Pitcher wins, as you probably know, have been going out of style for about a decade now. There have been campaigns against them, like Brian Kenny's "Kill The Win." There are numerous examples of how random the win has become; a pitcher is now more likely to pick up a victory pitching an inning in relief than pitching seven good innings as a starter. And, anyway, the way the game is pointing -- with pitch counts and fewer complete games -- the win loses meaning every year.
And so we ask: Will there ever be another 300-game winner?
The answer, I think, comes from a different question: "Will anyone ever again want to win 300 games enough to actually do it?"
Some background. There have been 13 pitchers since the Deadball Era who have won 300 games in their career. The 300-game winners have come in waves. From 1920 to the mid '60s, only three men -- Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn and Early Wynn -- managed to win 300. After Spahn retired in '65, many said that no one would win 300 games again.
But baseball was changing. It was becoming a pitcher's game. Six future 300-game winners began their career almost at that exact moment: Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver. They were all remarkable for two things: how many innings they pitched each year and how long they lasted.
It was their durability, in particular, that blows the mind. The six lasted an average of 23 seasons. They completed more than 1,400 games between them. All six are in the top 20 for most innings pitched in baseball history. Their longevity remains a mystery.
When the last of the six retired (Ryan after the 1993 season), again people said that no one else would win 300 games. Those six seemed fluky, and with the game changing -- pitch counts, shorter starts, the rise of the closer -- the 300-game winner appeared to be extinct.
Except: No. Four more pitchers -- Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson -- pitched their way into the elite club. They did it differently. They did not complete nearly as many games as the previous 300-game winners. Heck, Glavine completed just 56 games in his entire career; Perry completed more games from 1972-73.
But they all just kept pitching … and pitching … and pitching. They found their way to 300 without too many big win seasons. Maddux, for instance, never won more than 20 games in a season. But they all pitched well into their 40s. They just kept going.
No one in baseball now threatens that magic 300 number. The active leader in victories is Bartolo Colon with 233, and while we would be the last people to ever underestimate Colon, no, he won't win 300. After him is Carsten Sabathia with 223 wins. He's just 36, but he has been trending down for a while now. Sabathia has a combined 18 victories his past three seasons.
After that, you drop to John Lackey with 176. He doesn't have nearly enough time left. Then there's Justin Verlander with 173. We will get back to him.
Point is, once again people are saying that 300-game winner is a dodo bird. And this time, they could be right, but perhaps not for the reasons usually given. Yes, there are pitch counts and, yes, starters go fewer innings and, yes, fewer pitchers win 20-plus games in a season than they did in, say, the 1970s.
But pitchers still could win 300.
It comes down to desire. Ambition. Zeal. If you look at history, most of the pitchers who won 300 games had not done it by the time they turned 40. Some of them, like Niekro and Johnson, were not even close to 300 wins after their age 40 season. They were still effective and they would not stop.
Glavine, Wynn, Sutton -- guys like that -- were so close to 300 that they stuck around to get it. Wynn finished the 1962 season with 299 wins. He failed his last three starts of that season to get 300. Wynn originally considered retiring and becoming a baseball executive of some kind, but he decided he couldn't just leave it like that. He came back to the White Sox, didn't make the team, waited by the phone for three months and then signed with Cleveland, his old ballclub. Wynn won one more game to give him exactly 300. Then, shortly afterward, he retired.
Will anyone ever want 300 wins that much again?
As wins become less and less significant, that's the real fair question. A look at the age charts of 300-game winners shows that they get most of their wins after age 30. The 13 pitchers only averaged 126 victories before their age 30 seasons, and only Maddux, Clemens and Seaver were halfway to 300 by then.
In other words, it's a grind. Pitchers have to plod their way to 300. They have to keep going after their fastball loses some zip (except in the case of Ryan), after their slider loses its tilt, and usually after their team no longer wants them. It's actually a fun trivia contest to ask what team a pitcher was on when he won his 300th. In the case of Ryan (Texas) and Carlton (Philadelphia), it's easy.
But: Johnson? Do you remember that he was on the Giants when he won 300? How about Perry? He was with the Mariners. Maddux was with the Cubs. Glavine was with the Mets. Sutton was with the Angels. Clemens and Niekro were with the Yankees. It doesn't seem right.
Will pitchers today do that? Will they just keep on going, pitching through pain, begging for a job, just to get to 300 wins? Does it mean what it used to mean? You look at Verlander -- he's more or less on 300-win pace, looking at the 13 pitchers who have done it. He's likely, by age 35, to have as many victories as Ryan and Perry and Spahn. But those three guys pitched well into their 40s. Is that something that would appeal to Verlander? He will make $180 million on this deal. Would he keep going?
Or look at Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. All three are well ahead of the average 300-game winner pace. Hernandez and Bumgarner had 85 wins after their age-25 season, more than any of the 300-game winners. King Felix, at age 30, has more wins than all but three of them.
I should say: If any one of them seems likely to go after 300, it could be Bumgarner. At the moment, he seems both driven and indestructible. But does even Bumgarner have the staying power for 300?
A few years ago, you will remember, Mike Mussina had a very real chance to win 300 games. He had 270 victories before he turned 40, and he had just come off his first 20-win season. If Mussina had pitched two or three more seasons, he could have gotten to 300. He was well aware of that number being out there.
And Mussina made a very conscious choice not to chase 300.
"I don't want to be one of those guys that bounces all over the place," Mussina said. "That's not how I feel about the game. If I can't contribute at the level I want to contribute at, then someone else should be doing it."
That will likely be a more and more popular stance. With the money so good, arms so susceptible to injury and the win itself losing popularity, we really might not see another 300-game winner. People will talk about changes in the game, but it's still possible for a great pitcher to win 300 games. He will just have to want it badly. It's unclear if anyone will ever want 300 badly again.