Chasing 300

Tuesday, March 01 2005 @ 07:02 AM EST

Contributed by: Magpie

Last week Notes From Nowhere saw some discussion of the outstanding young pitchers we have today. In general, there was a lot of pessimism about the chances of any of them to make it to 300 wins.

Some of the comments:

....As run scoring increases, it becomes harder for starters to run up those 24 win seasons that help them get there. (Mike Green)

...[Gleeman] concluded that the next 300 game winner was probably in a schoolyard somewhere.(Mike Green)

...Prior probably has the best shot at 300 if he can stay off the DL. Doesn't it really come down to two things - starting young and staying healthy? (GrrBear)

...The requirement is, over 20 years, to average 15 wins per year ala Maddux. However, to get 20 years you have to start by 20-22 I'd think which is harder and harder to do as college becomes a bigger factor I'd think. (John Northey)

...the most important thing about Maddux and Clemens is that they've been able to stay healthy throughout their careers. (Best400)

The idea that the increased run scoring in today's game has an impact in pitcher's wins seems intuitively wrong to me - every game still has a winner and a loser, whether the scores are 2-1 or 8-6. But who knows?

I thought I'd back away and run at this question from a different context: namely, the apex of another great hitter's era.

You Think There's a Lot of Offense Today?

The post 1994 offensive explosion has actually slowed down a little; this past year, AL teams averaged 5.01 runs per game, NL teams 4.64 per game. The peak came in 2000 when AL teams scored 5.3 runs per game, and NL teams were at 5.0 runs per game. Even so, both leagues still turn pale and tremble in view of the greatest hitter's era of them all.

In 1930, AL teams averaged 5.41 runs per game.

And that was nothing. NL teams averaged 5.68 runs per game. Six of the eight teams had batting averages above .300; the league - the whole freaking league, pitchers and all - batted .303. The league ERA was 5.68; just one team, Brooklyn, had an ERA below 5.00. Four of the eight teams - that's half the league - scored 944 runs or more. In 2004, exactly one team out of thirty was able to score 900 runs (Boston with 949.)

Pitching in the Year of the Big Bat

It was a tough time to be a pitcher. Probably the toughest of them all. So - where were the 300 game winners?

In the spring of 1930, there was one active pitcher who already had 300 wins. Pete Alexander had won 373 games in a career that had started back in 1911. By 1930 Alexander was 43 years old, and had returned to the Phillies where he had started his career. He had nothing left, and was released in early June after going 0-3.

There were a number of veterans who had made it to within shouting distance of 300, but none would manage to cover the final mile.

Eppa Rixey had 242 wins going into 1930; but he was 39 years old, coming off a 10-13 season, and playing for a terrible Cincinnati team. He would finish with 266. Red Faber had 239 wins, but he was already 41 years old.

Burleigh Grimes, the last of the spitballers, had a better chance than Rixey or Faber. Grimes was 36 years old in 1930; he had 224 wins and was coming off a 17-7 season for Pittsburgh. For some reason he now began ricocheting around the league like a pinball: from Pittsburgh to Boston to St Louis (in 1930). He had a couple decent years in St.Louis and then it was on to Chicago (1932), back to St Louis (1933), back to Pittsburgh (1934), and finally to New York (1934) where he won his last game, number 270 of his career.

There were a number of younger pitchers active in 1930 who might have had a chance to get there, but didn't for one reason or another. Ted Lyons had 104 wins through 1929, and he would have a fine year in 1930 winning 22 more. Alas, Lyons was already 29 years old, so time was already working against him. Furthermore, the White Sox were a pretty terrible team - the most games they won in any season from 1927 through 1935 was 74. In the end, Lyons would only (only?) get 260 wins.

Dizzy Dean pitched a three-hitter to win his ML debut in September 1930, and through 1936 he had won 120 games and was still just 26 years old. But as everyone knows, Dean hurt his arm in 1937, and ended up with just 150.

However, in 1930, two of the greatest LH pitchers ever were both moving into their prime. Carl Hubbell would turn 27 in June 1930. That season, he would win 17 games for the Giants. This gave him... 45 career wins? That's all?

Yup. Hubbell was 25 years old when he made his ML debut; he was 30 years old when he began his streak of five 20 win seasons in a row. Hubbell would wind up with 253 wins. Unless you throw a knuckleball, you really need to get started a little sooner than he did.

Unless your name is Lefty Grove, that is. Grove, three years older than Hubbell, also made his ML debut when he was 25. In the spring of 1930, Grove was 30 years old and had won 87 games in his five seasons. Of course, he was Lefty Grove, and he was about to win 84 games over the next three years. He is the only pitcher who was active in 1930 who would eventually make it to 300.

Thanks to his late start it was life and death for Grove to get there. One of the side attractions of the memorable 1941 season, besides DiMaggio's streak and Ted Williams pursuit of .400, was the grim battle of Lefty Grove to win his 300th game. He finally got there, a week after DiMaggio's streak ended at 56 games. We would see a very similar scenario played out in 1963 when Early Wynn tried to nail down his 300th win so he could retire.

There was another man who probably should have made it to 300 wins. Interestingly, he's probably the last guy you would have picked if you were looking around for possible 300 win candidates in the spring of 1930. But as Yogi once said, and as I never get tired of repeating, "In baseball, you don't know nothing." Which is doubtless something we should always remember.

In May 1930, Red Ruffing of the Boston Red Sox had a career W-L record of 39-96; he had lost 22 games in 1929, and 25 games in 1928. Yes, the Red Sox were really, really bad. But then he got a birthday present; three days after he turned 25, the Red Sox traded him to the Yankees for a fourth outfielder and a lot of cash.

