Verlander and 300
People have been declaring the 300-game winner dead for many, many years now. But somehow, some way, even as the role of starting pitchers has changed and changed again and changed even more, somehow, someway, the 300-game winner keeps re-emerging after decades of hibernation.
These days, that means Justin Verlander. He threw down the gauntlet back in March when Tyler Kepner of The New York Times asked him about 300 wins: “Can I do that? Yeah.”
When he said those words, Verlander had just turned 39 and he had 226 victories — that’s some difficult math. Only 10 pitchers in baseball history have won 74 games after turning 39 years old, and two of them were knuckleballers (Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough), a third was a spitballer (that’s Jack Quinn, who was grandfathered in and allowed to throw spitballs after they were outlawed) and a fourth was Cy Young himself. It seemed a long, long road for Verlander.
And it still does … but the road is definitely a bit shorter. Verlander leads the American League with 10 wins, so he’s at 236 now, and though he’s striking out fewer batters, he’s proving as hard to hit as ever (the league is hitting .183 against him and slugging .298). Verlander is a leading Cy Young candidate at age 39.
And the 300-win dream is still out there.
Before we get to that dream, maybe it would be good to first review what it even means to win 300 games.
There are 24 pitchers who have won 300 games in MLB. That’s the entity MLB. The list does not include other 300-game winners — such as Satchel Paige, who according to his Hall of Fame plaque won “hundreds” of games, suggesting a number so vast they couldn’t even begin to estimate it. The Encyclopedia Britannica writes that when you include all the Negro league games, all the barnstorming, all the exhibitions, all of it, Paige is “reputed to have pitched a total of 2,500 games … winning 2,000 of them.”
Several Negro leaguers probably won 300 games when you include all their games.
In Japan, Masaichi Kaneda won 400 games. He’s joined by six other 300-game winners in Japanese ball — Tetsuya Yoneda, Masaaki Koyama, Keishi Suzuki, Takehiko Bessho and Victor Starffin. There are surely 300 game-winners in other countries as well — for example, when you add up all the wins for Dolf Luque in MLB, Cuba and Mexico …
But let’s get back to the 24 300-game winners in MLB history.
Seven of them were 19th-century pitchers, including our good friend Old Hoss Radbourn, who won 60 of those games in 1884. Five of the seven pitched in the 1870s and 1880s, when pitchers basically started every other day.
— Pud Galvin (365 wins — averaged 62 starts between 1879 and 1884)
— Tim Keefe (342 wins — averaged 58 starts between 1884 and 1887)
— John Clarkson (329 wins — averaged 62 starts between 1885 and 1889)
— Old Hoss Radbourn (310 wins — averaged 58 starts between 1882 and 1887)
— Mickey Welch (307 wins — averaged 52 starts between 1880 and 1886)
Those five played under very different rules from the game now — they pitched in a box, not on a mound, and they pitched from 50 feet away instead of 60 feet, 6 inches. They threw underhand, for the most part, and the number of balls it took for a walk was constantly changing.
The other two 19th century pitchers on the list — Kid Nichols and Cy Young — pitched in more modern circumstances. They still started a lot of games every year, but over his career Nichols averaged roughly 40 starts per season, while Young average 39 or so. That’s a lot different from Galvin and Old Hoss.
Then came Deadball. Four of the remaining 17 300-game winners spend most or all of their careers pitching during Deadball, which ended around 1920.
Walter Johnson: 417 wins
Christy Mathewson and Pete Alexander: 373 wins
Eddie Plank: 326 wins
The compelling part of this era was not so much how many starts they made each year but how many complete games they threw. Walter Johnson completed 531 of his 666 starts, while Alexander completed 436 games and Mathewson completed 435.
To give you an idea of Johnson’s 531 complete games — MLB pitchers in total the last 5 1/2 seasons have completed 238 games. That’s EVERYBODY.
In 1941, Lefty Grove became the first pitcher to win 300 games after Deadball. He won EXACTLY 300 games.
