February 4, 2011
The BP Broadside
When does a bit of trivia calcify into important and respected wisdom? There is nothing god-given about baseball’s career milestones. We know the great Senators right fielder Sam Rice packed it in with 2,987 hits under his belt because 3,000 hadn’t yet become important enough for anyone to think about playing him more often, or extending him another year—at age 44, no less—so that they could organize a farewell tour, put special labels on the baseballs inevitably headed for eBay, and milk the thing for extra T-shirt and ticket sales, regardless of whether or not the player is actually helping the team win. In short, the Last Exploitation of Craig Biggio (and soon enough, Derek Jeter) had yet to be invented.
When Rice retired, there were only three 3,000-hit guys for the 1901-and-up period: Ty Cobb (4,189), Tris Speaker (3,514), and Eddie Collins (3,312). You can count Honus Wagner as well if you throw in his 19th century safeties. Rice retired in 1934. Two years later, the first Hall of Fame vote was held. The list of players with 3,000 hits hadn’t changed any. No one said, “Why are they setting up a Hall of Fame when there are only three guys who have met the minimum basic requirement to get in?” They simply went about the business of electing those players who they thought had been good. Even though there were 19th century guys, like Cap Anson, who had over 3,000 hits, they didn’t discriminate against Wee Willie Keeler, who had only 2,932. They simply took both.
Once Cobb, Speaker, and Collins were in, the next 20th century 3,000-hit guy didn’t come along until Paul Waner was elected in 1952. In between came not just big sluggers like Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby, who had other things going on to make someone look away from their hit totals, but also Roger Bresnahan, the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance trio, Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Pie Traynor, Charles Gehringer, and others who, good selections or bad (an argument for another day) hadn’t reached any of what we take for granted as the “automatics” now, 500 home runs or 3,000 hits. They had other attributes that, at least at that time, were given equal weight to whether or not they had checked the magic box on the back of their baseball card which got them waved past the gatekeepers. You see, “automatic” is just another word for “we don’t have to trouble ourselves to think about it.” With just four 3,000 hit guys and three 500 homer types through Waner’s election, they had to think.
Our fixation on the number 300 for pitchers had to have evolved the same way, as a retroactively-applied finish-line tape to save us the trouble of distinguishing among an ever-increasing field of applicants for the greatness label. At the time of the first Hall of Fame elections, there were, depending on where you started counting from, either four or ten 300-game winners. Clearly, 19th century win totals counted for something since Cy Young, whose 511 wins were accumulated from 1890 to 1911, was among in the second class of inductees—without his fin de siècle victories, Young’s modern-era win total shrinks to 225.
Yet, 300 wins in either century wasn’t automatic in the early days. Young, Walter Johnson (417), Christy Mathewson (373), Pete Alexander (373), and Old Hoss Radbourn (309) were cleared off the shelf in the first four elections, but after that, the 300 pitchers sat… and sat. Three-hundred wins were hardly automatic for Gettysburg Eddie Plank (1946), Kid Nichols (1949), John Clarkson (1963), Tim Keefe (1964), Pud Galvin (1965), and Mickey Welch (1973). Plank is especially instructive, as he wasn’t a 19th century pitcher who was a distant memory in the 1930s. He had pitched his entire career in the 20th century, and his career ended one year after Mathewson’s. Nevertheless, they took their time. From the induction of Lefty Grove, the next 300-game winner, in 1947, to that of Early Wynn in 1972, the next member to join, the Baseball Writers (not the Veterans Committee) inducted such sub-300 types as Herb Pennock, Dizzy Dean, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, Bob Feller, and Sandy Koufax.
Three-hundred wins was something, but it wasn’t a free pass and it wasn’t the only thing. Then, somewhere along the line, the number became sacrosanct. As Jim Henson once sang, “somebody thought of that, and someone believed it.” That is why, in large part, we spent 18 thoroughly annoying years hearing arguments about Bert Blyleven. Despite the low ERA, the nearly 5,000 innings and high standing on the strikeout leaderboard, he was 13 wins short of nirvana. That 13 wins in a career of nearly 700 games is fairly meaningless wasn’t acknowledged; once the arbitrary line had been drawn, those with the power to decide had an excuse to stop thinking.
The foregoing comes in response to the retirement of Andy Pettitte and the sudden awareness that, when combined with the likely permanent absence of Jamie Moyer, no active pitcher has 200 wins. This is an interesting bit of trivial, but hardly cause for alarm; that number has dipped before, and it didn’t presage the extinction of the 300-game winner or anything else worth worrying about. Indeed, CC Sabathia has a solid chance to make it, and neither of the Phillies’ great Roys, Halladay and Oswalt, can be entirely discounted.
That said, if none of them makes it, even if there is no 300-game winner in this generation (again, hardly unprecedented), even if there are no future 300-game winners period, who cares? As we’ve seen, the number’s significance is a late-arriving innovation, nothing more. We have long known that the win is no indicator of quality, and times change. No pitcher today can win as many games as Cy Young, not because they aren’t more talented than ol’ Denton True, but because pitchers are no longer used the way he was, pitching 300 or 400 innings a year and completing 90 percent of their starts. We need not reach for such an extreme example however; we could rerun the careers of most of the post-1900 300-game winners up until the last few and cut nearly all of their starts off at six or seven innings—their number of decisions would plummet, their winning percentages would likely increase, but their raw wins total would almost certainly go down.
This is just the way we do things now. We’ve sacrificed 300 wins to Mariano Rivera and pals, and it’s probably for the best. We should no more mourn for high victory totals than we should buttonhooks and punch cards. The price of progress is a putting away of childish things. Anyone concerned about the current absence of an active leader with a high victory total really needs a dose of perspective and perhaps some Clockwork Orange-style immersion in the nightly news, because there are more significant causes for concern, even in baseball. Further, they can take comfort in the careers of Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Roger Clemens, all of whom reached that exalted level while pitching under modern conditions of starting pitcher and bullpen usage. And if they be the last, this isn’t like losing the thylacine or the great auk; those are tragedies, this is trivia.