After I talked about the 500 Home Run Club last week, I wanted to analyze a pitcher’s exclusive numbers club: the 300 Win Club. Smaller than the 500 Home Run Club with just 24 members, many baseball pundits have argued over the past 20 years that this may be a closed club.
With Randy Johnson being the most recent member to join the club, and not doing so until age 46 in his 22nd season, the argument seems to hold some merit, especially with the changing landscape around pitchers these days. Emphasis on innings limits and pitch counts. Five man rotations compared to the old school four-man sets (where all four accomplished 20 win seasons in the same year from time to time). Increasing rates of injuries related to harder throwers or overworking pitchers at a young age or whatever your opinion may be. Taking account for all of those factors makes 300 wins seem more improbable than ever.
When you look at the active wins list, it appears we may have a long wait for a legitimate threat to the number. Of the top 10 active win leaders, only two are younger than 36: CC Sabathia, who at 34 years old is tied for 2nd among active pitchers with 214 wins (with Mark Buehrle who is considering retirement or perhaps one more year), and Justin Verlander who at age 32 sits 5th with 157. Both of those pitchers were widely considered the top pitchers in baseball in the mid to late 2000’s, but have had notable struggles with injury and command over the past few years. And 2015 was not kind to either pitcher: Verlander accumulated just five w’s in 20 trips to the mound, and Sabathia managed just six wins in 29 starts before entering rehab for alcohol addiction (which is obviously much more important than pitching, and we at G&G wish him a speedy recovery).
But in this day and age should we even care about the 300 Win Club? With a greater focus than ever on advanced metrics such as ERA+ and FIP, baseball executives and writers alike are focusing less on win totals to anoint greatness in pitching. Just look at the 2015 NL Cy Young race between Zack Greinke (19-3, 1.66 ERA, 200 K in 222.2 innings), Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA, 236 K in 229.0 innings) and Clayton Kershaw (16-7, 2.13 ERA, 301 K in 232.2 innings); Kershaw’s unfathomable ability to make hitters swing and miss, Greinke’s historic ERA and Arrieta’s astounding second half generated the debate, not the win totals.
But ultimately, as baseball fans, we will always be obsessed with historic numbers, and 300 will always be a badge of honor. Personally, while I believe metrics are certainly important in evaluating ability, I also feel strongly that the win statistic can show greatness; a pitcher who know how to keep their teams in games with or without their best stuff and get the W deserve respect. So I think we should continue to care about the statistic as a measure of greatness.
But regardless how you feel on the statistic, who can realistically get there?
The aforementioned Greinke and Kershaw are great candidates. Kershaw already sits at 114 wins at age 27, so accumulating 176 wins by age 40 would require 14 wins a year. He has averaged 17 a year for the past five years and is supposedly just reaching his “prime seasons,” typically defined as age 27-33. If he can accumulate another one hundred wins by age 33 (the next six seasons), he would need just 86 wins, or 12 per year from ages 34-40.
Greinke on the other hand has a ways to go: at age 31 he sits at 142 wins, and simple math indicates he would need to average 16 wins for the next 10 years to get there at age 41. But if he can replicate similar seasons to 2015 into his mid 30’s, he may be able to notch some 20-win seasons along the way. He recently opted out of his contract in hopes of getting paid like an all-time great pitcher, but he’ll need to back up his contract to chase down the tri-centennial mark.
If Greinke is a good candidate, then Felix Hernandez is a great one, as the only active player in the top 20 in wins under age 30. With one more win than Greinke and two years younger, Hernandez appears on track for the milestone. An early start to his career (he started 30 games for the Mariners at age 19) enabled him to overcome an offense that has not helped his career win total. Ironically, he finally accumulated a nice win total in 2015 (18) despite playing for one of the worst Seattle teams of his career.
After those three, the list of candidates is pretty bleak. This is largely due in part to pitchers needing more time to develop, and not bursting onto the scene like a Harper or Trout; Arrieta is a perfect example, as he is now a dominant force at age 29, but holds just 56 wins to his name after it took him several years of struggling in the Majors before putting it all together. But hopefully 5-7 years from now we’ll be able to see Greinke, Hernandez and Kershaw 100 wins closer and make the 300 Club’s doors ready to be opened once again.