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June 5, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Next 300

by Jay Jaffe

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Randy Johnson entered the year with 295 wins, but with a 5.71 ERA-higher than any 300-game winner since Don Sutton (5.56)-and just three victories through his first eight starts, his approach of the 300-win plateau turned arduous. Still, anyone who cares about round-numbered milestones should take a long look, as they won't see anyone else reaching these ranks of career achievers for quite some time.

At this writing, the only pitcher within 80 wins of the magic 300 is 46-year-old Jamie Moyer (250), whose own 7.62 ERA suggests that he's on his last legs. Of the three other active pitchers above 200 wins, 37-year-old Andy Pettitte (220) has annuallythreatened retirement since 2006, 37-year-old Pedro Martinez (214) is currently unemployed after three injury-filled seasons, and 42-year-old John Smoltz (210) is rehabbing his way back for a final go-round in Boston. Just three other active players are even halfway to the milestone: 42-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (184), 36-year-old perpetual rehab case Bartolo Colon (153, but just 14 since 2005), and 34-year-old palooka Livan Hernandez (151), the game's most hittable pitcher.

Of course, not everybody does care these days, as pitcher wins ain't what they used to be thanks to the rising offensive levels, deeper lineups, longer at-bats, and increased reliever specialization which have made the complete game a relic from the increasingly distant past. In 1972, the year before the designated hitter's introduction, starters completed games 27.1 percent of the time, collected decisions 78.5 percent of the time, and lasted an average of 6.7 innings in their starts. In contrast, last year they went the distance 2.8 percent the time, collected decisions 69 percent of the time, and averaged 5.8 innings. Against this backdrop, the win has come to be understood less as the product of an individual pitcher's brilliance or intestinal fortitude on a given day, and more as the confluence of the right amounts of support from the offense, the defense, and the bullpen. That's true both in sabermetric circles, where pitcher value is preferably measured in isolation of such factors, and in the dugout, where a manager cares less about who collects the W and more about bridging the gap from starter to closer, inning by inning or batter by batter.

Down by the old mainstream, however, the attachment lingers. The Baseball Writers Association of America hasn't elected a starting pitcher to the Hall of Fame since 1999 (Nolan Ryan), and hasn't elected a starter with fewer than 300 wins since 1990 (Fergie Jenkins). With the disappearance of the 300 clubbers on the ballot, the writers have barred the door for the eminently worthy Bert Blyleven, almost solely due to his missing the mark by 13 wins, and they never came close to inducting Tommy John (288 wins) or Jim Kaat (283), pitchers with shakier credentials. Though Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine have reached 300 this decade, the Rocket's raging steroid-related controversy suggests that it will take until 2014, when Maddux is eligible, for another starter to earn election to the Hall.

As for the Big Unit's successors, the current field's distance from 300 wins leaves us lacking a rigorous methodology for forecasting. PECOTA, which looks "only" seven years into the future, foresees just 81 wins for both Johan Santana and CC Sabathia from 2009-2015. The annual totals, which dwindle into single digits, put Santana at 190 through his age-36 season, and Sabathia at 198 through his age-34 season. Less scientifically, Bill James' aptly named Favorite Toy method identifies nine pitchers with at least a 10 percent chance at 300 wins in The Bill James Handbook 2009, estimates that are based upon weighted three-year averages of each hurler's win totals. James' notion of an "established win level" is rather dicey because of the teammate-dependent nature of the stats-pitcher wins don't predict future pitcher wins very well.

As a first cut to identify candidates, I've used the Jaffe Blind Optimism method (JABO), which generously assumes each pitcher will average 15 wins annually through his age-42 season, unfettered by injury or bad luck, and with the bonus of not having his 2009 total to date counted against this year's allotment. That makes for an almost completely unrealistic assumption given that just four pitchers have averaged 15 wins over the past five years, and just two did so from 2001 to 2008. Nonetheless, these pitchers wind up within yet one more 15-win season of the magic number:


