Lester's 200 wins: An increasingly rare feat

September 21st, 2021

The Cardinals’ 5-2 victory over the Brewers on Monday night in Milwaukee was important for St. Louis’ soaring postseason hopes, but it also brought about a major individual milestone. Veteran left-hander , who started and allowed two runs over six innings, notched his 200th career win.

The baseball world no longer values pitcher wins in nearly the same way it once did, and for good reason. In 2021, we have far more precise ways to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness and success. And even traditionalists who focus more on a hurler’s wins and losses than his FIP or WAR might not be overly impressed by someone reaching the 200-win mark when 300 has been the celebrated number throughout baseball history.

But the fact is that getting to 200 wins is an impressive feat -- in some ways, more impressive than ever. Here are a few reasons why Lester’s accomplishment is such a big deal.

It’s a testament to longevity
This is even more true for Lester than most, considering that he was diagnosed with a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006, his rookie season with the Red Sox, and had to endure chemotherapy before returning the next season. (The 37-year-old also underwent a procedure this spring to alleviate hyperparathyroidism, a condition that had been sapping his energy.)

Even without those sorts of obstacles, sticking around long enough to reach a milestone such as 200 wins is no simple matter. Injuries are a constant threat, cutting seasons and careers short. A pitcher must be good enough to maintain a rotation spot, and his body must allow him to stay on the mound. As fellow veteran Max Scherzer said recently upon recording his 3,000th strikeout: “Everybody can have the ability to do this, but few have the durability to do this.”

As mentioned, Lester returned from his illness in 2007. From 2008-19 -- for 12 straight seasons until the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign -- Lester made at least 31 starts per year. He was the only pitcher to do so over that stretch and now ranks third among active pitchers in starts (449) and innings (2,730).

Let’s put that into further perspective. Just getting to the Majors is, of course, an accomplishment in the first place -- in AL/NL history, there have been only 6,525 players who have started at least one game on the mound, per Baseball-Reference. Of those, only about 22 percent managed to start 31 games in a single season at least once. And of those, less than 2 percent hung around long enough to do that at least 12 times. That’s just 27 pitchers all time, of whom Lester is one of only eight to do it to begin his career since 1975.

It’s also a testament to talent
To be eligible for a win, a starting pitcher must go at least five innings, and be the pitcher of record when his team takes the lead for good. Logic tells us that being on good teams will make a pitcher more likely to rack up wins over the long haul, and Lester has predominantly been on good teams, including three that won the World Series (though of course, postseason wins don’t factor in here).

But if it were that simple, all of the winningest pitchers in MLB history would just be those who have been on the best teams for the most years of their careers. It isn’t that easy. Lester and others have certainly benefited from being on good teams which won plenty of games, but a total like this doesn’t happen unless you’re also a really good pitcher. And Lester certainly has been one for almost his whole career.

During a nine-season stretch from 2008-16, he had a 3.34 ERA over 1,859 1/3 innings, and racked up 135 of his career wins in that span. And that innings total matters a lot, too. That was the fifth-most innings by any pitcher over that stretch. And as mentioned before, you need to go at least five innings to get a win as a starter. That isn’t about sheer innings -- a pitcher needs to be good enough to be kept in the game at least that long. That’s another part of where the talent comes in, and the longevity, too. A pitcher needs to be good enough to be in position to win, allowing few enough runs and going deep enough into games.

And Lester has certainly done that.

200 is becoming the new 300
The vaunted wins mark that most fans think of is, of course, 300 wins, not 200, as noted above. But with current pitcher usage and overall trends, 200 is becoming the number to look to instead. And to be clear, that mark doesn’t mean it’s easily attainable -- 300 was viewed as a lofty goal.

After all, only 24 pitchers in MLB history have notched 300 or more wins. The last pitcher to get there was Randy Johnson, in 2009. Of those 24 members of the 300-win club, all but four debuted before the mound was lowered in 1969. The only pitchers to debut since then and reach 300 wins were Roger Clemens (debuted in 1984), Greg Maddux (1986), Tom Glavine (1987) and Johnson (1988).

And as for 200? Lester is just the third active pitcher in that echelon, along with the currently injured Justin Verlander (226) and Zack Greinke (219). Never say never, but it seems unlikely that we will see another pitcher reach 300 wins any time soon, if ever. Thus, 200 becomes that new lofty goal.

After Lester, there are two more pitchers likely to join the 200-win club sometime in the next few seasons: Scherzer (currently at 190) and Clayton Kershaw (185). The 40-year-old Adam Wainwright has a chance, too, with 183 wins under his belt and intentions to pitch in 2022.

But after that, it will be a while before we see anyone reach the 200 mark. The next active pitcher with a realistic shot is Gerrit Cole, who has 116 right now. But even that is probably five or six years away, assuming full health throughout. And after him, it’s hard to say.

All of this just goes to show how much of an achievement 200 is -- both right now and for future pitchers, in today’s game.