Re-Examining 300

The next game Greg Maddux wins — possibly tomorrow against the Brewers — will be his 299th in the major leagues. Now, there are two ways to look at that piece of information. One is that Maddux is just two wins away from joining some very exclusive company in the 300-win club. The other is that Maddux, despite starting at age 20, having essentially an injury-free career and being one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, is still two wins from 300.

Maddux, and Roger Clemens just slightly before him, show what I think is probably the upper limit for a pitcher in the current, five-man-rotation era. Maddux is in his 19th season, he’s had 15 or more wins in every season except his first two, he’s thrown 200+ innings in 15 of his last 16 years, and he has a .637 career winning percentage. And yet, if he continues to pitch at this level until he’s 40 (which is no given, certainly), he’ll end up with maybe 330 wins.

It wasn’t always this way, but the 300-win club has become the toughest to get in to. At the moment, 25 players have reached 3,000 hits, 20 players have reached 500 home runs, and 21 (soon to be 22) players have reached 300 wins.

However, take a look at how many members each club had at the beginning of each decade …

CLUB           1960     1970     1980     1990     2000      NOW
3,000 Hits        7        7       14       15       22       25
300 Wins         12       14       14       19       20       21
500 Home Runs     3        8       12       14       16       20

In other words, since 1960, 18 players have reached 3,000 hits, 17 players have reached 500 home runs, and just nine players have reached 300 wins. For those of you who don’t want to look quite that far back in history, consider that, since 1990, 10 hitters have reached 3,000 hits and six hitters have reached 500 home runs, but just Nolan Ryan and Clemens (and soon to be Maddux) have reached 300 wins.

After Maddux gets #300 this year, I don’t see anyone getting there for quite a while. The closest active pitchers after Maddux are Tom Glavine (258), Randy Johnson (240), Mike Mussina (208), David Wells (206) and Kevin Brown (204). I would give Wells and Brown absolutely zero shot at getting to 300 and, while I think Glavine, Johnson and Mussina all have some sort of a chance, I wouldn’t bet on any of them getting there. Johnson is 40, Glavine is 38 and Mussina, though “only” 35, has a 5.20 ERA this season and would need to average 18 wins a year through age 40 to get #300.

So who does that leave? Well, the active pitcher under 35 years old who has the most wins is Pedro Martinez, who is 32 years old and has 176 wins. Assuming Pedro gets another 6-7 wins this year, he would then need to average 17-18 wins per year through age 39 to reach 300. I’m generally for not putting anything past Pedro Martinez, but even that might be a little much for him, considering his current ERA and always-tender right arm.

All of which is very a long way of saying that I think the “standard” of 300 wins being greatness (or an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame) for a pitcher probably needs to be re-examined. If hitters are joining both the 500-homer and 3,000-hit clubs at double the rate pitchers are joining the 300-win club, and pitchers in this era are starting far fewer games than pitchers were when the 300-win club was being filled up, doesn’t it only make sense to lower the threshold for greatness?

In other words, if we’re going to use “magic numbers” for career milestones, we should at least recognize when the numbers start getting easier or harder to reach. In the case of the number 300, it is no longer effective in identifying great pitchers — it is good at identifying extraordinary pitchers. I’m thinking 250 wins might be the new number. At 250 wins, you’ve got Glavine in, Johnson joining early next year, Mussina still needing three more good years, and guys like Wells and Brown on the outside, looking in. All of which sounds just about right to me.

Now, I’m not going to say that no one is going to join the 300-win club after Maddux does it, because that sort of thinking is just silly. Clearly, if Maddux and Clemens have gotten there, in (more or less) this current era of offense and rotation size, then it can and most likely will be done again. It’s just going to take an extremely special pitcher to do so, someone along the lines of Clemens or Maddux, which is to say one of the greatest handful of pitchers in baseball history.

Meanwhile, guys will be joining the 500-homer club and, to a lesser extent, the 3,000-hit club at much more frequent paces. Hell, just in the past several years, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Ken Griffey Jr. have hit their 500th career home runs, and Fred McGriff is just seven long balls short. In another few years, it’s very likely that Frank Thomas (436), Jeff Bagwell (432), Jim Thome (412), and maybe even guys like Juan Gonzalez (434) and Gary Sheffield (399), will hit their 500th homers. And then right on their tails you’ve got Alex Rodriguez (369) and Manny Ramirez (374), who both seem like pretty safe bets to make it right now.

But if, as I just discussed, the group of active wins leaders like Glavine, Johnson and Mussina doesn’t look likely to provide a bunch of 300-game winners, who might the next 300-game winners be? Well, honestly, I think it’s probably more likely that, aside from Maddux and Clemens, no one pitching in the major leagues right now will ever win 300 games than it is that even one more pitcher will. That might sound severe, but that’s how tough it is to win 300 in your career when, at most, you’re starting 35 games per season.

To see just how many things have to go right for a pitcher to win 300 games in this current era, take a look at where Clemens and Maddux stood in wins through each age …

            20     21     22     23     24     25     26     27     28     29
Clemens      0      9     16     40     60     78     95    116    134    152
Maddux       2      8     26     45     60     75     95    115    131    150

So — and I suppose this makes sense — Clemens and Maddux were both basically half way there at the end of their 20s. I think it’s also interesting to notice just how close they were to each other through each age. They were both at 60 wins through 24, 95 wins through 26, etc.

Also, if you look at the year-by-year path of Tom Seaver, the only other 300-game winner to do so in similar circumstances (that is, not getting 40+ starts in a season several times), it also looks very similar …

            20     21     22     23     24     25     26     27     28     29
Clemens      0      9     16     40     60     78     95    116    134    152
Maddux       2      8     26     45     60     75     95    115    131    150
Seaver       0      0     16     32     57     75     95    116    135    146

Again, it looks to me like you’d better start racking up wins very early, get to around 75 wins by age 25, and be half way to 300 by the time you finish up your age-29 season. With that in mind, there’s one obvious question: Is there anyone out there right now who looks like they can do that?

Let’s take a look. Below you’ll find the year-by-year win totals of every significant or noteworthy starting pitcher (as far as I could determine) currently between the ages of 20 and 29, along with the average of Clemens, Seaver and Maddux through each age. Years marked with an asterisk are the current, in-progress season, so the win total isn’t finished.

                    20     21     22     23     24     25     26     27     28     29
Roger/Greg/Tom       0      6     19     39     59     76     95    116    133    149
 
Edwin Jackson        4*
Zack Greinke         2*
Jeremy Bonderman     6     12*
Dontrelle Willis     0     14     21*
Jerome Williams      0      7     16*
Oliver Perez         4      8     14*
Rich Harden          0      5      9*
C.C. Sabathia       17     30     43     49*
Carlos Zambrano      1      5     18     27*
Mark Prior           0      6     24     26*
Jake Peavy           0      6     18     25*
Jon Garland          4     10     22     34     41*
Josh Beckett         0      2      8     17     21*
Mark Buehrle         0      4     20     39     53     63*
Joel Pineiro         0      1      7     21     37     42*
Ben Sheets           0      0     11     22     33     42*
Johan Santana        0      2      3     11     23     31*
Mark Mulder          0      0      9     30     49     64     77*
Barry Zito           0      0      7     24     47     61     66*
Roy Oswalt           0      0      0     14     33     43     52*
Brad Penny           0      0      8     18     26     40     48*
Javier Vazquez       0      5     14     25     41     51     64     75*
Roy Halladay         0      1      9     13     18     37     59     66*
Kerry Wood           0     13     13     21     33     45     59     64*
Sidney Ponson        0      8     20     29     34     41     58     63*
Randy Wolf           0      0      6     17     27     38     54     58*
Jeff Weaver          0      0      9     20     33     44     51     58*
Wade Miller          0      0      0      6     22     37     51     58*
Kip Wells            0      0      4     10     20     32     42     46*
Tim Hudson           0      0      0     11     31     49     64     80     87*
Freddy Garcia        0      0      0     17     26     44     60     72     80*
Eric Milton          0      0      8     15     28     43     56     57     68*
Kelvim Escobar       0      3     10     24     34     40     45     58     63*
Kevin Millwood       0      0      5     22     40     50     57     75     89     97*
Livan Hernandez      0      0      9     19     27     44     57     69     84     90*
Matt Morris          0      0     12     19     19     22     44     61     72     82*
Matt Clement         0      0      0      3     12     25     34     46     60     67*
Jarrod Washburn      0      0      0      6     10     17     28     46     56     66*

Okay, that’s one gigantic table, but what does it say? Well, I listed the year-by-year win totals of 38 different active pitchers, from guys currently in their age-20 season to guys currently in their age-29 season. The big question is obviously which of them are at or ahead of the paces of Clemens, Maddux and Seaver at the same age?

Setting aside guys like Edwin Jackson, Zack Greinke and Jeremy Bonderman, all of whom simply started pitching at a younger age than the 300-win threesome, four of the remaining 35 pitchers are at least close to the paces of Clemens, Maddux and Seaver, and all four are either in their age-22 or age-23 seasons.

Dontrelle Willis has 21 wins already, which puts him ahead of the pace of the 300-win threesome, who had an average of 19 wins at the end of their age-22 season. Jerome Williams and Oliver Perez, also 22-year-olds, are not to 19 wins yet, but they should be there or very close by season’s end.

C.C. Sabathia is the guy who is the furthest ahead of the pace. Sabathia is in his age-23 season and has 49 wins. The average of the 300-win threesome through age-23 was 39, so Sabathia has a chance to get even further ahead of the pace before the end of the year. If Sabathia can win five more games between now and the end of this season, he would then need just six wins next year (his age-24 season) to stay on the pace.

Above and beyond everything else, what the above table shows is that, the younger you are, the better chance you have of being at or better than the Clemens/Maddux/Seaver pace. All of which says to me just how tough it is for someone to maintain that pace as they get to 26, 27, 28 years old. I mean, Sabathia is ahead of the pace, and has a very good shot at being ahead of the pace after next year too, but do you think he has a good chance of getting to 149 wins through his age-29 season?

Assuming he wins five more games this year, he would then need to win an average of 16 games per season from age 24 to age 29. Sabathia has won at least 16 games in a season just one time, his rookie year, when he won 17 games as a 20-year-old. He won 13 games in both his second and third seasons and is on pace for just 10 wins this season.

Of course, what makes getting 300 wins so incredibly tough is not necessarily staying on pace through your 20s. I mean, let’s say Sabathia benefits from a Cleveland lineup that appears to be getting very good, and he wins those 16 games per year from 24-29. Then he’s sitting at 149 wins after his age-29 season. And guess what? He’s half-way there!

Here’s what Clemens, Maddux and Seaver did after turning 30 …

            30     31     32     33     34     35     36     37     38     39     40     41
Clemens     11     20     30     40     61     81     95    108    128    141    158    169*
Seaver      22     36     57     73     89     99    113    118    127    142    158    165
Maddux      15     34     52     71     90    107    123    139    148*

If the part about getting to 150 wins by the end of your 20s doesn’t kill your chances, the part about getting 150 wins after you turn 30 almost certainly will. So who will the next 300-game winner be, after Maddux gets there this season? My guess is that the guy is probably playing Little League ball right now, and there’s a chance he hasn’t even been born yet.

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