There they go again

SI.com – Writers – Donovan: Maddux probably last of 300-game winners – Friday July 30, 2004 1:17PM

You know, I understand that baseball writers aren’t up on the latest studies of the game. I don’t expect them to be. I don’t expect encyclopedic knowledge. What I do expect is a basic understanding of history.

Early Wynn won his 300th (and last) game in 1963. (He was obviously holding on to get that win, though he was still a fairly effective part-time pitcher at 43.) Wynn went around for years — supported by the usual suspects in the press — saying he would be the last 300-game winner.

Phil Niekro won his 300th game in 1985. Don Sutton won his 300th game in 1986. Nolan Ryan won his in 1990. Sutton at about this time began broadcasting Braves games and routinely saying that no one would ever win 300 games again (while watching Greg Maddux win 15-18 games a year like clockwork), supported by the usual suspects in the press.

Roger Clemens won his 300th game last season. Greg Maddux will win his this season, hopefully in his next start against the Phillies. Soon after, one of them — Clemens is my guess — will start saying that nobody will ever win 300 games again. And John Donovan is already supporting him.

It’s a crap argument. Until they reach the 260-win mark or so, the odds are against any pitcher winning 300. But if one pitcher has a ten percent chance, and another has a ten percent chance, and three others have seven percent chances… well, if you have ten guys with five percent or better chances of winning 300 games, it becomes pretty likely that at least one of them will win 300 games.

Donovan relies upon a number of arguments that are in fact misproven by Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens. Pitchers are being used in five-man rotations now, so they get fewer starts? Well, what’s new about that? Maddux and Clemens (and Sutton, for that matter) spent their entire careers in five-man rotations. Relievers are being used more? Well, maybe they’re sucking up more decisions, but (a) this is less of a problem for the elite pitchers, and (b) using top relievers to finish games rather than letting starters hang out to dry gives starters a better chance of getting a decision, not a worse one. Even mediocre closers save eighty percent or more of their chances.

I haven’t worked it out, but Tom Glavine still has a reasonable shot at 300 wins. (It would be better if he’d stayed in Atlanta, but I told him that at the time. But does he ever listen? No, of course not.) I think he’s likely to pitch until he’s 42 or 43, and in those circumstances would only need to add about ten wins a year. Donovan mentions Glavine as having a real chance, but underestimates it. Randy Johnson is further away, but he’s such an unusual pitcher I wouldn’t say he’s a stretch — so to speak — to get there. The real question for Johnson is his knee, because his arm is still sound, and with his strikeout rate he might pitch until he’s fifty.

At any event, Donovan has no idea what the careers of younger pitchers will look like in their thirties. Pedro Martinez is only 32, has 177 wins, and still one of the better pitchers in the game. What does he have to do to win 300? 11-12 wins a year for ten years. Pitching until he’s 42 may seem unlikely, but it’s pretty common in the modern game. Clemens, the pitcher first on Martinez’s similarity list, is 41.

Anyway, 300-game winners tend to clump. A lot of them came into the game in the late sixties and early seventies, so we had a lot of them win their 300th in the mid-eighties. (There were also a lot of pitchers who came up just short at the same time.) A lot of them won theirs in the years immediately before Wynn. Maybe there really aren’t any established pitchers who will win 300 games after Maddux. But I wouldn’t bet on it, and I’m sure that someone, sometime, will be the next 300 game winner. And there will be a writer there to say that he’ll be the last.

(Cross-posted to War Liberal.)

4 thoughts on “There they go again”

  1. Looks like Kristin Benson never left town. I know someone here predicted that. So who’s place does she take in the Mets rotation? and do you think we’ll get a chance to beat her twice in consecutive starts?

  2. Mac,

    I agree with you that baseball writers are stupid. I disagree, however, that we can’t expect them to be up on the latest studies. I think they should be. This is their job after all, it’s not just a hobby. We sure as hell expect doctors to be up on the latest stuff in their field. I don’t think it’s too much to expect a sportswriter to be up on what’s going on in his field. Although I don’t necessarily want to live or die with sabermetrics, it’s amazing to me how little most of the sportswriters know about it (and most of that probably from reading Moneyball).

    One thing writers always say is that no one will win 300 games or something like that because they make so much money that they don’t need to play as long. That’s ridiculous. It’s the very fact they don’t need the money that makes it more likely they will play longer. Since they don’t have to worry about planning for a future career, they can spend more time keeping in shape and working on their game. And why wouldn’t they want to play as long as they can? They’re getting paid to do something they presumably love. But sportswriters (probably all journalists actually) often don’t actually think, they just report conventional wisdom.

  3. Donovan may be counting on short memories, because there’s a real shot that nobody on his list will get to 300. I’d rate Glavine ahead of Johnson, but I think even Tommy will have to get some good fortune to get there. A good finish this year plus 15 wins in ’05 and ’06 still leaves him short.

    Johnson will be 41 by the end of this year, but he’s so singular a pitcher that you can’t put a gauge on him. He’ll need to stay healthy, interested, and effective through age 44 for it to happen, though.

    Mussina can enhance his chances over the next 2+ seasons. Another, say, 42 wins over that span puts him at 250 after his age 37 year, leaving him a decent shot.

    I just don’t think Pedro is going to get there. He’s still good, but the last few years have seen a slow but inexorable decline in health and results, and I don’t expect him to get to 250. I once said I’d eat my hat if Pedro was still pitching at 38, and I’ll stick by that.

    Nobody else with 100-200 wins has any shot–it’s a bunch of guys like Kenny Rogers, David Wells, and Steve Trachsel. Of the young guys Donovan mentioned, only Sabathia and Mulder have much of a chance IMO.

    As you say, Mac, put all these guys together, and I’d say it’s over 50-50 that one of them gets there. But if not, it will be at least 15 years before anyone will be within shouting distance of 300. And who will remember Donovan then, other than maybe Donovan….

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