Three-hundred-game winners are becoming more common, not less.
Now, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but it is absolutely true. Despite all of the things that have worked against pitchers over the past four decades, 300-game winners are becoming a more common occurrence than they have been since the Deadball Era.
In all, there have been 24 pitchers who have reached the 300-win mark. Nine of these starters spent the entirety of their careers in the Deadball Era (usually defined as the MLB era pre-1920). Two others (Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander) reached the mark after the era was over but did the bulk of their work toward 300 wins before 1920.
After Alexander, MLB went through a relative drought of 300-game winners. Only three starters reach the mark between 1925 and 1981, and two of those starters (Lefty Grove and Early Wynn) landed exactly on 300.
Then in 1982, the floodgates opened on the 300-win club, as five pitchers reached the mark within the next five years. Another pitcher (Nolan Ryan) did so in 1990, and the floodgates opened back up in the new millennium when four more names were added to the list.
Complete Games are Not that Important
Complete games have been in decline since 1893, when MLB decided to move the mound back 10 feet from home plate. Gradually, they have nearly been weeded out of the game to the point where they are a noteworthy occurrence in today’s game. One would think that this would have a serious negative impact on a run to 300 wins, as more and more games are being left in the hands of the bullpen rather than the starter.
Of course, this is far from the case, as a reduction of complete games has, if anything, led to more 300-game winners over time. It was certainly true that complete games were vital to getting wins in the Deadball Era (the first 11 to do so all rank among the top 16 in career complete games), but it’s hard to make that case today, as the combined complete game total of the four most recent additions to the club would not crack the top 20 of the all-time list.
It is also important to remember that a complete game ensures that the pitcher will get the decision, not the win. It could be that a reduction of complete games has a bigger impact on a starter’s losses than their wins.
While the data is inconclusive on this point (a lot of modern starters racked up impressive loss totals), it is notable that two of the four lowest loss totals among 300-game winners belong to Roger Clemens (184) and Randy Johnson (166), while Greg Maddux (227) and Tom Glavine (203) both rank in the lower half of the list.
Number of Starts, However, is of Vital Importance
So how are modern starters overcoming the lack of complete games? By making more starts in their careers. As I’ve pointed out previously, modern pitchers are actually making more career starts than ever before; the 22 pitchers who have started 600-plus games in their careers includes all 10 of the recent 300-game winners, as well as at least five of their contemporaries.
Essentially, modern starters are compensating for a reduction in decision rate by increasing the number of possible decisions in their careers.
Of course, this touches on another issue that must be said about 300 game-winners…
The Five-Man Rotation Matters Little in the Quest for 300
Conventional wisdom states that if starters aren’t making as many starts per season as their forefathers, they will have a lower chance of making it to 300 wins. Therefore, anyone who pitches out of a five-man rotation (which originated in the early-1970s and was standard practice by the end of the decade) will have a much more difficult time reaching 300 wins than those in a four-man rotation.
The problem with this logic is that they are using a single-season statistic to judge a career achievement. Single seasons are capped at 162 games (with very rare exceptions); careers have no definitive cap. As such, a pitcher can compensate for a lower number of starts per season by playing more seasons in their careers.
The numbers reflect this very fact: of the 11 Deadball Era starters, only three (Young, Johnson, Alexander) had careers of 20 seasons or longer. On the other hand, every 300-game winner since Grove has pitched at least 20 seasons in the big leagues, with Ryan leading the way at an amazing 27 seasons.
Grove, by the way, is the biggest outlier on the list. Not only is he the only pitcher from the greatest offensive era in MLB history to reach 300 games, but he did so in the fewest starts. Grove was often his team’s top relief ace and appeared in 159 games out of the bullpen.
It’s also worth pointing out that each of the 10 recent 300-game winners spent significant portions of their careers pitching in five-man rotations; in fact, the four most recent additions to the list spent their entire careers in five-man rotations.
And remember: these guys all rank in the top 22 all-time in starts for their careers.
So, Who is Next?
Of course, the debate about 300-game winners has always centered around who will become the next one to reach the milestone. Right now, there are not any obvious candidates on the horizon…or are there?
Through Saturday, CC Sabathia is sitting at 168 wins at age 30—which puts him ahead of the pace of all 10 recent 300-game winners at the same age. Felix Hernandez, who has 79 wins at age 25, is ahead of Sabathia’s pace. Even Roy Halladay, who is sitting at 180 wins at age 34, is a reasonably good candidate since—like every recent 300 game-winner—he profiles to be a durable starter into his 40s.
Now, it’s true that it might be awhile before we see another 300-game winner, but that’s not exactly unprecedented in MLB history; after all, we went 17 years between Alexander and Grove, 20 years between Grove and Warren Spahn and 18 years between Wynn and Gaylord Perry. Heck, we waited 14 years between Ryan and Clemens.
We might have a similar wait for the next 300-game winner; however, as long as starters keep making 600-plus starts in their careers, the list will continue to grow.