You know, I understand that baseball writers aren’t up on the latest studies of the game. I don’t expect them to be. I don’t expect encyclopedic knowledge. What I do expect is a basic understanding of history.
Early Wynn won his 300th (and last) game in 1963. (He was obviously holding on to get that win, though he was still a fairly effective part-time pitcher at 43.) Wynn went around for years — supported by the usual suspects in the press — saying he would be the last 300-game winner.
Phil Niekro won his 300th game in 1985. Don Sutton won his 300th game in 1986. Nolan Ryan won his in 1990. Sutton at about this time began broadcasting Braves games and routinely saying that no one would ever win 300 games again (while watching Greg Maddux win 15-18 games a year like clockwork), supported by the usual suspects in the press.
Roger Clemens won his 300th game last season. Greg Maddux will win his this season, hopefully in his next start against the Phillies. Soon after, one of them — Clemens is my guess — will start saying that nobody will ever win 300 games again. And John Donovan is already supporting him.
It’s a crap argument. Until they reach the 260-win mark or so, the odds are against any pitcher winning 300. But if one pitcher has a ten percent chance, and another has a ten percent chance, and three others have seven percent chances… well, if you have ten guys with five percent or better chances of winning 300 games, it becomes pretty likely that at least one of them will win 300 games.
Donovan relies upon a number of arguments that are in fact misproven by Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens. Pitchers are being used in five-man rotations now, so they get fewer starts? Well, what’s new about that? Maddux and Clemens (and Sutton, for that matter) spent their entire careers in five-man rotations. Relievers are being used more? Well, maybe they’re sucking up more decisions, but (a) this is less of a problem for the elite pitchers, and (b) using top relievers to finish games rather than letting starters hang out to dry gives starters a better chance of getting a decision, not a worse one. Even mediocre closers save eighty percent or more of their chances.
I haven’t worked it out, but Tom Glavine still has a reasonable shot at 300 wins. (It would be better if he’d stayed in Atlanta, but I told him that at the time. But does he ever listen? No, of course not.) I think he’s likely to pitch until he’s 42 or 43, and in those circumstances would only need to add about ten wins a year. Donovan mentions Glavine as having a real chance, but underestimates it. Randy Johnson is further away, but he’s such an unusual pitcher I wouldn’t say he’s a stretch — so to speak — to get there. The real question for Johnson is his knee, because his arm is still sound, and with his strikeout rate he might pitch until he’s fifty.
At any event, Donovan has no idea what the careers of younger pitchers will look like in their thirties. Pedro Martinez is only 32, has 177 wins, and still one of the better pitchers in the game. What does he have to do to win 300? 11-12 wins a year for ten years. Pitching until he’s 42 may seem unlikely, but it’s pretty common in the modern game. Clemens, the pitcher first on Martinez’s similarity list, is 41.
Anyway, 300-game winners tend to clump. A lot of them came into the game in the late sixties and early seventies, so we had a lot of them win their 300th in the mid-eighties. (There were also a lot of pitchers who came up just short at the same time.) A lot of them won theirs in the years immediately before Wynn. Maybe there really aren’t any established pitchers who will win 300 games after Maddux. But I wouldn’t bet on it, and I’m sure that someone, sometime, will be the next 300 game winner. And there will be a writer there to say that he’ll be the last.
(Cross-posted to War Liberal.)