Tom Glavine recently won his 300th game, an excellent feat which puts an exclamation point on a Hall of Fame career. Commentators are now weighing in to wonder whether or not we'll ever see another pitcher win so many games, which is exactly what happened after Greg Maddux won his 300th game. And what happened after Roger Clemens won his 300th. And I'd bet a few shiny nickels that there were people saying it when Nolan Ryan won his 300th back in 1990 way back when Roger Clemens was just a 28 year old pup with 116 career wins.
But will it be the last? Conventional wisdom says that it's harder than ever to win 300. Before we dive into that, let's look at the number of 300 game winners by the decade in which they debuted.
Do we see any trends? It sure doesn't seem like it. Pud Galvin was the first 300 game winner in 1888, and from 1888 to 1901 there were 7 players to win 300. From 1982 to 2007 there have been 9 players to get 300 wins. The real decline was seen from 1902 to 1980 when only 7 players won their 300th game. The big gap was from the summer of '41 to the summer of '61 between Lefty Grove winning his 300th and Warren Spahn winning number 300.
Getting to 300
Old Hoss Radbourne got to 309 wins even though he only pitched 11 seasons largely because he had two seasons where he won a combined 107 games. Pud Galvin won 364 games over 15 seasons, and his quest was aided by consecutive 46 win seasons.
That's not happening today. In fact, in 2006, no major league pitcher got to even 20 wins. Starters throw fewer innings and make fewer starts in a season than their predecessor, and they rarely complete their starts anymore. That's where the conventional wisdom that pitchers will have a harder time winning 300 comes from.
What this ignores is that there are many ways to accomplish 300 wins. As I talked about above, pitchers can be like the workhorses of 125 years ago, making 70+ starts and winning 45 games over shorter careers, but they can also be like the great pitchers of today who pitch less but have extended their careers into their mid-40s.
And there are a good number of pitchers pitching well into their 40s. Roger Clemens, Jamie Moyer, Randy Johnson, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, Woody Williams, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Orlando Hernandez, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Curt Schilling have all made starts this season after turning 40. That's 12 pitchers, and if that isn't a record, it has to be close.
What's important to remember is that even though workloads are being restricted more than ever now, the theoretical goal is to keep pitchers healthier. If that's a philosophy grounded in reality we shouldn't expect it to be particularly uncommon for some starters to throw well into their 40s. If a pitcher can begin his career at 22 and pitch until he's 43 or 44, that changes the equation quite a bit, because then a pitcher needs to average only 13 or 14 wins a season over his career to reach 300.
This certainly doesn't mean that there undoubtedly is a cause and effect between the number of older pitchers and lower workloads. After all, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson endured high workloads for years, as did Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, and others from the last great generation of starters, yet they all pitched well into their 40s. But even if this correlation does not imply causation, it's something to think about.
Randy Johnson (284, 43) - It's never a good idea to count out Randy Johnson. Many thought he was done after 2003, but he came back in 2004 and had a season that would have netted him his 6th Cy Young Award if he didn't play for a 51 win Arizona team. The Big Unit was written off again last year before coming back strong this season, only to see his year end after 60 innings. He apparently wants to come back, but he may have to be willing to pitch into 2009 - when he'll turn 46 in September of that year - to get to 300.
Mike Mussina (246, 38) - Mussina had an excellent 2006, but 2007 hasn't been so kind. It's the 3rd time in four season that Mussina has missed some time and saw his performance suffer. Moose isn't pitching nearly bad enough to have to worry about not having a job, and he'll likely pitch at least one more season after 2007. Still, 300 looks to be a good 4 years away. Will Mussina keep pitching as a mediocre starter or will he pack it in before he's 42 and chasing 300? He may need a resurgence similar to the one Tom Glavine experienced after 2003.
Andy Pettitte (194, 35) - Pettite just turned 35 and has an outside shot of making it to 200 by the end of the year. Pettitte would have to pitch well into his 40s to have an honest shot of reaching the milestone, but with the exception of his first season with the Astros back in 2004, he's generally maintained his health throughout his career. His last two seasons have been above-average, but not spectacular, perhaps forecasting a possible collapse in the near future.
CC Sabathia (95, 27) - Sabathia is a real dark horse to be sure, but the big lefty will likely get his 100th win in his age 26 season - quicker than both Glavine and Clemens. Sabathia will have to keep his weight in check to pitch long enough to do it, but if David Wells can pitch until he's 44, why not Sabathia? Sabathia has about 20 more wins than fellow 26 year old Carlos Zambrano and a few more than 28 year old Johan Santana. Of any of the young pichers between 25 and 30, Sabathia seems to have the best shot.
It's likely that none of these four will be the next 300 game winner. But if I had to bet, I'd say that someone will.