Here’s why 200 wins is a big deal

September 19th, 2023

Cardinals pitcher became the 122nd pitcher in baseball history to win his 200th game Monday night with a 1-0 victory over the Brewers.

Wainwright came into the season with an explicit goal to reach the 200-win plateau and has had a long, hard season trying to get there. He entered Monday’s start with just four wins in 20 starts and his ERA now stands at 7.40. He only has two more starts before he retires -- next weekend in San Diego, and then in his final weekend at his beloved Busch Stadium, where he’ll actually sing.

One thing is definitely clear about Wainwright reaching 200: He may be the last pitcher to get there for a while -- maybe ever. There are only four active pitchers who have reached the mark -- Justin Verlander (255), Zack Greinke (224), Max Scherzer (214) and Clayton Kershaw (209) -- and the only active pitcher who would seem to be in shouting distance is Gerrit Cole, who may win the AL Cy Young Award this year at the age of 33, but still has only 143 wins. If he stays at his current average of wins-per-season (13), he’ll have a chance to get there in about four-and-a-half years. A chance.

This fundamental fact -- that we once cheered pitchers on the way to 300 wins and now we’re not sure anyone’s going to make it to 200 again -- is sometimes held up as some sort of sign that pitchers aren’t as tough as they used to be, or that pitching is somehow easier than it used to be. This is absurd. If Ty Cobb saw a Félix Bautista splitter, he’d leave the plate muttering about witchcraft. It's less about the pitchers themselves and more about the changes the game has made. Do you like watching Jhoan Duran hit 102 on the gun? Then there are going to be fewer pitchers going eight innings.

It's actually a huge, huge deal that Wainwright pulled this off, and that it is so rare is something to be celebrated. Wainwright had to overcome basic changes in the game to reach this point, but that doesn’t mean pitchers who don’t reach this mark are somehow lesser because of it. Here are five reasons we may not see this feat achieved again in a long time, if not ever … and why that’s, in fact, a good thing.

Understanding what it means to face hitters a third or fourth time through the order

"The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball," co-written by’s own Tom Tango, was explicit about this back in 2006.

“As the game goes on, the hitter has a progressively greater advantage over the starting pitcher.”

Like a lot of things in that book, it took a few years for its wisdom to catch on, but now, with a near-endless number of studies pointing out that the third-time-through-the-order penalty is real, managers and front offices have internalized it. (It’s another reason they’re batting their best hitters higher in the order than they ever have before.)

The logic here is obvious. As a pitcher wears down, his stuff erodes ever so slightly, and the batters get a better feel for his repertoire and release point. The smart manager and front office get the pitcher out before that happens. Because of the rules of what constitutes a win that were set a century ago, that makes it that much harder to notch a win. There are some who believe we should reduce from five the number of innings a starting pitcher needs to earn a win, but it hasn’t happened so far. With starters throwing fewer innings, for good reason, that, by definition, reduces the number of wins.

The increased velocity of bullpen pitchers

This grows, logically, out of the third-time-through-the-order penalty. If you have a pitcher who is tiring when he faces a batter for the third time, it makes sense that you bring in someone who isn’t tired. And have you seen how fast some of these guys throw? Pitching is all about velocity and movement now, about coming in with your sharpest stuff, getting a small number of guys out and then handing the ball over to the next guy. When you have someone who can throw a 98 mph four-seamer straight out of the 'pen the third time through the order, why would you make a starter do it?

The separation of the win from the understanding of pitcher quality

As fun as getting a win is -- and as obsessed as television broadcasts are with putting the camera on a nervous starting pitcher in the dugout, fretting about his precious win -- baseball observers and experts no longer put a ton of value on the actual stat of the win anymore. Sandy Alcantara won the NL Cy Young Award with 14 wins last year; Corbin Burnes won it the year before with 11. The last pitcher to win 20 games was Kyle Wright, last year. He finished 10th in Cy Young voting, behind even a player on his own team, Max Fried. You can pitch a great game and not get a win, and pitch a terrible one and get one. The win is a fun stat, and like all stats it can tell you something. But it can’t tell you everything. And we once believed it did.

The difficulty of pitching longevity

We’ve increased our understanding of spin rates and velocity, but we haven’t necessarily figured out how to keep pitchers accordingly healthy. Even if you want pitchers to throw deep into games, it’s difficult to find pitchers who can stay on the field enough to keep doing it every year, their entire careers. You know how we rattled off all those stats about Wainwright, and how few pitchers there are getting 200 wins?

Well, take a look at a different stat: Games started. The same five guys who have 200 wins are atop the career games-started leaderboard: Verlander, Greinke, Scherzer, Kershaw and Wainwright. But the dropoff in games started after them is just as stark: Johnny Cueto is next on the list among active pitchers, and he has made only 10 starts (with a 6.20 ERA) this year. After him is Madison Bumgarner, who was cut months ago. Then there’s Charlie Morton, and then all the way down to Lance Lynn. Lynn is a perfectly solid pitcher -- one who may be starting for the Dodgers in the playoffs, no less -- but he’s on no one’s list of all-timers. His primary skill is taking the ball every fifth day. (And even he came into the league as a reliever.) It’s difficult to make 30-plus starts in a season. And it’s increasingly impossible to do it for 20 years.

These are just fundamental facts about the way baseball is played today, facts that have nothing to do with the individual pitchers involved in the game and more to do with increased understanding of how best to deploy a pitching staff in a way that maximizes the ability to win games -- for the team to win games, not the player. That Wainwright was able to do this does not mean today’s pitchers aren’t as good as they used to be. It just means Wainwright was able to do something that is incredibly difficult to do today. That’s a reason to celebrate it … and, most of all, appreciate it.