Of all of America’s professional sports, Major League Baseball has changed the most since its inception.
With every new decade came a new trend—from the Live Ball Era beginning in the 1920s to the Pitcher’s Era of the 1960s to the Home Run Era beginning in the 1990s.
Through all that upheaval, though, there was always a landmark statistic for pitchers to reach—300 wins. When a pitcher won his 300th game, he became a lock for Cooperstown.
However, due to many changes in the game today, winning 300 games has likely become a thing of the past.
To win 300 games, a pitcher must average 15 wins over a career of 20 years. The shortest career of any 300-game winner in the live ball era was the 17-year career of Lefty Grove, who still pitched in a time where winning 30 games was not out of the question (something he did in 1931).
Since World War II, 363-game winner Warren Spahn had the shortest career of any 300-game winner, at 21 years. Spahn was something out of the ordinary, though, winning 20 or more games 13 times in his career with the Boston/Milwaukee Braves, New York Mets, and San Francisco Giants.
However, Spahn pitched in an era where winning 20 games was commonplace. A quick survey of Cy Young Award winners since 1990 shows that 20 of the 34 awards handed out went to 20-game winners.
Compare that to another 17-year period from 1956 (the first year the Cy Young was awarded) to 1973, and only one of the pitchers to receive the award during this period did not have 20 or more wins—Tom Seaver, who won the NL Cy Young in 1973.
So what enabled these pitchers to win so many games so easily? There are two main factors: the presence of four-man starting rotations and the small role played by bullpens.
A perfect example of this is the 1965 World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers had a four-man rotation of Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Claude Osteen, and Johnny Podres.
Drysdale threw 308 1/3 innings, Koufax 335 2/3, Osteen 287, and Podres 134. The Dodgers essentially had a three-and-a-half man rotation because Koufax, Drysdale, and Osteen were so good.
Up until the mid-1970s, teams were more than willing to lean heavily on their top two or three starting pitchers. This strategy allowed these top starters to pitch more—Drysdale started 42 games, Koufax 41, and Osteen 40—and thus get more wins—Dysdale had 23, Koufax 26, and Osteen 15.
Also contributing to the win totals of Drysdale and Koufax was the fact that the Dodgers only carried five relief pitchers. The most-used out of the group were Ron Perranoski, Bob Miller, and Howie Reed, who threw 104 2/3, 103, and 78 innings, respectively.
While these three relievers were very good (ERAs of 2.24, 2.97, and 3.12, respectively), they were not used very often to finish games.
Perranoski had 17 saves, but his 59 appearances suggest that he was used more as a multi-inning reliever than a modern-day closer. The same goes for Miller and Reed, who averaged just over 1.5 and 2.0 innings per appearance, respectively.
Drysdale and Koufax threw a combined 47 complete games, while Osteen and Podres added nine and two of their own to give the 1965 Dodgers 58 complete games for the season.
Fast-forward 40 years and a lot has changed. Four-man rotations have all but disappeared from the game, and bullpens are used more than ever.
A good team to compare to the 1965 Dodgers is the 2005 Chicago White Sox (yes, I'm a homer and I know it).
Both teams won a World Series and had above-average pitching staffs that are still typical of the time period. The White Sox’s five-man rotation was Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, and Orlando Hernandez/Brandon McCarthy. No one starter was relied upon in the way Koufax and Drysdale were, and if you combine the statistics of Hernandez and McCarthy (McCarthy filled in for the oft-injured Hernandez), the White Sox had five pitchers who threw 200 innings or more, but none who threw more than 240.
Buehrle led the team with 236 2/3.
The five-man rotation divided the season equally, as Buehrle and Garcia (the top two starters) pitched 33 games while the other starters threw 32. The White Sox threw nine complete games—a fairly high number for the period—including three by both Buehrle and Garland.
The White Sox always employed at least a six-man bullpen, with each pitcher assigned to a specific role. For example, Neal Cotts and Damaso Marte were typical left-handed specialists, appearing in 69 and 66 games and throwing 60 1/3 and 45 1/3 innings, respectively. Rarely did manager Ozzie Guillen let Cotts and Marte face right-handed hitters.
Even right-hander Cliff Politte, who put together a masterful season, did not average an inning of work per outing. The only pitchers who averaged more than an inning per outing on the team were closers Dustin Hermanson and Bobby Jenks and mop-up man Luis Vizcaino.
So what did this mean for the White Sox's starting rotation? For example, right-hander Freddy Garcia could be pitching in a 3-2 game against the Cleveland Indians. It’s the seventh inning, he has 100 pitches, two outs, nobody on base, and the slugging lefty Travis Hafner comes up to hit.
Guillen calls for Marte out of the bullpen, and Marte promptly surrenders a solo home run to Hafner, tying the game.
Garcia gets the no-decision and thus cannot win the game.
Situations like this have been typical for teams across baseball as the emphasis on the bullpen has grown. This leads to fewer wins for starting pitchers—the most on the team was 18 by Garland, followed by Buehrle’s 16, Contreras’ 15, Garcia’s 14, and Hernandez/McCarthy’s 12.
When one compares these two teams, it’s obvious that the 300-win mark is something that pitchers cannot be expected to reach.
Active 300-game winners Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Roger Clemens (hhhmmm...maybe I should take him off this list after the Mitchell Report) all have pitched well into their 40s and are a dying breed.
Of active pitchers 30 years old or younger, Javier Vazquez (age 30) has the most wins with 115. Barry Zito (29) has 113, Roy Oswalt (29) has 112, Buehrle (28) has 107, and C.C. Sabathia (26) has 100.
