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October 14, 2010

Spinning Yarn

The Glavine Line

by Mike Fast

I’m excited to join Baseball Prospectus. If you’ve read any of my previous work, you may know me as something of a PITCHf/x guy. I’ve been learning about and writing about PITCHf/x since the pitch-tracking system was installed in major-league ballparks in 2007, so that description is apt. My interests extend beyond PITCHf/x to the physics of baseball and the details of the pitcher-hitter confrontation.

I wrote at the Statistically Speaking blog back in 2007 and 2008 alongside Eric Seidman and former Baseball Prospectus author Russell Carleton (a.k.a. Pizza Cutter in his Stat Speak days). I’m happy to add to the growing count of Stat Speak alums populating the Baseball Prospectus authorship ranks. From 2008-10, I wrote for the Hardball Times, and I’d like to thank Dave Studeman and the rest of the team there for their contribution to me personally and to the study of baseball.

Can anyone win 300 games again?

Today, I want to investigate something that Seidman mentioned in his column a few weeks ago about baseball records in the context of era. Eric made an offhand statement that he “would bet money that nobody wins 300 games again, and maybe only a couple of pitchers reach 250.” His claim generated quite a bit of discussion in the comments and prompted me to look at who might be considered the active pitchers most likely to reach 300 wins.

It turns out that this is a subject oft discussed. That’s not surprising, I suppose, but I didn’t realize until I did a bit of research for this article how often it has been written about in the past few years, not least by Jay Jaffe and Joe Sheehan on these very pages on the occasion of Randy Johnson’s 300th victory. Jay applied the Bill James Favorite Toy method to identify the most likely candidates for 300 wins, and I’ve done something similar.

It’s interesting to note that only a season and a half later, though the top two candidates are probably the same (CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay), the chances of several of the pitchers right behind them on the list have taken significant hits. Carlos Zambrano was in and out of the rotation this year and fell further behind a 300-win pace as a result. Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, and Josh Beckett all missed time due to injury and had their prospects dim.

Historical 300-win hits and misses

Given that this is a subject about which no one knows the right answers, I’m going to forsake the rigor of the Favorite Toy method, such as it is, and look at this graphically. First, let’s look at how the recent batch of 300-win pitchers made it to that mark, as well as at the fortunes of several of their contemporaries who displayed some promise of reaching the goal at some point.


Greg Maddux leads the pack. He started strong in his early 20s and never let up, winning 15-20 games every year from age 22 until he crossed the 300-win plateau at age 38. He added another 50 wins in his last four seasons to finish with 355 at age 42. Roger Clemens followed close behind, not quite as consistent as Maddux but crossing the 300-win mark at age 40 and finishing with 354 at age 44.

Tom Glavine nosed over 300 wins at age 41 and finished with 305. He didn’t get off to quite as strong of a start in his early 20s as Maddux and Clemens, but he made up ground with three 20-win seasons from 1991-93 and cruised through age 36 winning from 13-21 games every year for Braves teams that went to the playoffs for eight straight season.

Johnson got a late start. He recorded his first major-league win at age 24 and earned his 100th win at age 32. He was nearly 100 wins behind Maddux’s pace for most of his 30s. However, he continued to pitch effectively in his early 40s, winning 16, 17, and 17 games at age 40, 41, and 42, putting him within hailing distance of 300 wins. Johnson battled injuries but pitched effectively enough for another three years to end his career with 303 wins. As Sheehan wrote, “Johnson’s career shows that it’s not that we’ll never see another 300-game winner. It’s just that we’ll never see him coming.”

Let’s look at a few of the pitchers on the graph who didn’t reach 300 wins, or at least haven’t yet, in the case of Jamie Moyer and Andy Pettitte, if you want to be optimistic.

Dwight Gooden stands out. He had 100 victories by age 24 and 154 wins by age 28. Unfortunately, injuries and hard living took their toll, and Dr. K was unable to reach even 200 career wins.

Pedro Martinez was another pitcher who showed great promise to achieve 300 wins. After his age-28 season, his career record stood at 125-56, and he had just compiled one of the greatest four-year stretches by any pitcher, with an outstanding 2.16 ERA and an average of 288 strikeouts per season. He was only a handful of wins behind the Maddux/Clemens pace, and he appeared to be every bit the pitcher they were, or even more. Though Martinez would go on to post a few more very good seasons, injuries derailed his career, and he finished with a 219-100 record at age 37.

