June 5, 2009
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Next 300
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:
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 .