Player           Age  Wins* JABO
CC Sabathia       28   120   330
Carlos Zambrano   28    99   309
Mark Buehrle      30   127   307
Jon Garland       29   109   304
Jake Peavy        28    89   299
Roy Oswalt        31   130   295
Johan Santana     30   114   294
Andy Pettitte     37   218   293
Pedro Martinez    37   214   289
Roy Halladay      32   139   289
Barry Zito        31   124   289
Josh Beckett      29    93   288

This mix of expected and unexpected names includes a half-dozen Cy Young winners, perennial candidate Oswalt, post-season hero Beckett, and inning-eaters Buehrle, Garland, and Pettitte. With Martinez and Pettitte instantly dismissed based upon age and predisposition toward retirement, it's worth noting that Buehrle has talked about hanging up his spikes after 2011. It's difficult to take Garland's candidacy seriously given that his career strikeout rate-the single biggest predictor of pitcher longevity-is below 5.0 K/9, and his ERA+ is just 104; he's basically a league-average innings muncher who benefitted by reaching the majors in his age-20 season. Zito's ERA this season is better than it was in his first two years as a Giant, but he's dismissible due to his club's perpetual lack of commitment to providing him with offensive support; he received just 3.6 runs per game last year, and his 2.5 this year has stalled him at one win, adjustments or no.

That leaves seven pitchers with theoretical shots at 300, five with non-zero chances according to revised Favorite Toy numbers:

  • Sabathia (17%): He's gotten a great jump thanks to big-league success since the age of 20, and despite questions surrounding his size and increased workload, neither is as much cause for immediate concern as his current strikeout rate of 6.5 K/9

  • Halladay (6%): With eight wins already this year and a strikeout rate (8.1 K/9) that has maintained last year's big jump, he could pass the half-way point by season's end.

  • Zambrano (5%): Durability and consistency during his age-22 through age-26 seasons-including an ERA that's never reached 4.00-gave him a strong start, but last year's shoulder problems and his recent hamstring injury suggest the smooth sailing is over, which makes this estimate seem high.

  • Santana (2%): This one seems particularly low, mainly because lousy offensive support (4.4 runs per game) has limited him to 38 wins over the past two-plus years despite an MLB-best 2.79 ERA, and because he's whiffing well over a hitter per inning again. Bet on the guys with the multiple Cy Young Awards; of the other 13 with two or more awards, seven have reached 300, including Johnson.

  • Oswalt (1%): Eroding peripherals and Houston's impending descent into NL irrelevance suggest that his chances are on the wane.

  • Peavy (0%): With just 40 wins over the past three years, he needs that long-rumored change of scenery to return to the chase.

  • Beckett (0%): Slowly regaining momentum after just 12 wins last year, lopping more than two runs off his ERA over his last four starts.

The Favorite Toy estimate gives Brandon Webb a five percent shot, but with just 87 wins coming into his age-30 season, he falls far short via the JABO method, and his missing the first two months of the year due to bursitis isn't helping his cause. Sabathia, Halladay, and Santana are the horses to bet on here, but they're all considerable long shots at the moment.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Year Of The Injury,  Wins

24 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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dianagram

Scott Boras called .... he says you left his stud Strasburg out of that analysis. :-)

Jun 05, 2009 09:57 AM
rating: 0
 
Joe D.

Jaffe included Strasburg (and only Strasburg) in a separate article on "The 500-Win Club." Jay claims no non-Strasburg player has more than a zero percent shot, but estimates the young phenom's chances as "about fourteen googolplex percent."

Jun 05, 2009 16:09 PM
rating: 0
 
JayhawkBill

Doesn't Felix Hernandez have a JABO of 344, higher than that of anybody you've listed?

Jun 05, 2009 09:58 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Yes, but Felix was way too far down on the list of active pitchers to make my cut - I stopped around 85 wins, initially, then pared the list back for space reasons.

Jun 05, 2009 14:55 PM
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

Yeah, I've been saying that (injury risk aside) that Hernandez is about as likely as anyone. He's young, has an improving team, and if that fails, will be a free agent in his prime like Maddux. I also think most of the analysis I've seen of this issue completely ignores the team around them. How many 300 game winners didn't play for good teams. Maddux and Glavine were on perhaps the most consistent of dynasties. Johnson played for solid teams throughout his career. Only one I can think of that played for bad teams at any point is Ryan, but his record reflects that.

