Three years ago I wrote a piece in which I opined that it was more likely than not that an active MLB pitcher would win 300 games. Only a year later, my opinion changed, and as of today, I am more convinced than ever that the likelihood that any pitcher now pitching will win 300 games is less than 50%.
After the 2012 season, there were a number of pitchers I thought had a reasonable chance of winning 300. Since then, all have either gotten hurt, lost effectiveness, or are reportedly on the verge of getting hurt.
Added to that, the trend of starting pitchers pitching fewer innings and fewer complete games has only gotten stronger, making season win totals as much a matter of luck as a matter of performance. I also think that the trend of increasingly enormous baseball players decreases the chance of another 300 game winner among today’s pitchers — pitchers can get bigger and stronger and throw harder, but their joints can’t keep up with the increased stresses professional pitchers put on their pitching arms.
Currently, Tim Hudson and Bartolo Colon are the active wins leaders with 222 and 218 career wins, respectively. Neither has any reasonable chance to win 300 games. Hudson has already announced his retirement, and Colon, no matter how long he wishes to continue pitching, is simply too old at age 42 to hang around long enough to reach 300 wins.
However, Tim Hudson’s Hall of Fame chances are now looking pretty good. Ten years from now 220+ wins is going to look like a lot among HOF eligible pitchers. The main thing standing in his way is the fact that he hasn’t led his league many times in major statistical categories.
Here are the active pitchers I think have the best shot at 300 wins.
1. Felix Hernandez (143 wins through his age 29 season). A year ago there was a lot of talk that Hernandez was on the verge of an elbow injury. So far, he’s proven the speculation wrong, winning 18 games in 2015. He’s also one of only two active pitchers who is significantly ahead of the career win average for his age (starting at age 30) of the last four 300 game winners (Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson).
However, Hernandez’s 2015 performance raises a lot of questions. He pitched the fewest innings of any season since 2008, while winning more games that any season since 2009. His ERA was up, and his strike out rate was down. While he’s still on track for 300 career wins, he’s only 47.7% of the way there, and one has to wonder if 2016 won’t be the year that last off-season’s predictions of impending arm failure prove accurate.
2. Clayton Kershaw (114 wins through his age 27 season). Kershaw has the best arm in baseball, but history hasn’t been kind to pitchers who have thrown as many innings before age 27 as Kershaw has. My original article three years ago listed Matt Cain, a big-bodied pitcher who had won a lot of games young while never appearing to be over-taxed by all the innings he threw at a tender age. Well, “the Horse” got long in the tooth after his age 27 season.
Kershaw was absolutely still at the top of his game in 2015. The question is whether he’ll still be wracking up the wins after his age 30 or 31 season. No modern pitcher has any chance of winning 300 games unless he’s winning an average of 15 games a year in the back half of his 30’s.
3. Mark Buehrle. (214 wins through age 36). I don’t think of Mark Buehrle as a guy who is going to win 300 games, but you can’t ignore the fact that he just keeps on adding to his career wins total. That said, one has to wonder how many more years Buehrle can continue to win more games than he loses with a 4.1 K/9IP rate, even with his 2015 2.8 K/BB ratio. Buehrle’s command and knowledge of the art of pitching is such that I think he’ll be around for a few more years. However, his diminishing stuff is likely to drum him out of MLB before he reaches 3oo wins.
4. Justin Verlander (157 wins through age 32). Three years ago I thought Verlander had the best chance of any active pitcher to win 300 games, and I thought the same thing two years ago. No more! He was an average starter in 2014 and missed a couple of months on the DL in 2015. It’s certainly possible that Verlander still has great seasons ahead of him, but at only 52.3% of the way to 300 wins, he surely isn’t likely to win 300.
5. CC Sabathia (214 wins through age 34). CC is the other pitcher who is ahead of the average wins by age of the last generation’s 300 game winners. However, I never thought CC was a good bet to win 300, because pitchers his size historically break down fast after their age 32 seasons. In fact, CC’s numbers declined dramatically in his age 32 season (2013), and he was hurt in both 2014 and 2015.
CC is such a good pitcher that, if the alcohol rehab treatment takes and he drops his weigh below 260 lbs and keeps it there, he could gut it out to 260 or even 270 career wins. However, there’s no way to go back in time and take off all the weight on his joints from seasons past. Do you see CC averaging better than 14 wins per season from 2016 through his age 40 season in 2021? I sure don’t.
6. Zack Greinke (142 wins through age 31). Greinke is a smallish right-hander who hasn’t shown an ability to eat innings without consequences. However, he was extremely efficient in his 222.2 IP in 2015 by virtue of his league-leading WHIP. I can’t see Greinke lasting long enough to reach 300 wins, but he was arguably the best pitcher in MLB in his age 31 season, so you can’t completely write him off.
7. David Price (104 wins through age 29). Currently one of MLB’s very best, but he has a long way to go to 300 wins. Of all the pitchers on this list under age 32 in 2015, he is probably the best bet to pitch well well into his 30’s.
8. Jon Lester (127 wins through age 31). Lester had a fine year in 2015, although it wasn’t reflected in his win column. He’s locked himself into pitching his home games at Wrigley Field through 2020, which probably isn’t a great place to be for a pitcher hoping to win 300 games.
9. Cole Hamels (121 wins through age 31). Another pitcher still at the top of his game who finds himself locked into a hitters’ park for the next few seasons. Although he appears to have the right body type, he would need to average better than 16 wins a year from 2016 through his age 42 season to reach 300 wins. Doesn’t seem likely.
10. Madison Bumgarner (85 wins through age 25). Bumgarner’s situation is pretty much the same as Kershaw’s above, except that Bumgarner isn’t as far along in his career. Statistically, his age 25 season was his best with terrific WHIP, K/IP and K/BB rates. The odds are good that Bumgarner will be just as good or even better the next two or three seasons. However, what Bumgarner does after age 30 will determine his ability to reach 300 wins, and that is too far into the future to make any real projections.