In June of 2009, I wrote a blog piece entitled Of Course, Someone Else Will Win 300 Games. After the 2012 season, I wrote a post which looked at the issue more deeply, and I concluded that it was more likely not that a pitcher pitching in 2012 would win 300 games.
In two updates to the 2012 piece, I reversed course and concluded that it was less likely than not that a current pitcher would win 300 games. My most recent post from after the 2015 season is here.
While I am still of my revised opinion that it is less likely than not that a current pitcher will win 300 games, I think the odds are better today than they were a year or two ago, mainly because of the huge come-back season Justin Verlander had in 2016, about whom I will talk about more below.
In my original post, I listed the average number of career wins the last four 300 game winners (Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson) had at the end of their age 30 through age 40 seasons:
Average: 137 (30); 152 (31); 165 (32); 181 (33); 201 (34); 219 (35); 235 (36); 250 (37); 268 (38); 279 (39); 295 (40).
This is the age of the last four 300-game winners in the season in which each won their 300th game: Maddux 38, Clemens 40, Glavine 41 and Johnson 45. In short, and as you probably already knew, you have to be really good for a really long time to win 300 games.
Here are the current pitchers I think are most likely to win 300 based on their current ages (during the 2016 season) and career win totals:
CC Sabathia (35) 223
Justin Verlander (33) 173
Zack Greinke (32) 155
Felix Hernandez (30) 154
John Lester (32) 146
Clayton Kershaw (28) 126
Max Scherzer (31) 125
David Price (30) 121
Rick Porcello (27) 107
Madison Bumgarner (26) 100
What you look for in projecting a pitcher to have a long career is that he throws really hard, he strikes out a lot of batters, and he doesn’t throw a whole lot of innings before his age 25 season. That said, Greg Maddux didn’t strike out batters at an extremely high rate, even as a young pitcher, and he threw a lot of major league innings before his age 25 season. Still, these factors remain relatively good corollaries for predicting longevity in a major league pitcher.
For these reasons, I like Justin Verlander’s chances of winning 300 the best. His 2016 season, in which he struck out 10 batters per nine innings pitched and led his league in Ks, suggests he’s all the way back from whatever was holding him down in 2014 and 2015 and can be expected to pitch many years into the future, provided he isn’t worked as hard as he was from 2009-2012.
Add to this the fact that Verlander is pretty close to the average of the last four 300-game winners (the “Last Four”) through his age 33 season, and I, at least, have to conclude he’s still got a reasonably good shot at winning 300.
For pretty much the same reasons, I like Max Scherzer’s odds going forward as well. In his age 31 season, he recorded a career-high 11.2 K/IP rate, he didn’t pitch a whole lot of innings at a young age and he’s really racked up the wins the last four seasons. There’s no reason to think at this moment that he cannot continue to throw the 215-230 innings he’s consistently pitched the last four seasons for many more seasons to come.
CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw are all ahead of the Last Four. However, their ability to last long enough to win 300 is very much in question for each of them. Sabathia had a come-back season in 2016, but he’s won only 18 games the last three years, and I don’t see him at his age, his size and his recent injury history winning another 77 major league games.
Felix Hernandez is well ahead of the Last Four at the same age, but he looks to be on the verge of the arm injury many have been predicting for the last several years. In 2016, Hernandez strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, his walks rate was the highest, and he threw fewer innings than in any season since he was an 18 year old minor leaguer.
Clayton Kershaw is undeniably great, but he missed 12 starts this season to a herniated disk in his back. Herniated disks aren’t something that typically heal fully and never return for someone who is as active as a professional athlete, unless they are very, very lucky.
There have always been a lot of questions about whether Zack Greinke can consistently pitch 210-220 innings is a season, and 2016 did nothing to dispel that concern. David Price has likely been overworked his last three seasons. Jon Lester has settled into a very nice groove of pitching between 200 and 220 innings a year, and quite likely for that reason has had only one less than successful season since 2008.
Rick Porcello and Madison Bumgarner are really too young and too far from 300 wins to merit much consideration at this point. Young pitchers who rack up the wins can fade as fast as Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain.
Even so, there was no way a year ago that I could have imagined Rick Porcello would make a list of the ten pitchers I thought had the best chance to win 300 games. He threw a lot of professional innings before his age 25 season (although never 200 in a season), and he didn’t strike anyone out. Starters who can pitch but don’t strike anyone out tend to go the way of Mark Fidrych and Dave Rozema.
However, something strange happened. Porcello has started striking people out, with his 2015 and 2016 rates the highest of his career, while also improving his command. It’s rare for a pitcher to improve his strikeout rate significantly this late in his major league career without adding or perfecting another pitch or dramatically improving his command, but the information I was able to find on line suggests that Porcello credits making better in-game and between-game adjustments and that he’s getting better coaching in terms of correcting minor mechanical flaws sooner based on video tape analysis. On the other hand, Porcello came up so young that he may just still be learning as a pitcher and has become better at pitching to each American League hitter’s weakness.
One thing that would help the current generation of pitchers greatly in the quest for 300 career wins is another round of major league expansion. There’s nothing like a watering down of the talent pool to elevate the best players’ performances. The Last Four’s generation benefited from expansion in 1993 and 1998, but it doesn’t look like there will be another round of expansion any time soon.