You'd think the Red Sox would have learned not to sell players to the Yankees? But no...

Over the next 13 seasons, Ruffing won 219 games for the Yankees. He never won more than 21 in any single season; he never made more than 33 starts in any of his years with the Yankees. But he played with one of the greatest teams of all time, and he just kept adding to his total. By 1942, after a 14-7 season at age 37, he had 258 career wins. He then spent 1943 and 1944 in the US Army, and was 40 years old when he returned in mid-1945. He still had a little left; he went 7-3 in 11 starts. Ruffing finished with 273 wins, and if not for World War II obviously would have had a very good chance of getting to 300.

Early Wynn was 10 years old in 1930; Warren Spahn, who would win more games than anyone since Pete Alexander, was just 9 years old. Bob Feller turned 12 in 1930. Feller would have 107 wins by the time he turned 22. He would still have 107 wins by the time he turned 25, however, after spending three years in the military during the Second World War. He won 266 games anyway, and surely would have cleared 300 with ease if not for missing 3 and a half prime years.

So Who Wins 300 Games Anyway?

Pete Alexander was the 11th man to win 300 games; however, he was just the fourth to do so in a career that began after the mound was moved to its current distance. Cy Young did win 439 games after the mound was moved back, and Kid Nichols certainly would have won 300 if he'd spent his whole career pitching at the modern distance: he won 92 at 50 feet, and 273 at 60 feet. The longer distance didn't hurt him (or Young) as much as it did some other guys.

The first three 300 winners whose careers began with the mound at its current distance were Walter Johnson (1920), Christy Mathewson (1912), and Eddie Plank (1915 if we count the Federal League, otherwise 1916). Pete Alexander made it a foursome in September 1924. It would almost 17 years before another man would reach 300 - Lefty Grove got there in July 1941. Twenty years after that, Warren Spahn won his 300th in August 1961; he was followed comparatively quickly by Early Wynn in July 1963. So that's seven pitchers making it to 300 over a little more than 50 years. There should have been more - Feller and probably Ruffing should be there, but the war prevented it.

And then we have another of those twenty-year gaps, from Early Wynn to Gaylord Perry in 1982.

Beginning with Perry, the 300 win club has swelled by eight. Six of those men were active in the early 1970s, when for some reason starting pitchers were suddenly making 40 starts and working 325 IP, just as if it was 1915 all over again. So five of those pitchers cleared 300 wins over a five year period in the early 1980s:

Gaylord Perry 1982
Steve Carlton 1983
Tom Seaver 1985
Phil Niekro 1985
Don Sutton 1986

Nolan Ryan was part of that generation, too; he just got started a little later, and wasn't nearly as good as Seaver or Carlton anyway. Ryan pitched forever, though, and made it to 300 in 1990. And since then, the two greatest pitchers of our generation have joined the club: Roger Clemens in 2003 and Greg Maddux in 2004.

What Does It All Mean?

Is there an intelligent conclusion I can draw from all this?

Probably not, but let's try this. The anomaly in the records is the Gang of Six that cleared 300 in the 1982 to 1990 period. Now 300 wins is a huge, huge achievement. It's something that should only be accessible to all-time greats. Clemens and Maddux qualify, for sure. So do Carlton and Seaver. But Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, and Phil Niekro? They were all outstanding pitchers, especially Perry, but just not quite the same level. They made it to 300 because: a) they all benefitted from 1970s pitcher usage patterns, and b) they all survived 1970s pitcher usage patterns.

Not everyone survived. Catfish Hunter had 202 wins by the time he was 30 - Mathewson and Alexander were the only others with as many wins before turning 31. Catfish won just 22 afterwards, though. Jim Palmer had 215 wins by age 32, but by then he had pitched at least 296 innings in four straight years. From that point on, he was able to make 30 starts in a season just two more times.

Really, it's what you always suspected. Only the all-time greats are likely to have even a chance of getting to 300. If they start young, and if they stay healthy.

Do any of them walk amongst us now?

Sure. Randy Johnson has 246 wins. He is 41 years old, but his contract is guaranteed until... I dunno, the return of Halley's Comet? Is that current Yankee policy? Anyway, the Unit should get the opportunity. He needs to win 18 games a year for three years. Of course, if he wins 24 this year and 22 next year - and who says he can't - he'd be sitting at 292.

Tom Glavine is actually both closer to 300 than Johnson, and almost three years younger. He turns 39 in March and he needs 38 more wins. Alas, he now works for the Mets. Glavine pitched quite well in 2004, but could only win 11 games. He needs a little more help from his teammates than he's been receiving. He's three years away, but he's still got a chance.

Mike Mussina is now 36, and he needs another 89 wins. He's on a pretty good team, his strikeout rates are still very good, and he's generally been healthy. He's still in the hunt, but he has to average 18 wins a year for another five years. That seems a bit too much to expect.

There is one more veteran contender. If I told you there was a 33 year old pitcher with 182 career wins, coming off a year when he won 16 games and struck out 227 men in 217 IP, you'd think "this guy has a chance." Another eight seasons averaging 14 or 15 wins... seems reasonable. It's just that everyone seems to assume that Pedro Martinez will lose his effectiveness before that happens. And he probably will, I guess... it's just that I'd like to see Pedro actually lose his effectiveness before I write him off. Haven't seen it, no matter how damaged that shoulder may be.

And Mark Prior is 24 years old. Let's watch.