It’s possible that Mike Mussina could have made the 300-win plateau if he had wanted to keep playing and had been able to avoid injuries and retain enough effectiveness to pitch another three or four seasons. Of course, the same could be said of a number of pitchers. Avoiding injuries and retaining effectiveness are challenging at age 40. Pettitte probably faces a similar fate, unless he kicks into gear an early-40s determination to make the Hall of Fame.

Kevin Appier and John Smoltz are on the graph as examples of the head of a large class of pitchers: guys who at one time were near a 300-win pace and were pitching at the high level of quality necessary to sustain that success. Then injuries or role changes came along, and neither ended up sniffing 300 wins, though Smoltz compiled some nice numbers in three-and-a-half seasons as a closer.

Let me show you the rest of the 300-game winners since World War II.

I’m not going to spend much time discussing these pitchers, though it becomes clear that while there are several paths to 300 wins, all of them obviously involve winning a lot of games over some large part of a career.

Today’s leading candidates

Instead, let’s turn to some of today’s promising pitchers. Here I’ve shown their career win paths as compared to the paths of the last batch of four 300-game winners.

Halladay, with the highest win total among active pitchers younger than Pettitte and the probable 2010 National Cy Young Award winner, gets a lot of attention as the next likely 300-game winner. However, we can see here that’s he behind the pace of Maddux, Clemens, and Glavine. Perhaps Halladay will follow the Gaylord Perry late-bloomer path to 300 wins, but right now he appears to be fighting an uphill battle to get there.

Sabathia is another favorite. He has nosed ahead of the Maddux and Clemens pace after posting 21 wins in his age-29 season. Sabathia is only 12 wins behind Halladay and is a little over two years younger. Of course, as we saw with Gooden, a strong early pace is no guarantee. We’ll look at this in a bit more depth in a moment.

Felix Hernandez is off to a great start with 71 wins at age 24. That’s ahead of the Maddux and Clemens pace by 11 wins and ahead of Tom Seaver by 14 at the same age.

There are several other contenders on a similar pace to Halladay. The pack is led by Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle, Barry Zito, and Jon Garland. Though individually none of them seem to have a good shot at 300 wins, collectively perhaps one of them might break through with a power run through his 30s. Buehrle is actually a little ahead of Halladay’s pace.

I was surprised to see Garland’s name there. He’s been roundly criticized in sabermetric circles as a pitcher with inflated win totals masking mediocre run prevention skills predicated on poor strikeout rates. He’s a very unlikely candidate to make it another 10 or 15 years in the major leagues because of that, but an early start and consistent innings have him in the discussion at this point.

Are pitchers today further from 300 wins?

So what’s a good way to winnow candidates for 300 wins from pitchers who are a decade or more away from accomplishing the feat? Jay had his Jaffe Blind Optimism method. I’ve concocted something similar: the Glavine Line.

It occurred to me that if you throw out the late bloomers like Phil Niekro and Johnson, whom we’re going to have a tough time assessing accurately at age 30, Glavine’s path represented the minimum standard for a pitcher to make 300 wins. He started with two wins at age 21 and reached 303 wins at age 41. I approximated his career with a straight-line 15.5 wins per year from age 22 to age 41, and it turns out that Glavine was mostly within 5-10 wins of that line during his career. It’s far from a perfect assessment of a pitcher’s chances, but it gives us an idea of who is in the ballpark and how far ahead or behind a 300-win pace they might be.

Here are the active pitchers with at least 50 wins and their standing relative to the Glavine Line. I used integer season age as of July 1; you could fine-tune this method by using ages with fractional years.

Player

Wins

Age

Glavine Line Delta

CC Sabathia

157

29

33

Felix Hernandez

71

24

25

Chad Billingsley

59

25

-3

Matt Cain 

57

25

-5

Mark Buehrle

148

31

-7

Carlos Zambrano

116

29

-8

Jon Garland 

131

30

-9

Justin Verlander

83

27

-10

Scott Kazmir

66

26

-12

Jon Lester 

61

26

-17

Roy Halladay

169

33

-17

Ervin Santana 

76

27

-17

Cole Hamels

60

26

-18

Zack Greinke

60

26

-18

Roy Oswalt

150

32

-21

Tim Lincecum

56

26

-22

Johan Santana 

133

31

-22

Jake Peavy

102

29

-22

Andy Pettitte

240

38

-24

Jeremy Bonderman

67

27

-26

It looks from this view like Sabathia and Hernandez are the only ones with a good shot at 300 wins. There may be some truth to that, but it’s not the whole truth. It’s instructive to look a similar table from 1996, when the latest crop of 300-game winners was establishing its bona fides.

