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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

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

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bearsjoe

good article, an actual analysis of the much-discussed 300 win mark instead of the MSM's "eh...maybe this guy" stuff.

one point though that I think is important...isn't it percentage of wins that starters get, not percentage of decisions, that matters here? I'm not sure if that would be appreciably higher or lower, but it's something i'd be curious to see what the numbers are.

Jun 06, 2009 11:00 AM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

Seems to me the important stat is decisions, since whether a decision ends up as a W or L is to a large degree team-dependent, and something the pitcher can't really control.

Jun 06, 2009 11:41 AM
rating: 0
 
therealn0d

Well, the fact of the matter is that a decision can be a win or a loss, but a no decision can never be a win. Percentage of wins fails for the same reasons accounting for pitcher wins fails. It's going to fluctuate wildly with no real logic involved.

Jun 06, 2009 13:34 PM
rating: -1
 
Robert Flaxman

Will we really "never see him coming"? People talk about different usage patterns, but Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Tom Glavine all pitched under relatively modern usage patterns, though of course they threw more complete games than many of today's starters. Maddux and Clemens were both halfway to 300 wins by the end of their age 30 seasons, and Glavine was only 11 behind. A pitcher who stays healthy, pitches for a winning team, and hangs around until he's 40-42 seems like the best candidate, and we would at least know about the first two of those by the midpoint or so of a guy's career, enough to say whether he seems to have a real shot. Not every 300-game winner has such a backloaded career track.

Jun 06, 2009 11:27 AM
rating: 3
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

Halladay is the guy we all see coming. Since being a regular full time starter in 2002 he's averaging over 16 wins a season. And that's counting his seasons where he missed time due to freak line drive injury. He already has 10 wins by the first weekend in June this year, so 16+ wins this season seems quite likely. If he finishes the year with 19 wins, then he'll be at exactly 150 through his age 32 season. Then he'd need 10 seasons averaging 15 wins to get it done. More likely than not? No. A decent shot? Yes. Now while I know Joe was skipping Roy because he was mentioned in the other piece, and not just because he hates the Jays, I think the conclusion "that we'll never see him coming" is impossible to agree with without discussing Halladay.

Jun 08, 2009 01:37 AM
rating: 1
 
Richie

What Joe is saying that we won't see the next one coming because there is no Maddux, Clemens or Glavine out there right now to be that next one. Ergo it'll instead be whomever emerges unexpectedly from the pack.

Jun 06, 2009 14:24 PM
rating: 1
 
Bodhizefa

I guess if you took out general attitude towards baseball and work ethic as qualifying traits towards becoming a 300-game winner, Oliver Perez sounds like a fine choice. Randy Johnson was always a tenacious competitor -- something I don't think you'll ever find on an Ollie Perez scouting report.

I get what you're trying to accomplish with the article, and I think you did a decent enough job in the body of the column itself. Adding the list of "potentials" just seemed silly for something you tried to explain was essentially an impossible task, though. Selecting the next 300-game winner from today's crop of pitchers is, in all probability, a fool's errand. And isn't probability something this site should favor over being the fool?

Jun 06, 2009 18:39 PM
rating: -2
 
papelbon
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I've subscribed to BP since 2003 and you've always been the weakest link of the BP writers by far and it's not even close. Most of your articles are not only poorly written but are so far below the quality of the other articles they're embarrassing. My colleagues and I call you the BP Anchorman. Emphasis on the anchor.

However, you've outdone yourself in the past ten days. First the Wieters "article" and now this. Have you just quit trying? I honestly can't believe your partners allow to publish this garbage along side all of the other great work here at BP. The only thing I can think is that you're like the guy on the beer league softball team that is so bad even the women cringe when the ball is hit to you - but you own the really nice bats and you lined up the corporate sponsorship so the other guys have to let you play...

