Friday, May 22, 2009

The "Last 300-Game Winner"

When Randy Johnson takes the hill tonight in Seattle to face his old squad, he will be making his second attempt at career victory number 299, hopefully leaving him only a brief step away from the ultimate pitching milestone of 300 wins. As Johnson works his way towards the mark, the conversation has understandably turned to the 300-Win Club and what it takes to become a member. As always seems to be the case, much of the talk is focused on whether Johnson will be the last pitcher to ever reach the milestone. Bill James and Joe Posnanski discuss just that (among other things) over at, while Joe takes it even further on his blog and breaks down where 300-game winners get their wins. (BBTF adds to the discussion here.)

This, of course, is nothing new. As Tom Glavine approached the milestone in 2007, himself the third pitcher in less than five years to join the club, you could find countless articles like this one wondering the same thing:
In the last 60 years, getting 300 wins has become one of the most rare milestones: Only 10 pitchers have achieved it since the end of World War II. And since 1990, only Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Maddux have made it.

With the greater reliance on bullpens, pitchers making fewer starts and teams being more careful with rich arms, huge win totals are a thing of the past.

So is the 300-game winner about to be extinct?
Glavine just can't believe he'll be the last.

"Nobody looked at me 20 years ago and thought we'd be having this discussion so I'm sure there's somebody out there," he said. "They're just a little bit off the radar screen right now."
That article is actually atypical, in that it leaves open the door for future members. Most seemed to think that Glavine would, indeed be the last. But even in 2007, this line of questioning wasn't new.

Nolan Ryan won his 300th career game on July 31, 1990, in Milwaukee. It was his second attempt at the milestone victory, and even then people were writing him off as the last member. In the July 25, 1990, edition of the LA Times, Ben Walker details some reasons why:
"The game has changed so much, especially for pitchers," [Phil] Niekro said. "There are no more 300-inning pitchers. There aren't so many 20-game winners. It's just different now."

In every way, it adds up to under 300 wins. Here's why:
  • It used to be, back when complete games were commonplace, that starting pitchers got all of the decisions. Now, in an age of specialization, middle relievers and stoppers get their share. ...
  • It used to be that pitchers never got injured, or at least-for better or worse-never said they were hurt. Now, the disabled list is dotted with pitchers...
  • It used to be routine for kids to turn pro straight out of high school and reach the big leagues as teen-agers. Now, more players go to college and don't make the majors until their mid-20s...
"The money also makes a difference," Niekro said. "You don't have to stick around for a lot of years, hoping to make a million dollars. You can make that right away these days, and you don't need to hang around, punishing your body."
Only a week later, after Ryan had won his 300th game, Ron Cook wrote this in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Here's hoping you had a good look at Nolan Ryan's 300th career victory Tuesday night. Chances are you won't see another pitcher accomplish that feat if Bert Blyleven doesn't last long enough to do it.

I realize never is a long time, but the game has changed too much to expect a pitcher to get 300 victories. Five-man rotations have replaced four-man rotations. Starts and innings are down. Appearances for long relievers, set-up men and stoppers are up. If two pitchers in each league win 20 games in an season, it's almost a miracle.
Of the young stars, Dwight Gooden, 111 victories at 25, has the best chance, but he has had arm trouble. Roger Clemens, who turns 28 today, has 109 victories and Frank Viola, 30, has 132. Neither will endure long enough to reach 300.
Interestingly enough, in that same week that Ryan was becoming the "last member" of the 300 win club, four other future 300-win club members were also pitching.
  • On July 30, only one day before Ryan's milestone, Roger Clemens won career game #109: "Clemens scattered nine hits Monday night, pitching his second consecutive shutout as the Boston Red Sox downed the Chicago White Sox, 3-0, at Boston", and
  • Randy Johnson lost career game #20: "Seattle starter Randy Johnson (9-7) lost his fourth consecutive start"
  • Two days later, on August 1, Greg Maddux won career game #53: "RHP Greg Maddux pitched his fourth complete game Wednesday. He is the only Cubs starter with more than one"
  • And finally, on August 2, Tom Glavine lost career game #36: "Tom Glavine (6-7) gave up three runs and eight hits in 6 1/3 innings. He has an 0-5 career record against Houston"
The one-line game recaps seem so innocuous in retrospect, especially when you read them alongside the cries of a passing generation. It certainly does make you wonder which game recaps from this week or next (whenever Johnson finally gets around to the milestone victory) will unknowingly feature the next 300-game winner (or two). Because it will happen.

We've been lamenting the loss of the 250-inning, 20-game winner for decades now, and we've been using it and the change in bullpen usage as excuses for our reasoning for just as long. In the meantime, though, the size of the club has increased by over 50% in the last 25 years. Granted, these were all exceptional pitchers doing exceptional things over a long time, but that's the point. There are always going to be exceptional players and they are always going to find a way to keep playing. It may take another 13 or 18 or 20 years, but we will definitely see another 300-game winner. And, if history is any indication, maybe even three or four. The fun will be in watching to see who those three or four will be.


Ron Rollins said...

In the mid-70's, they said Reggie Jackson would be the last guy to hit 500 HR's.

I love experts.

Travis M. Nelson said...

Looks to me like there are some ways to take some educated guesses about who the next 300-game winner might be.

Paul said...

I'd put money on Roy Halladay reaching 300.

Anonymous said...

They started running this 300-game winner extinction mantra when Early Wynn won his 300th.