If Sabathia pitches to age 40, he would have to average 14 wins per year—a stat that sounds doable. But Sabathia—a power pitcher who relies on a mid-90s fastball—will eventually lose velocity and likely won’t make as a major-league pitcher at age 40.
Of all the pitchers listed, Buehrle probably has the best chance at winning 300, as he is a pitcher in the mold of Tom Glavine—a soft-tossing left-hander with good control of a four-seam fastball, changeup, and cut fastball. Buehrle does not rely on velocity or breaking pitches—although he has a very good curveball—and likely could pitch as long as Glavine or Jamie Moyer have gone.
However, Buehrle’s chances of winning 300 are still very slim simply because of the five-man rotation and the advent of bullpen use.
So what needs to be done to the 300-win benchmark?
It should be scrapped entirely.
Wins by a starting pitcher are not valued as much as quality starts and ERA are, so it shouldn’t be valued so highly for Hall of Fame voting. Voters should look at the entire scope of a pitcher’s career and see if he was consistently able to keep his team in games.
The perfect example of a Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher who will not win 300 games is Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins. Santana will be 29 for Opening Day 2008 and has 93 wins. However, he has been the best pitcher in baseball since 2004. He consistently keeps the Twins in games with the best left-handed changeup the game has seen in decades.
Santana’s career ERA will almost certainly be below 3.50 and he likely will end up with over 3,000 strikeouts. But there’s almost no chance that Santana reaches 300 wins.
Will that keep him out of the Hall of Fame?
If some voters are still stuck in the past, it might. However, if voters don’t look at wins and instead look at Santana’s ERA, strikeouts, and quality starts, he should be a lock to go to Cooperstown.
The problem with scrapping the 300-win statistic is that the criteria for voting in a pitcher becomes very subjective. Looking down a list of the top starting pitchers in baseball today, no names jump out as “Hall of Fame-worthy” besides Santana, John Smoltz, and Pedro Martinez, both of whom should be Hall of Fame locks despite not having 300 victories.
Smoltz has a career ERA of 3.26 and is just 25 strikeouts away from reaching 3,000 for his career—which also included 154 saves in four years as a closer. Martinez leads all active pitchers with a 2.80 ERA, has 3,030 career strikeouts, and has earned an incredible 1.03 WHIP for his career.
But of younger pitchers of the day, no name really jumps out. Perhaps it's because most of the top-tier pitchers in today’s game don't pitch in large markets, thus meaning they don't get as much exposure as a Curt Schilling, who will make a push to the Hall of Fame largely in part to his service time in Boston.
Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Jake Peavy of the San Diego Padres, Roy Oswalt of the Houston Astros, Roy Halladay of the Toronto Blue Jays, Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox, and C.C. Sabathia of the Cleveland Indians are all excellent starting pitchers who would definitely make pushes for Cooperstown when their careers are over if they played in larger markets.
With no set criteria for voters to base their judgment on, though, some may resort to voting for the players they’ve seen the most—meaning a Josh Beckett would likely get into the Hall of Fame easier or with more votes than a Jake Peavy.
With all that in mind, here’s what my ballot would look like 20 years down the road if none of these pitchers experience a significant drop-off:
1. Jake Peavy
Watching Peavy pitch is always a treat. He has electric stuff that includes an upper-90s fastball with pinpoint accuracy and a devastating breaking ball that causes hitters fits.
In just six years in the major leagues, Peavy has amassed 1,090 strikeouts to just 348 walks and an ERA of 3.31. He is one of the most dominant starting pitcher in the game today and is definitely deserving of induction into the Hall of Fame.
2. Brandon Webb
It’s hard to keep somebody out of the Hall of Fame who has the best command of a single pitch maybe in the history of baseball.
Webb knows how to use his sinker to perfection, yielding 2,063 groundball outs compared to 552 flyball outs in his five-year career. Webb’s ability to frustrate hitters with his tremendous drop ball has led him to a 3.22 career ERA and has made him worthy of a spot in Cooperstown.
3. Roy Oswalt
As good as Jake Peavy has been for San Diego, Oswalt arguably has been better for Houston.
A quick rundown of his seasonal ERAs from 2001-2007: 2.73, 3.01, 2.97, 3.49, 2.94, 2.98, and 3.18, good for a career ERA of 3.07.
Every time Oswalt takes the mound for Houston, the Astros know they will have a chance to win (despite their atrocious offense the last few years). Over seven years, Oswalt has racked up 1,170 strikeouts compared to just 323 walks. His quick, deceptive motion is able to generate 97 MPH fastballs coming from his undersized 6’0”, 170-pound frame.
He has the ability to throw a no-hitter on any given night, and is deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame.
The two most notable pitchers missing the cut for me were Roy Halladay and C.C. Sabathia.
Halladay is very good, but he has been aided greatly by the powerful offenses Toronto has put out on the field in the last five year. Halladay never has had the opportunity to pitch in a big game with the Blue Jays. Maybe if Toronto starts competing with the Yankees and Red Sox and Halladay comes up with a few solid outings in big games, that'll sway me to vote for him.
Sabathia was good but not great, posting ERAs above 4.00 in four or his seven years of major league service.
To me, Halladay and Sabathia don’t make the cut, but it’s not by a wide margin that I wouldn’t vote for them.
Winning 300 games is still an incredible accomplishment, and by no means am I saying that if a pitcher wins 300 games, he shouldn’t be voted into the Hall of Fame.
However, it’s an accomplishment that has become exceptionally rare—not because of anything the pitchers are doing wrong, but because of the direction baseball is going in.
The changes to the game over the last 20 years and the changes that will be made in the future have and will make it nearly impossible for a pitcher to win 300 games, so the criteria for admitting a pitcher into the Hall of Fame needs to be revisited.