Player

Wins

Age

Glavine Line Delta

Greg Maddux

165

30

26

Dwight Gooden

168

31

13

Roger Clemens

192

33

6

Alex Fernandez

79

26

2

Pedro Martinez

48

24

2

Tom Glavine

139

30

-1

Ramon Martinez

106

28

-3

Mike Mussina

90

27

-3

Steve Avery

72

26

-6

John Smoltz

114

29

-10

Kevin Appier

95

28

-14

Andy Benes

94

28

-15

Tom Gordon

91

28

-18

Wilson Alvarez

58

26

-20

Jack McDowell

119

30

-21

Scott Erickson

83

28

-26

Pat Hentgen

67

27

-26

Jim Abbott

80

28

-29

Bret Saberhagen

141

32

-30

Jaime Navarro

91

29

-33

This list is interesting for something besides the fact that it contains three of my favorite Royals pitchers. Three of the four eventual 300-game winners are in the top six spots. Johnson is missing from the top 20, all the way down at No. 52, 67 wins below the Glavine line. To put that in perspective, with 104 wins at age 32, Vicente Padilla today is tied with Johnson’s win total at the same age in 1996.

We’ve already discussed Gooden and Pedro, but Alex Fernandez and Ramon Martinez are another couple pitchers whose stars faded quickly.

One thing that sticks out to me, though, is that pitchers today don’t seem to be winning that many fewer games than pitchers 14 years ago. I don’t see a striking change in the career win totals of pitchers in their late 20s and early 30s. The top 20 pitchers in 1996 were, on average, 10 games behind the Glavine line. The top 20 pitchers in 2010 are, on average, 11 games behind the Glavine line. The odds may be marginally steeper today than they were for Maddux, Clemens, Glavine, and Johnson, but I don’t see signs of a seismic shift.

Post-war Glavine Line leaders

However, if you go back to the 1970s, there were quite a few pitchers who looked like good candidates for 300 wins, among them Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, and Bert Blyleven. Though very few of them panned out in the end, the post-war Glavine Line leader board is well stocked with pitchers from that decade.

Player

Year

Age

Wins

Glavine Line Delta

Career Wins

Catfish Hunter

1976

30

201

62

224

Hal Newhouser

1949

28

170

62

207

Bob Feller

1951

32

230

60

266

Dwight Gooden

1990

25

119

57

194

Don Drysdale

1965

28

164

56

209

Robin Roberts

1956

29

179

55

286

Denny McLain

1969

25

114

52

131

Bert Blyleven

1975

24

95

49

287

Jim Palmer

1978

32

215

45

268

Frank Tanana

1978

24

84

38

240

Fernando Valenzuela

1986

25

99

37

173

Larry Dierker

1971

24

83

37

139

Juan Marichal

1969

31

191

36

243

Greg Maddux

1999

33

221

35

355

Milt Pappas

1964

25

97

35

209

Vida Blue

1978

28

142

34

209

Tom Seaver

1978

33

219

33

311

CC Sabathia

2010

29

157

33

---

Dennis Eckersley

1979

24

77

31

197

Bret Saberhagen

1989

25

92

30

167

For the preceding table, I included every pitcher since 1945 between the ages of 24 and 33.

We learn at least two things. First, the Glavine Line is not a very useful tool for predicting future 300-game winners. Only two of the top 20 went on to win 300 games—Maddux and Seaver. One, Sabathia, is still active. Five of them failed to reach even 200 wins. That’s not to say that other eventual 300-game winners were not ahead of the Glavine Line pace. Clemens was at +28 in 1992, Steve Carlton was at +21 in 1979, Don Sutton was at +21 in 1976, and so on. But how far ahead of the pace a pitcher was in and of itself was not a good predictor of eventual success.

I doubt, though, that even more sophisticated tools like the Favorite Toy or full-blown projection systems like PECOTA would do much better. I say this because of the second point, that most pitchers who look like promising candidates, even the cream of the crop, will never make it.

 I came today not with a crystal ball to identify the next 300-game winner but to investigate the paths that past pitching titans and flameouts have taken in their quest for that mark. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason to think we’ve seen the last one yet. If you want to bet on Sabathia, Halladay, King Felix, or even Moyer to make it, be my guest. As long as there are pitchers like Niekro and Johnson to defy the odds, I’ll be happy to bet on the field and waiting to cheer our next unlikely champion.  

Mike Fast is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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