Or at least that’s what they said at the time…
Unfortunately, I don’t have the article anymore, but there was a piece that ran in Baseball Digest right about this time, in which the author claimed that Sutton would be the last pitcher to ever achieve this feat. Other articles appeared in print right after it happened, making similar statements.
Sutton was the last of five veteran pitchers, stars of the 1960s and 1970s, who reached 300 career victories in the mid-1980s. Others who did so were Gaylord Perry and Steve Carlton (1983), and Phil Niekro and Tom Seaver (1985).
In the article, the chances of several other pitchers in the 200-win range (at the time) were written off because they were all seen to be approaching retirement age.
For the most part, they were right. Tommy John and Bert Blyleven lasted longer than anyone could have imagined at the time, but stopped at 288 and 287 wins, respectively.
But they were wrong about one guy. A 39-year-old fireballer down in Houston, who had 241 wins going into ’86, managed to pitch eight more seasons and win 83 more games. In 1990, Nolan Ryan joined the 300-win club.
Again, articles were written that said Ryan was the “last of his kind.” The current generation of pitchers just didn’t have the dedication or motivation to stay in shape and train, because of today’s salaries.
We all knew that was true, right?
Time passed, and then Roger Clemens reached the 300-win mark in 2002. Maybe we can throw that one out, given what we know now, but how do you explain Greg Maddux two years later? Three years after Maddux reached 300 wins, his old Braves teammate Tom Glavine reached the magic number, too.
As soon as he did, it looked like every writer in America dusted off his or her Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan pieces, changed a few names here and there, and published them once again. Surely, Glavine had to be the last 300-game winner.
Now Randy Johnson just reached 300, and I've already seen a few articles on this very site either talking about how hard it is to win 300 games (no kidding!), so Johnson is surely going to be the last man to ever achieve the feat.
I wish like heck I had a time machine, so I could debunk these articles by showing people the ones on CC Sabathia's 300th career victory in 2020, or the ones on Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt's 300th victories two years later, but I don't, so I'll just have to wait for the next "last 300-game winner ever" like everyone else, I guess.
The problem, of course, is people ignoring the perspective of history, and not realizing that certain changes in playing conditions do tend to even out. On top of that, there is the unavoidable fact that some players just surprise you.
I was writing a sports column for a newspaper on May 28, 2003, when I wrote off the 300-win hopes of a certain power pitcher who had just suffered a severe knee injury that required surgery. He was 39 years old and had 225 career wins at the time.
As you might have guessed, that pitcher's name was Randy Johnson.
The odds are strong that Johnson will be the last 300-game winner for a while. Jamie Moyer has 249 wins, but he's 46. Andy Pettite, 37, is next on the active list with 219 wins. Following him on the list are John Smoltz (210, 42), Tim Wakefield (184, 42) and Bartolo Colon (153, 36). And don't forget Pedro Martinez, with 214 wins at age 37, who is inactive right now but not retired.
There's something to note about this list, though. Glavine is 43, Johnson 45, Smoltz and Wakefield 42. Pitchers who just went off the winningest active pitchers list in the last two years include Maddux (42 at retirement), David Wells (44), Kenny Rogers (43), Mike Mussina (40) and Curt Schilling (41).
Of course, it's impossible to win 300 games now. Pitchers don't start enough games or pitch enough innings. But...
Thanks to modern training and the practice of limiting a starting pitcher’s workload, more and more pitchers are lasting deep into their 40s. It’s true that these practices limit a pitcher’s chance to win 20 or more games in a single season, but it helps them to last much, much longer.
In talking about Sandy Koufax in the “New Historical Baseball Abstract,” Bill James said this about the 1960’s Dodgers ace:
“Koufax…would have an entirely different career if he pitched today… In the modern world, the team would think 'We’ve got to protect Sandy at all costs.' He’d come out of the game after 6, 7 innings, they’d push his start back if his elbow swelled up, and he’d go on the DL when it really started to hurt. He’d wind up the year 16-5 rather than 26-7, but he’d pitch until he was 40, rather than being forced into retirement at 30.”
He’d also have won a lot more games than the 165 he’s shown with in the record books, just as Martinez, the Koufax of our generation, has been able to do.
I don’t know if baseball writers are just generally lacking in their knowledge of baseball history and the dynamics of modern pitching staffs, or if they just need some good copy and pen these articles once a decade. Either way, Randy Johnson's not about to become the last of his kind.
He's just the newest member of the club.