November 28, 2014

The Myth of the 300-game Winner

November 18, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

It has been often written that the 300-game winner will never exist again.

This is a total fallacy.  There have been only twenty-four such occurrences in Major League Baseball history.  Did you know that there are more members in the 3000-hit club and the 500-home run club?

The role of the starting pitcher has changed dramatically over the years.  Today, starting pitchers work in a five-man rotation, rarely completing games.  The philosophy of using pitch-counts limits their workload and the heavy reliance on relievers decreases the chances of recording wins.  In essence, the combination of less starts and complete games equals fewer victories for a starting pitcher during their career.

Late 19th century (6),

Pud Galvin (1888), Tim Keefe (1890), Mickey Welch (1890), Charles Radbourn (1891), John Clarkson (1892), Kid Nichols (1900)

The original 300-game winner

From 1888-1892, five Hall of Fame pitchers initiated the 300-win club.  On June 4, 1888, James “Pud” Galvin became the first pitcher in history to win 300-games for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys.  The diminutive right-hander possessed a devastating fastball and change-up that baffled opposing hitters during his fifteen-year career.  Exactly two-years later, Tim Keefe joined the elite circle of winners as a member of the New York Giants of the defunct Players League.  Two months after, Mickey Welch, captured the historic win as a member of the National League New York Giants.  Remarkably, he still holds the MLB-record for striking out the first nine batters to begin a game on August 28, 1884.  In 1891, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn finished his brief eleven-year career with 309-wins, including a single-season record of 59, established during the 1884 season for the Providence Grays.  On September 21, 1892, John Clarkson, recorded his milestone victory as member of the Cleveland Spiders.  He was the last pitcher to win 300-games in the eighteen hundreds.

Following the 1893 season, the pitching distance was considerably altered.  The National League instituted the 60 feet-6 inch rule changes from home plate shifting the advantage slightly towards the hitter.  The additional ten-and-a-half feet enabled the batter’s reaction time to gain slightly and an offensive explosion ensued.  In 1894, the league’s overall batting average rose to a staggering .309 up .054 points from the previous campaign.  As a result, only nineteen players have collected their 300-win while pitching at the current distance.

Early 20th century (5),

Cy Young (1901), Christy Mathewson (1912), Eddie Plank (1915), Walter Johnson (1920), Grover Alexander (1924)

During this period, the four most prolific winners in baseball history added their names to the record books.  Cy Young (511), Walter Johnson (417), Christy Mathewson (373), and Grover Alexander (373).  The foursome combined to win 1,674 and completed a staggering 2,152 games during their Hall of Fame careers.  This is the “Mount Rushmore” of pitching.  In the current pitching climate, it is difficult to envision any pitcher winning more games than anyone in this quartet.  Greg Maddux, 355-career wins, narrowly missed entering this pantheon of greatness.

Cy Young: 511-wins

511-wins.  Say that number out loud.  Denton True “Cy” Young amassed a preposterous career win total.  The legendary right-hander compiled ninety-four more wins (22.5%) than Walter “Big Train” Johnson.  To illustrate, the greatest hitter of all-time, Babe Ruth, won 94 games in his career before transitioning to a full-time outfielder.  This is the safest record in the history of organized baseball.  However, Johnson might have been the most dominant pitcher of all-time.  He tossed an astounding 110-shutouts during his twenty-one year career.  Incredibly, of his 417 wins, 26.4% of them were complete-game shutouts.  Christy “Big Six” Mathewson compiled a 373-188 record over a brilliant seventeen-year career.  He won 20 or more games, twelve consecutive  seasons (1903-14), still an MLB-record.  Meanwhile, Grover Alexander established an MLB-rookie record, 28  wins, in 1911 for the Philadelphia Phillies.  Over the next nineteen seasons, “Old Pete”, tied Mathewson for the third most wins (373) in baseball history.

Mid-20th century (3),

Lefty Grove (1941), Warren Spahn (1961) Early Wynn (1963)

After 1920, the spitball was outlawed from the game altering the landscape of the pitching friendly dead-ball era to the offensive laden live-ball era.  Pitchers often “loaded” the ball with tobacco juice, vaseline, any other substances available.  This might explain the dearth of 300-game winners during this era.  Meanwhile, World War II was responsible for many great pitchers leaving their baseball careers behind.  The most prominent example was the Cleveland Indians ace, Bob Feller.  He missed four prime years of his stellar career serving in the military, leaving him just thirty-four wins shy of the magical mark.

