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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

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