Sunday, June 7, 2009

300 Game Winners

This week, Randy Johnson achieved one of baseball's most impressive career milestones: he became the 24th player to win 300 games. But you already knew that. And, if you've been listening to the "conventional wisdom," you'd also know that the Big Unit will be the last 300 game winner we'll ever see. Peter Schmuck picks up the meme in his column today: "But there has been such a dramatic - and seemingly irreversible - generational change in the way pitchers are both developed and managed that nobody is likely to stick around long enough to become the 25th pitcher to reach that venerated milestone." Sure, it's possible no one will ever win 300 games again. But care to bet on it? Before you jump at the chance, let me save you some money: let's look at the history of 300 game winners.

The modern era of baseball is widely agreed to have begun in 1919, and nine members of the 300 Club won their 300th game before that date: Pud Galvin, Tim Keefe, Mickey Welch, Charles Radbourn, John Clarkson, Kid Nichols, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, and Eddie Plank. Belonging to the deadball era, these guys aren't really relevant when analyzing pitching today, so we'll leave them alone and instead focus on the remaining fifteen players. First up, we have Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander whose careers straddle the two eras. Johnson won his 300th game in 1920, and would go on to win 417; Alexander achieved 300 in 1924 and won 373 career games. Since then, no one has matched that total, with Warren Spahn (363), Greg Maddux (355) and Roger Clemens (354) coming closest. Given those numbers, I think we can agree that no one is likely to ever win 400 games again, and even 350 wins would be a monumental achievement.

Interestingly, on the day Alexander won his 300th career game, the next 300 game winner had yet to pitch in the Major Leagues: Lefty Grove made his debut in 1925, and would go on to win his 300th (and final) game in 1941. Oddly enough, our next 300 game winner, Warren Spahn, had also yet to pitch in the Majors at this point. He made his debut in 1942, but would not win his first game until after World War II in 1946 (at age 25), and picked up number 300 in 1961. This is a technicality though, as Early Wynn made his Major League debut in 1939, picked up his first win in 1941, and would go on to win 300 games, albeit not until 1963, two seasons after Spahn had won his 300th game. Thanks to the lively ball era of the 1920s and 1930s and the baseball time lost to the wars of the 1940s and 1950s, those three men are the only pitchers who won 300 games playing entirely in the modern era until the 1980s.

300 Game Winners by Decade:
1920s: 2 (Johnson, Alexander)
1930s: 0
1940s: 1 (Grove)
1950s: 0
1960s: 2 (Spahn, Wynn)
1970s: 0

From 1946 to 1961, no future 300 game winner won his first career game, and then the 1960s saw a half dozen: Gaylord Perry (1962), Phil Niekro (1965), Steve Carlton (1966), Don Sutton (1966), Tom Seaver (1967), and Nolan Ryan (1968). After this burst, which hadn't been seen since the deadball era, the well ran dry again until the 1980s, when the most recent crop of 300 game winners all won their first games: Roger Clemens (1984), Greg Maddux (1986), Tom Glavine (1987) and Randy Johnson (1989).

300 Game Winners by Decade:
1980s: 5 (Perry, Niekro, Carlton, Sutton, Seaver)
1990s: 1 (Ryan)
2000s: 4 (Clemens, Maddux, Glavine, Johnson)

And, really, Ryan belongs in the 1980s since he won his 300th game in 1990.

So what does all this mean? It means that a large gap between 300 game winners is far from unusual in baseball history. In fact, there has been a gap of at least 14 seasons between the first wins of future 300 game winners four different times: 1911 to 1925, 1925 to 1941, 1946 to 1962, and 1968 to 1984. People wrote after Ryan won his 300th game in 1990 that we may never see the feat again (ht: Wezen-ball). Why? Because of the 5-man rotation, reliever specialization, guaranteed contracts, later debut ages, etc. Gee, that sounds awfully familiar. Yes, that's right: Clemens, Maddux, Glavine and Johnson all won 300 games in the era of the 5-man rotation, the closer and guaranteed contracts. Do I know who will be the next 300-game winner? Definitely not. But before we write off the current crop of pitchers as too soft and pampered and yearn for the glory days of yesteryear, it is important to keep in mind that what we're seeing now is far from unusual. In fact, it fits perfectly with patterns we've seen repeatedly as baseball has transformed over the year.

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