Then you have to wait 20-plus years to get to the next 300-game winner. There’s a simple reason for this: World War II. Had it not been for the war, I believe there would have been THREE 300-game winners in that era.
The first is obvious: Bob Feller won 266 games and missed three full seasons and most of a fourth while serving in the Navy. Feller carried around a projection of what his lifetime stats might have been if not for the war, and it estimated he would have won 373 games.
Red Ruffing won 273 games and missed two seasons while serving in the military. He was at the end of his career, so it’s not entirely certain that he would have won 27 more games. But it’s a good bet.
And the third — nobody really talks about Ted Lyons as a potential 300-game winner. But he definitely was. He won 260 games and missed three seasons because of the war. The year before he went into the army, he led the American League in ERA. I think he would have done it.
In any case, the next 300-game winner — Warren Spahn — also served. He did not get into the big leagues until he was 25 years old. But he made up for it on the other end of his career — he pitched until he was 44 years old. In total, he won 363 games.
Early Wynn also served during World War II — for one year when he was 25 — and like Lefty Grove, ended up with exactly 300 wins.
If you enjoyed this post, it would be awesome if you shared it with your friends. Thanks, as always, for supporting JoeBlogs!
Then came the golden era of 300-game winners. It’s not entirely clear why so many great pitchers proved to be so durable during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s. But it’s really quite incredible, especially because while the six 300-game winners of the time were contemporaries, they were each so different.
— Steve Carlton (329 wins) was a fitness freak, and he would do all these wild exercises, like twist his wrist in a bucket of dried rice and work with martial arts gurus. I don’t know if that’s why he was able to pitch for so long (709 starts over 24 years). But it’s as good a theory as any.
— Speaking of theories, my theory about Nolan Ryan (324 wins) is that he was simply too stubborn to get hurt or miss a start. There doesn’t seem any other explanation for a pitcher who probably threw harder than anyone ever making an impossible 807 starts over his career.
— I don’t even pretend to understand the longevity of Don Sutton (324 wins). He made 30-plus starts every year but one from 1966 to 1987 — and the one year he didn’t was the strike season. His 20 seasons with 30-plus starts is the most in baseball history. He just never got hurt. Sutton treated baseball like a job (“It was not an emotional experience for me,” he would say), and he was just one of those guys who showed up for work every time.
— Phil Niekro (318 wins) might be the easiest one to understand — he was, after all, throwing the knuckleball, which is not as hard on the arm. Niekro did not play his first full season in the big leagues until he was 28, but he averaged 37 starts for the next 13 seasons and made 716 starts in his career.
— Gaylord Perry (314 wins) famously threw (or didn’t throw) spitballs. I don’t know how hard the spitball is on the arm, but you would have to say that Perry was extremely savvy about the way he worked his way through games, never overthrowing, always coming up with new and innovative ways of getting in the heads of batters. He made 690 starts in his career, 30 of them when he was 44 years old.
— I think the key with Tom Seaver (311 wins) was his pitch-perfect form. As was often said about him in his prime, Seaver was basically a pitching instruction book come to life. He had powerful legs, which he always said was the key to his pitching success — he gained his power more from his legs than his shoulder or elbow. Of course, I’m just guessing here. Seaver’s ability to stay healthy is as mysterious as all the rest. He made 647 starts in his career.
In addition to those guys, you have near-300 game winners like Jim Kaat and Tommy John. The fact that Tommy John — the name behind the surgery — won 288 games and made 700 starts utterly blows my mind. There was just something odd about that time.
The last four 300-game winners pitched mostly in the 1990s — I’ve always found it ironic that an era known for offense was, in retrospect, the golden era for starting pitchers. The 300-game winners were Greg Maddux (355 wins), Roger Clemens (354 wins), Tom Glavine (305 wins) and Randy Johnson (303 wins). They are four of the best pitchers in baseball history, with Maddux, Clemens and Johnson having legitimate arguments for best ever.
But I’d actually like to talk about Pedro Martinez. He was, at his best, the greatest pitcher I ever saw. But he made only 409 starts in his career and, as such, only won 219 games. I want to show you something about those five pitchers:
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial