Heinie Meine, and Bill Hallahan

1955: (AL) Whitey Ford, Bob Lemon, and Frank Sullivan

1960: (AL) Chuck Estrada and Jim Perry

From 1981-2009, there were eight such seasons when the league leader in either league failed to reach 20 wins ('81-'83, '87, '94-'95, '06-'07).

In 1981, both the AL (Dennis Martinez, Steve McCatty, Jack Morris, and Pete Vuckovich) and NL (Tom Seaver) league leaders had just 14 wins.

1981, '94-'95, and 2006 all saw neither league have a pitcher record 20 wins, which was never done previous to 1981.

It’s well known that pitchers win fewer games in this era as compared to early in the 1900s. From this data, it is clear that a large shift occurred in pitchers' wins in the early '80s.

Managers began to want to preserve pitchers' arms, and in turn, the outings for starters have shortened considerably in the past 20 years.

This leads to the second factor that will prevent a future 300-game winner: pitch counts.

 

Pitch Counts

They are a general manager’s attempt to maintain longevity. GMs have to look at their pitchers as investments rather than players. This places a more strict watch on the number of pitches thrown over the course of a season for a pitcher.

Staying with the Marichal and Santana examples, when Marichal won 26 games in 1968, he pitched nine or more innings 28 of his 38 starts. He also went 16-6 on three days' rest.

Compare that to Santana in 2004, when he won 20 games and pitched nine innings just once. In his career, Santana has pitched on three days' rest only four times and has a 2-1 record.

Marichal also won just one game when pitching fewer than seven innings in '68.

These statistics all further reflect the change in how pitching staffs are handled in the present era.

Rather than allow a starter to pitch late into the game, or even close it out without help from the bullpen, a manager is more likely to rely on two or more relief pitchers to close out the game.

The specialization of bullpen members occurred when the bullpen became a more relied upon tool.

Look at how dramatically complete game leaders have dropped in recent years as bullpen usage has evolved:

Era

Complete Games

Pitcher

1943-60

36

Bob Feller

1961-72

30

Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins

1973-87

30

Catfish Hunter

1988-07

15

Orel Hershiser, Danny Jackson, Jack McDowell, Curt Schilling

Complete games have been cut by more than half for this generation of pitchers. Not surprisingly, along with the increased usage of the bullpen, the number of victories for starting pitchers has declined.

This is because nowadays, a pitcher will leave the game in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning with what seems like a comfortable lead. Then, the bullpen “specialists” do their magic.

They make a victory turn into a no decision in the blink of an eye.

A great example of this phenomenon was on Tuesday night during the Diamondbacks' heartwrenching loss to the NL West-leading Dodgers.  

Dan Haren threw seven innings and surrendered only two hits to the Dodgers, who happen to be the best offense in the league. Haren, who out-hit the Dodgers by himself going 3-for-3, turned over a 5-1 lead to Tony Pena.

Entering in the bottom of the eighth, Pena recorded two outs, but in the process loaded the bases. After a four-pitch walk to Orlando Hudson to force in a run, manager A.J. Hinch went to the bullpen once again, this time bringing in rookie Daniel Schlereth.

Hinch was making the left-handed James Loney hit off the 23-year-old southpaw. However, Loney leads the majors in RBI with the bases loaded since 2008 (39).

Schlereth tried to sneak a fastball past Loney. Approximately 380 ft. later, Loney had cleared the bases with a double and collected RBI 40, 41, and 42 with the bases loaded in the past two seasons.

Just like that, Haren saw a victory evaporate.

Although the experience of Dan Haren was just one incident, there are far too many wins lost in the bullpen for starters to achieve 300 career victories.

As it currently stands, there are no pitchers threatening to reach the 300-win milestone. Jamie Moyer won No. 250 this past week, but he is 45 years old and has no chance at winning 50 more games.

Andy Pettitte has 220 and is 37, far too old to get to 300. Roy Halladay is 32 and has just 140 wins.

CC Sabathia most likely has the best chance of any active players, with 122 wins at age 28. Still, he averages just 16 wins per season. If he pitches until he is 40, he needs to average 14.8 wins per season to reach 300.

It has become far too difficult to maintain a high level of success for an extended period of time. So soak in the memories of the Big Unit winning No. 300.

It surely was one for the ages.

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