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August 6, 2007

History's Heights

Tom Glavine's Climb to 300

by John Perrotto

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Tom Glavine has long seen the big picture of baseball better than most players. The Mets left-hander understands the history of the game. Just as importantly, he understands his place in the game's history. Thus, it was not a surprise to hear what Glavine had to say Sunday night after becoming the 23rd pitcher ever to win 300 games in his career when he beat the Cubs in Chicago: "If I was the last one, it would be pretty cool to be the last one to do something in the game." Glavine is the third pitcher to reach 300 victories in this decade, joining Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux.

A strong case can be made that Glavine will indeed go down as baseball's final 300-game winner, or at least the last one for quite a long time. The only pitcher relatively close to 300 victories is Arizona left-hander Randy Johnson, who is at 284. It used to be that 16 wins was a common occurrence for the Big Unit, as he reached the total in nine of the past 10 seasons, including last year, when he notched 17 victories for the Yankees despite an ERA of 5.00. However, Johnson is done for this season after undergoing surgery last week to remove a herniated disc in his back. Johnson had similar surgery over the winter, which contributed to his missing the first three weeks of this season after being acquired by the Diamondbacks from the Yankees in a winter trade. Johnson finished the season at 4-3 with a 3.81 ERA in 10 starts. He also turns 44 in September, which lengthens his odds of recovering from two back surgeries to regain the form necessary to win 16 more games.

Even if Johnson finds a way to get to 300, there are no other potential members of the club on the horizon. The Yankees' Mike Mussina is next in line with 246 wins, but at 38, he's starting to show his age, posting a 7-7 record and 4.66 ERA in 19 starts this season. It seems a stretch to think he has 54 more victories left in his right arm.

Glavine has gotten by on guts and guile throughout his career. His fastball rarely reaches 90 mph. However, he spots his heater well, and mixes in his other pitches, particularly an outstanding changeup. Furthermore, the 41-year-old southpaw has never been on the DL in his 21-year career. Glavine believes pitchers of his style-durable strikethrowers-are more apt to win 300 games, and that has been proven correct. Of the nine men who have won 300 games since divisional play began in 1969, three were pure power pitchers (Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver), five were finesse guys (Glavine, Maddux, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, and Don Sutton) while Steve Carlton was a hybrid.

"You're looking at more power pitchers coming into the game every year and you've got to figure those guys are more susceptible to getting hurt," Glavine said. "It'll be interesting to see how many of those guys are able to pitch long enough to even come close to having a chance to get to 300."

Just three active pitchers under the age of 30 have 100 wins: San Francisco's Barry Zito (110), Houston's Roy Oswalt (109), and Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox (106). Zito and Oswalt are 29, and Buerhle is 28.

Though Buerhle is the type of finesse pitcher Glavine thinks is better suited to making a run at 300, the left-hander can't fathom sticking around that long. Beyond that, he realizes pitchers only have so much control over wins and losses. "There is so much stuff that has to happen for you to win," Buehrle said. "You have to work deep into games. Your offense has to score and give you run support. Your bullpen has to help you and not blow many leads. That's why it's so tough to even be a 20-game winner in a season."

Multiply 20 wins by 15 seasons and you get 300. It is that simple mathematical equation that has Cardinals manager Tony La Russa thinking how steep the odds are of seeing any more 300-game winners, beyond the possible exception of Johnson. "For a pitcher to win 300 games, he is going to have to understand his place in history and he is going to have to be dedicated to playing for a very long time," La Russa said. "It can be done, but it takes a lot of work and a pitcher has to not only be talented but really have his heart and mind set on accomplishing the goal."

Glavine reached 300 last night. In a decade in which few pitchers have made more than 36 starts or completed nine games in a season-Toronto's Roy Halladay pulled off both feats in 2003-the steep odds of winning 300 become clearer. "With the way the game is today, so centered on power and so high scoring, it's tough to win a lot of games," Glavine said. "Pitch counts get run up faster, and managers have to go to the bullpen sooner. It's just become increasingly difficult to get wins with each passing season, and I don't know if it's going to get easier any time soon."

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

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