Jun 05, 2009 10:03 AM
 
BillJohnson

Historically, there were certainly others. Early Wynn, who just squeaked through with exactly 300, spent a good half of his career playing for teams that were so-so at best and frequently downright bad. Steve Carlton got quite a large fraction of his wins with awful Phillies teams. Don Sutton's years with the Dodgers included many good teams, but also quite a few mediocre ones. And so on.

The real question is whether it is STILL possible for 300-game winners to play with bad teams, and on that count the verdict is still out. I disagree with your statement, Will; some of the Seattle teams that Johnson played on can be reasonably described as ugly (of course, so can Johnson... but exactly half of his Seattle teams had seasons records under .500), so it wasn't that long ago that it could be done. Even that, however, was under different conditions than prevail now, given the mobility of top pitchers and the willingness of some -- successful -- franchises to pay top dollar for them. You're certainly right that the achievement needs to be kept in context, and that's rarely done.

Jun 05, 2009 11:54 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Which is why Blyleven didn't reach 300 and why he's screwed by the HOF voters.

Jun 05, 2009 15:18 PM
 
therealn0d

Forgetting about the 300 win threshold, which of those pitchers do we think will make the HOF? I don't see how they can keep Pedro out, Santana certainly has a chance, Halladay should see consideration, Peavy and Oswalt seem like good candidates going forward. I think this class of pitchers will set the new threshold for wins by a starting pitcher.

Jun 05, 2009 10:13 AM
rating: -3
 
Matt Kory

"Forgetting about the 300 win threshold..."

Well, that's sort of the whole point of the article.

Jun 05, 2009 10:20 AM
rating: 0
 
TheBunk

Halladay just consideration but peavy a good candidate?

I think you are underrating Halladay a tad.

Jun 05, 2009 11:23 AM
rating: 1
 
TheBunk

woops, just to add to that, I know you said going forward and not just right now, but I think my point still stands.

Jun 05, 2009 11:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

To me this analysis seems to say that the next 300 game winner has likely not reached the majors yet.

Jun 05, 2009 10:19 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

On the contrary, I think it's likely that somebody from this field will break out, we just don't know who. I'm starting to think it will be Halladay given his combination of GB and K tendencies and his lack of arm troubles, as opposed to FB-flavored Santana and his occasional elbow concerns.

Jun 05, 2009 15:17 PM
 
Wyomissing

Does anyone still believe Zambrano is 28? That would be kind of like believing El Duque's listed age, wouldn't it?

Jun 05, 2009 11:12 AM
rating: -2
 
newsense

Jon Garland:"...basically a league-average innings muncher who benefitted by reaching the majors in his age-20 season."

Sounds like Jim Kaat to me

Jun 05, 2009 12:06 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Check again, because that's not a particularly apt comparison. Kaat had five seasons with 35-42 starts and ERA+'s above 125, and he almost certainly would have won a Cy Young in 1966 had they been given out in both leagues, as he went 25-13 with a 2.75 ERA (131 ERA+) and finished fifth in the AL MVP voting, the only pitcher in the top 10.

He was at 114 ERA+ for 1961-1972, below 100 only once, and he enjoyed a nice 1974-1975 renaissance with another pair of 20-win, 125 ERA+ seasons of around 300 innings.

Jun 05, 2009 15:13 PM
 
fsgillispie

It would be interesting to do the same analysis of pitchers circa 1994, seeing what their FT chance of reaching 300 was - and how that turned out. If someone knows where that has been done, I'd appreciate the link.

In the early 90s, it seemed like every Braves broadcast featured Don Sutton going on ad nauseum about how "no one will ever reach 300 wins again". Always seemed to be during Maddux's starts...

Jun 05, 2009 13:31 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I recall reading somewhere that Early Wynn was anointed the Last of the 300 Game Winners in 1963, when he reached the milestone, and indeed, it took until 1982 before the next one, Gaylord Perry, to reach.