From 1924-1982, there were only three pitchers to collect 300-wins.  Lefty Grove started only 457 games, the fewest number for any member of the club.  He appeared in additional 159 games in relief to help augment his final win total of exactly 300 games.  His .680 lifetime winning percentage remains the highest of any 300-game winner.  Warren Spahn holds the MLB-record for most career victories, 363, by a left-handed pitcher despite serving three years in World War II.  Conceivably, he could have been the third member, along with Cy Young and Walter Johnson, of the 400-win club.  Early Wynn completed his long career, tied with Lefty Grove, with 300-wins.  He finished the 1962 season with 299-wins after being released by the Chicago White Sox.  In June 1963, he signed with the Cleveland Indians before attaining the elusive final win. The most prominent pitcher excluded from this era is Leroy Satchel Paige.  The legendary Negro League pitcher spent the majority of his career barred from MLB competition for segregation reasons.  From most accounts, Paige might have been the greatest pitcher in history.  At 59, he pitched three-scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965.  His unmatched longevity, tremendous fastball, and passion for the game might have placed him ahead of Cy Young’s unthinkable 511-win total.

Late 20th century (6),

Gaylord Perry (1982), Steve Carlton (1983), Tom Seaver (1985), Phil Niekro (1985), Don Sutton (1986), Nolan Ryan (1990)

In 1982, there were only fourteen members of the 300-win club.   Incredibly, 42% of the pitchers have accomplished the feat in the past twenty-eight seasons.  This is a staggering total considering the changes in philosophy on how starting pitchers are handled.  Modern medicine has played a significant role in extending players careers.  The advent of the “Tommy John” surgery has afforded them the opportunity to recover from a once career-ending injury.  Ironically, the pitcher named for the infamous medical procedure was forced to miss the entire 1975 season, leaving him only twelve victories shy of the mark.  Conceivably, the additional dozen wins could have forced the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to induct John into the Hall of Fame.  Another notable exclusion, that barely missed the 300-win mark, is Bert Blyleven.  The curveball specialist missed almost two complete seasons due to arm related injuries.  His Hall of Fame candidacy has been under question for the past thirteen years narrowly missing the vote in 2010 (74.2%).  Unquestionably, the right-hander would have collected the remaining thirteen wins necessary for inclusion into the select club and his HOF speech would have been recited years ago.

Early 21st century (4),

Roger Clemens (2003), Greg Maddux (2004), Tom Glavine (2007), Randy Johnson (2009)

Greg Maddux: 355-wins

The twenty-first century pitching quartet defied all of the odds by gaining entry to the exclusive 300-win club.  Greg Maddux, 355-wins, holds the distinction of recording the most victories by any living player.  Roger Clemens trails him by one victory.  The seven-time Cy Young Award winner has battled public scrutiny in recent years, with his possible usage of performance-enhancing drugs.  Maddux longtime teammate, Tom Glavine, reached the hallowed milestone in 2007 while pitching for the New York Mets.  The newest member, Randy Johnson, compiled a lifetime 303-166 record and five Cy Young Awards, upon retirement following the 2009 season.

What does it take to win 300-games and gain immortality into Cooperstown? Health. Ability. Longevity. Luck.  In addition, increased salaries have potentially motivated players to remain active for longer careers.  This spells Hall of Fame credentials.

The active pitcher with the highest probability of winning 300-games is C.C. Sabathia of the New York Yankees.  At 30, he has compiled a 157-88 record over the first ten seasons of his career, leaving him just 143-wins shy of the magical plateau.  Sabathia plays for a perennial powerhouse franchise with an offensive nucleus that should enable him to challenge the 20-win mark for the remaining five-years on his current contract.  His enormous frame and durability have enabled him to start at-least thirty games in every season but 2006.  Meanwhile, Sabathia has the luxury of turning the ball over to the greatest closer in history, Mariano Rivera.  If the dominant lefty avoids serious injury and maintains the desire to pitch for another decade, there is an excellent chance that he will become the twenty-fifth member of the exclusive 300-win club.

The 300-game win plateau should be left to those who actually start games for a living.   Remember, there was a fifty-eight year period (1924-1982) when only three pitchers reached this extraordinary total.  Incredibly, there have been ten members added to the club during the past twenty-eight seasons.  The game of baseball runs in cycles and there will be another legendary hurler to eclipse the mark in the future despite the challenges of pitching in the modern era.

Comments

2 Responses to “The Myth of the 300-game Winner”
  1. Sven Jenkins says:

    Good read. However, I’d like to challenge you on a couple points.

    First, I would argue that the increased salaries of today’s game would NOT motivate players to pitch longer. Nowadays, players are rich, and don’t really need the income late in their careers. Whereas, in the past, players needed the job as long as they could hold it since they weren’t grossly overpaid compared to the rest of us.

    Second, I’m not surprised at all about the resurgence in 300 game winners and the longetivity of pitchers in the current era. Between the medicine and the intelligence when it comes to pitch counts and not overworking starters, careers are lasting longer than ever. Pitchers seem to be routinely pitching deep into careers, instead of flaming out after a few good, yet overworked seasons.

    And how many Wins did the pitchers in the previous eras lose because they were left in to pitch late in games when they were exhausted? Nowadays, the strength of many teams in their bullpen, which is more than capable of holding a lead compared to a tiring starter.

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  1. […] baseball historian and close friend of 60ft6in, Josh Robbins, wrote a summary of the history of the 300 Win mark. It’s a good read and gives some insight into the different eras of the game. This entry […]



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