February 28, 2013
Painting the Black
Count to 300
It's spring and that means feral optimism is available in bulk. Soon a barrage of articles proclaiming any and every team a potential surprise contender will surface, and so will pieces predicting big seasons out of players young and old alike. There will be articles like this one, too, which deals with the next 300-game winner. There's no real science to it. Pick a youngish pitcher with a track record of success and build him up. By the time that pitcher fails to win 300 nobody will remember anyhow. Still, pieces discussing the next 300-game winner can be fun.
Take Mike Fast's debut article at Baseball Prospectus, from October 2010, in which he introduced the Glavine Line. Fast's creation was based on the idea that its namesake took the slacker's route to 300 wins by doing the minimum required and no more. The measure deals in simplicity instead of complexity and allows you to get a feel for a pitcher's pace relative to Glavine by comparing his actual wins with a crude projection (15.5 wins from his age-22 season onward). It's a clean, tidy, and ineffective way of identifying the next 300-game winner—as Fast admitted in the original piece.
With the understanding that we're aiming for preservation rather than projection, I took the time to update the results of the Glavine Line. A lot has changed in the past 28 months, of course: Fast is now in the Astros front office and some of the article's information looks dated. Justin Verlander, who, in the original piece was 10 wins below the Glavine Line, has since won 41 games and evened things up. Meanwhile Jon Garland and Carlos Zambrano, two pitchers with lower deltas than Verlander at the time, are now off the radar. Undoubtedly these results will age poorly, too, but here are the active pitchers with 50-plus career wins that are above or within 10 games of the Glavine Line:
Forget what you've heard about the 300-game winner being exciting, things have improved at the top. Sabathia's delta has grown by three wins over the past two seasons, and there are three more pitchers either at the Line or above it*. It's not surprising to see Sabathia, Hernandez, Kershaw, and Verlander—arguably four of the top five pitchers in the game—on this list. But Cahill is the snake in the crib—you don't know how he got there but you know he doesn't belong.
*This is without including up-and-comers like Madison Bumgarner (entering his age-23 season), Rick Porcello (24), and Mat Latos (25), all of whom could top 50 wins in the next season while pitching on contending teams.
After all, Cahill has never pitched for a winning team and he's posted ERA+ of 95 and 96 in two of his four seasons. But he, like Kershaw, is entering his fifth year of big-league service time despite being just 25 years old. And Cahill may not have great overall numbers, but he earns wins when he pitches well. Since 2010 pitchers have earned wins in 55 percent of the games in which they earned a quality start, as opposed to 14.5 percent of the games they failed to notch a quality start. Cahill has won 44 of his 75 career quality starts, giving him a 59 percent rate. This rate of winning is important for a pitcher who has managed to record 59 percent quality starts for his career (as opposed to the 52 percent league-average) and 63 percent over the past three seasons. It doesn't hurt that Cahill has won slightly more of his non-quality starts, either.
No one expects Cahill to win 300 games, but that's part of the fun here: A pitcher not mentioned in this piece will probably pull of the feat. As Fast wrote in the comments section of his piece, "[It's] tough to predict ahead of time (1) which good pitchers will stay with the good teams for most of their career and (2) which teams will be good over the next decade or more." Likewise predicting which older pitcher will surge in the second act of his career is about as productive as arguing over which 'N Sync member besides Timberlake had the most successful career. We all know trying to pick the next 300-game winner is silly. We just can't help ourselves around this time of the year.
Special thanks to Sam Miller for research assistance and Mike Fast for the original idea.