Jun 05, 2009 15:05 PM
 
David Sullivan

Has anyone ever looked at run support-neutral measures of pitchers similar to this? I don't know, something like Quality Starts?

Jun 05, 2009 13:36 PM
rating: 0
 
drawbb

The lesson to take from both Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer is that the next pitcher to reach 250 or 300 wins might be somebody who seems to have no chance at all right now.

We've heard numerous times that getting to the majors early and durability are both more important than ever for future 300-game aspirants because the rotation now gets fewer starts, fewer decisions, etc. However, Johnson did not reach the big leagues at all until after turning 25, and he did not have his first huge season until he was 29 years old. He was durable thereafter, but even Randy missed portions of a couple of seasons.

In the case of Moyer, he reached the majors at age 23 but had just 34 career victories at age 30 and once went 9 years between 30-start seasons while teams were constantly looking for replacements. Jamie did not reach the 15-win benchmark in a season for the first time until he was 34 years old! Forget about 250 career wins; you wouldn't have given him any chance of reaching 150 wins. If this guy had enjoyed even an average amount of success in his 20s, we'd be looking at another 300-game winner in the making.

The twin benefits of reaching the majors early and extreme durability obviously help a pitcher's chances, but as Johnson and Moyer have demonstrated it can still be done without both qualities present--and it should be pointed out that they are drastically different types of pitchers as well.

Jun 05, 2009 16:10 PM
rating: 1
 
JayhawkBill

This reminds me -- Tim Wakefield is only 129 wins from 300. At the pace of 13.5 wins per year he's established over the past two years (a pace he's exceeding thus far in 2009) Wakefield would be within reach of 300 wins in his age 51 season in 2018.

Tim Wakefield "seems to have no chance at all right now," but, upon reflection, we don't know how long modern sports medicine will enable Wakefield to throw a 68 mph knuckleball. My money would be on Felix Hernandez, who will probably be racking up 22-win seasons with the Yankees in a few years, to be the next 300-win pitcher, but Wakefield might have as good a chance as a few of the names mentioned by Jay in this article. Barry Zito or Tim Wakefield on total career wins? I'll take Wakefield.

Jun 05, 2009 17:16 PM
rating: 2
 
JayhawkBill

Pardon: Wakefield is 115 wins from 300 as I type, "hypothetically" putting him in range at age 50. I overlooked momentarily his 14 wins with the Pirates.

Jun 05, 2009 17:26 PM
rating: 0
 
scottlong

Excellent piece, Jay. The lower amount of decisions was really interesting. I wouldn't throw Buehrle out of the mix so quickly. He might claim he's going retire at 31, but I suspect he will be one of those guys who pitches until he's in his 40's. He's been the most durable pitcher of his time during his career, as he hits over 200 innings ever year, without having any major injury issues.

I know the metrics don't like him, but I believe he's exceeded them every season but one over this decade. Considering his durability, consistency, and how young he was when he began his career, I think he sits right behind Sabathia and Halladay for most likely to hit 300. I suspect he finish up with around 265, but I sure wouldn't drop him for saying he will retire at 31. I'm not sure there isn't a pitcher in baseball who has more fun playing the game than Buehrle.

Jun 06, 2009 12:11 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Thanks, Scott.

Buehrle's a tougher pitcher than most here to get a handle on. He's coming off a strong year (his highest strikeout rate since 2004 and his best K/BB ratio and homer rate since 2005) and having an even stronger one. He's been extremely durable (the only pitcher this side of Livan Hernandez with eight consecutive 200 inning seasons). But his strikeout rate has varied by a wider margin - 5.8 per nine last year, which is half a K above his career rate, and 4.3 in 2006, and 5.6 this year, which is more than one K/9 below league average. What worries me about his longevity is that he's not a particularly extreme groundballer, and he's stuck in one of the most extreme homer parks in the majors, so a 2006-type performance isn't far off.

That, plus the fact that if I'm going to ignore a player's stated musings about retirement, I'll bet on Pettitte, who's much closer, before I'll bet on Buehrle.

Jun 07, 2009 14:46 PM
 
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