Jun 06, 2009 19:30 PM
rating: -48
 
PeterBNYC

I believe in "Papelbon"'s right of free speech, but not on my nickel- go get your own blog! I also don't like people who don't post under their own name. What's to hide? And in addition, he is just dead wrong about Sheehan, who isn't necessarily my instant choice for the top commentator on BP, but who is always interesting, always contrarian and never less than well-informed. Certainly he has never in my experience posted anything remotely as wrong or stupid as "Papelbon"'s jeremiad.

Jun 08, 2009 07:19 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Sheehan writes EVERY DAY for BP, and has the widest purview of topics to write about.

He's not "just" a prospects guy, transactions gal, injury guy, etc. like most of the excellent specialists on BPs staff. As a result, Joe is more often out on a limb writing about timely issues and needing to use various tools (sometimes statistical, sometimes journalistic) to accomplish his varying goals for his disparate articles.

He probably as the hardest job at BP, but more often than not, does a great job. No one bats 1.000, Papelbon!!!

Jun 08, 2009 11:05 AM
rating: 3
 
LindInMoskva

Haven't there been as many or more 300 game winners during the modern era than at any other time? Cy Young is definitely the outlier but 300-400 wins occur rarely, in bursts, with long periods of not achieving 300.

1888-1901: Galvin, Keefe, Welch, Radbourne, Clarkson, Nichols, Young
1912-1924: Mathewson, Plank, Johnson, Alexander
1941: Grove
1961-1963: Spahn, Wynn
1982-1990: Perry, Carlton, Niekro, Seaver, Sutton, Ryan
2003-2009: Clemens, Maddux, Glavine, Johnson

Despite radical changes in pitcher usage throughout MLB history (Johnson never got 73 starts in a season or 59 wins) the goal remains 300. It seems to me that while a 13 year drought is normal, there is no real evidence that a change in the use of starters means that 300 won't remain an attainable goal.

Jun 06, 2009 20:35 PM
rating: 3
 
kcshankd

Greinke, Zack Greinke. 42 and counting in his year 25 season.

Jun 06, 2009 20:47 PM
rating: 1
 
David Coonce

A cautionary tale, I suppose, but through his year-25 season Denny McClain had 114 wins, 2 Cy Young awards, and an MVP. Of course, the Tigers had worked him like a pack mule at ages 24 and 25, as he threw an astounding 670 inning (!) in those two seasons, and he was never effective again. He finished with 131 wins.

Jun 07, 2009 06:24 AM
rating: 1
 
Rob_in_CT

Hmm, there's a thought.

Jun 08, 2009 05:28 AM
rating: 0
 
James Martin Cole

Felix Hernandez; still only 23 and getting better; once he hits a good organization he'll take off.

Jun 07, 2009 07:39 AM
rating: 0
 
Ira

2 other possibilities that look ludicrous right now... Kevin Millwood and Vincente Padilla.

Millwood because of his conditioning looks like he might have found something at age 34 w/ 147 wins...

Padilla looks even more ludicrous considering he's pitching like crap. but he's got velocity and until this year had a great strikeout rate.

Jun 07, 2009 11:47 AM
rating: 0
 
Christopher Taylor

I know you weren't going to state the obvious, but, how about at least listing the best pitcher in the game, Roy Halladay? If he wins 20 (very possible with 10 in June) this year this list will get him to 300:

33 - 19
34 - 18
35 - 17
36 - 16
37 - 15
38 - 14
39 - 13
40 - 12
41 - 11
42 - 10
43 - 9

...certainly not a stretch, especially if he wins more than 20 this year or in the next two seasons.

Jun 07, 2009 14:05 PM
rating: 1
 
nalex83

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9006

Jun 07, 2009 15:48 PM
rating: 0
 
danbrod11

I am hoping Ollie Perez can win ONE more game...never mind get to 300

Jun 07, 2009 15:44 PM
rating: 5
 
DandyDan

We haven't seen the last 300 winner. Someone, probably Joe Maddon, will reverse the over reliance on the bullpen, and its also possible in the future that we could re-enact 1968 as well. I personally think Roy Halladay could do it, and possibly Johan Santana, but if anyone else does, they haven't made it to the majors yet.

