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June 6, 2009

Prospectus Today

The Next 300-Game Winner?

by Joe Sheehan

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Delayed, but not denied, Randy Johnson reached one of the game's most cherished milestones Thursday night when he was credited with his 300th win. In a season that to date is one of the worst in his storied career, Johnson went six innings, relying on his defense by racking up just two strikeouts, and allowed two hits and an unearned run. The Giants' bullpen backed him with three shutout innings, and their offense put in a rare appearance, rallying for two runs in the second and three in the ninth.

While celebrating Johnson's career took precedence, the secondary theme this week is the idea that the Big Unit may be the last 300-game winner. There are good reasons to think this might be the case. As Jay Jaffe wrote in his terrific piece, starters get decisions in 69 percent of games now, down from 78.5 percent in 1972. Over the course of even a long career, 600 or 700 starts in the modern game, that's a loss of 60 or 70 decisions, and that can mean 40 wins or more for truly great pitchers. Someone like, say, Johan Santana can be just as good or even better than, oh, say, Don Sutton, but win many fewer games because of modern usage patterns. Combined with a discussion of active starting pitchers seemingly young enough to make a run at the milestone, the piece concluded that while there were some favorites among the field, "they're all considerable long shots at the moment."

As was Randy Johnson, back in the day. Johnson had 10 wins at the end of his age-25 season, and he had 104 wins at 32. No one, anywhere, would have pegged him as a candidate to reach 300 wins, and at the end of 1996 you might have gotten some arguments that he could get to 200, given that he was coming off an injury-shortened season and faced back problems that were likely to become chronic. One hundred ninety-six wins? I'm not sure he was a favorite for 196 more starts at that point.

Johnson's career path is not terribly unusual among 300-game winners, either. Early Wynn didn't have very many early wins, with an 83-94 mark through the age of 29, including a 1948 season that threatened to wash him out of the league (8-19, 5.82, with 94 walks and 49 strikeouts); he got to 300 wins 15 seasons later. Gaylord Perry had 24 wins at the age of 26, and eventually won 314. Phil Niekro, a knuckleballer admittedly, had six wins through his age-27 season, 110 through the age of 34, and then won 190 in the next 12 seasons.

Hank Aaron is the model, of course. Aaron was a great player in his twenties, but then he showed unusual consistency and longevity that enabled him to make up ground, year after year, on the pace that Babe Ruth had set. On the mound, Johnson had that kind of longevity. Nolan Ryan had that kind of longevity. At a lower level, Curt Schilling pitched himself into the Hall of Fame with surprising late-career effectiveness. Jamie Moyer will retire among the winningest pitchers in the game's history thanks to his work after the age of 35.

As a result, I'd argue that it's the unlikely candidates that you have to consider. Certainly, you want to talk about CC Sabathia and Mark Buehrle and Roy Oswalt, because they're best positioned now should they continue having success. Three-hundred game winners, however, sometimes come from the pack, improving with age and having late peaks, multiple peaks, and extending their careers in a way that surprises and thrills us. If an 11-year-old Jay Jaffe had assembled that list in 1984, Mario Soto would have been on it, and Fernando Valenzuela, and Ron Guidry and Jack Morris; if Jay's dad-a baseball fan himself-had worked it out in 1959, Whitey Ford and Johnny Antonelli would have been prominently mentioned. These were all good, even great pitchers, but they never sniffed 300 wins. Some never sniffed 200.

Randy Johnson isn't the last 300-game winner. He's an example of what the next one will look like.

Of today's starting pitchers not mentioned in Jay's piece, the guys we might consider the "off-pace" candidates, which ones could have the late, long kick to put themselves in position to be "the last 300-wins pitcher" sometime around 2022?

  • Oliver Perez: He's almost too easy, because of the surface comparisons to Johnson. Perez has an electric arm, but he's wildly inconsistent, especially with his command. The raw talent, however, is there for him to be of the game's best starting pitchers for a long time to come. Perez is vastly more accomplished than Johnson was at the same age, though his career has been more scattered than the Unit's was. With 56 wins under his belt at the age of 27, there is plenty of time for Perez to find himself and have a fantastic career.

  • Aaron Harang: With the exception of last season, Harang has taken the ball since becoming a regular starting pitcher in late 2003. He's been effective, he misses bats, and he provides a lot of innings. He also has the size that would seem to be an asset in longevity, and he wasn't worked hard as a young pitcher. Like a number of pitchers in this category, he's been hurt by throwing good innings for bad teams; ask Bert Blyleven what that does for you down the road.

  • Cliff Lee: He didn't retain all of the improvement in command that helped him win last year's Cy Young Award. He's kept enough, though, to be a very good starting pitcher, and if he continues will post his fourth 200-inning season in the last five. The change in performance level coincided with a greater emphasis on his fastball, the kind of decision that saves wear and tear on an arm over the course of 15 years. If I had to pick one pitcher on this list to win 250 games-not necessarily 300-it'd probably be Lee.

  • Derek Lowe: Having just 22 career starts through his age-28 season meant that he had just 20 wins at that point. Now 36 (and a belated Happy Birthday, Derek), he's working on his eighth straight season of at least 32 starts and a dozen wins. That pace won't get him there-he has 132 victories-but his low-effort delivery, good build, and pitch efficiency position him to catch a wave of support that will lead to wins. Schilling's career is something of the model here, though Lowe would have to retain his health longer than Schilling did.

  • Chien-Ming Wang; His strange 2009 season aside, Wang has velocity, pitch efficiency, and the best setup for wins of any pitcher outside of Boston. Two months ago, there wasn't much difference between him and Lowe, and when he gets back to that level, his inclusion here will seem less insane. Did you know he is 54-23 in his career? I didn't until I read it the other day.

  • Tim Hudson: He would have been part of a "next candidates" piece five years ago, coming off of a five-season start to his career in which he had 80 wins and never missed a start. Since then, he's racked up just 56 wins, two seasons of 30 starts, and 110 decisions. He's been effective in that time, getting ground balls and limiting home runs to compensate for a marginal strikeout rate. Forgotten due to the injuries, he'll return late this season with 136 wins and his 33rd birthday behind him. He can make a run.

As Johnson's career shows that it's not that we'll never see another 300-game winner. It's just that we'll never see him coming.

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

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