Jun 08, 2009 02:52 AM
rating: 0
 
npb7768

EDWIN JACKSON...And he's "not obvious" because Sheehan didn't mention him...

How is Wang on the list?...Our they going to count Atlantic League wins?

Jun 08, 2009 08:49 AM
rating: -1
 
antonsirius

Dang, someone beat me to it.

Drawing lessons from Randy is tough, because he is such an outlier. Most modern 300-game winners made their big league debuts in their age 20-21 seasons (with varying degrees of success)... Seaver made one of the 'later' debuts at age 22.

Using that as a sorter puts the usual suspects at the top of the list: Halladay, Santana, Beckett, Felix, Zambrano, Greinke. And Jackson, who debuted at 19.

I'll also throw another overlooked name out there, who made his debut at 20: Gil Meche, who's at just 80 wins and counting at age 30 thanks to his two lost seasons.

Jun 08, 2009 15:27 PM
rating: 0
 
JoshuaL

"Early Wynn didn't have very many early wins"

Very nice!

Jun 08, 2009 12:11 PM
rating: 0
 
PWHjort

Hudson has 146 wins.

Jun 08, 2009 13:25 PM
rating: 0
 
Seth

Joe,

I took a look at every 300-game winner who has started his career since 1950 (only 10 players, I know, but hear me out). Those pitchers accounted for 70 pitcher seasons in which they were under 30--using the standard July 1 cutoff) and threw at least 100 innings. Of those 70 seasons, 68 of them involved a HR/9 rate below 1. That's 97%. Don Sutton had a HR rate of 1.3 in his age 25 season, and Johnson had a HR rate of 1.1 in his age 26 season, only his second full season in the majors. Phil Niekro, who didn't throw 100 innings until his age 28 season, posted HR rates of 0.4 and 0.6 to finish out his twenties.

Johnson may demonstrate that control can come late, but he, like the other 300-game winners, always displayed an ability to keep the ball in the yard, year after year. It seems the ability to repeatedly post a HR rate below 1 HR per 9 IP

Here are the number of times pitchers on your list have posted HR rates under 1 in their, and number of seasons in which they have pitched 100 or more innings. Again, all of this is before the age of 30:

Harang - 1 season out of 4
Hudson - 6/7
Lee - 2/4
Lowe - 3/3
Perez - 0/6, 2009: 1.2 HR/9 (I'm a Mets fan, but this one's pretty laughable)
Wang - 3/3, 2009: 1.9 HR/9

Hudson and Lowe are interesting, Lowe because he started so late and Hudson because health issues are the main culprit at this point. If Wang can undo his total implosion, he's a reasonable bet to get back on the list too. But the other pitchers haven't shown the kind of consistent performance that any of the 300-game winners showed in their 20s.

Some other notables include:
Andy Pettite (7/7)
Roy Halladay (6/7)
Roy Oswalt (6/7)
CC Sabathia (8/8, 2009 HR/9: 0.6)
Johan Santana (6/7)
Carlos Zambrano (7/7, 2009 HR/9: 0.6)

Of course, consistently showing the ability to prevent HR doesn't mean a player will have a high win total. Shawn Estes went 6/6 and Mike Hampton was 6 for his first 6 as well. But HR prevention does seem to be a requisite for a high win total. Something to keep in mind.

Jun 08, 2009 16:24 PM
rating: 3
 
roy_halladay_32
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Joe - Why do you hate the Blue Jays?

Were you an A's fan as a little child or something?

An article like this and no mention of Doc?

Jun 08, 2009 22:23 PM
rating: -4
 
brucegilsen
(999)

Wang's low K rate does not suggest a good candidate to me.

Jun 22, 2009 16:51 PM
rating: 0
 
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