Is the 200-win pitcher an endangered species?
Earlier today, I examined Tim Hudson's career and Hall of Fame case in light of his 200th win, a plateau currently occupied by only two other active pitchers (Andy Pettitte, with 248 and Roy Halladay, who got there earlier this season, with 201), with one more in striking distance this year (CC Sabathia, 195), and another (Mark Buehrle, 175) likely to get there before his contract runs out in a couple of years. Beyond that, it may be a good long time before we see another pitcher reach that milestone, so much so that it's worth a closer look.
Before I delve in, it's worth reiterating that wins are by no means the ultimate barometer of pitching success. They're notoriously dependent upon the offensive, defensive and bullpen support a pitcher receives from his teammates, only a small sliver of which he has any control over as an occasional fielder and hitter. With higher scoring levels and strikeout rates, longer at-bats, deeper lineups, pitch counts and increased reliever specialization, the complete game is a relic from the increasingly distant past, so even the best pitchers don't stick around to rack up wins the way they used to — and that's without considering the impact of the move to the five-man rotation. Meanwhile, the sabermetric revolution has shifted the focus on pitcher quality over to run prevention via the things he does have more control over — strikeout, walk and home run rates — and a lack of 20-win seasons isn't being held against even the top hurlers come contract time.
Consider Felix Hernandez, who won the AL Cy Young award back in 2010 on the strength of his 2.27 ERA and 232 strikeouts in 249 2/3 innings, rather than his 13-12 record. Hernandez has won more than 14 games just once (19 in 2005), but that didn't prevent him from receiving a seven-year, $175 million extension in February, that on top of a five-year, $78 million deal he signed back in 2010. At 27 years old, with 101 career wins under his belt, he certainly appears to be one of the few active pitchers with a chance to reach 200 wins, let alone 300. If he doesn't at least reach the first milestone, something will have gone catastrophically wrong, but a few years ago, we'd have said the same thing about the similarly stationed Johan Santana, who was 29 after the 2008 season and had 109 wins. Now look where he is: stuck at 139 wins and facing a career-threatening injury.
With Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson surpassing the 300-win mark in the past decade, and 14 other pitchers reaching the 200-win one in the last decade and a half, we've come to think of those milestones as commonplace. By the looks of the active leaderboard, we shouldn't. Consider this top 20:
Don't worry about that last column just yet. As I noted previously, Sabathia's a near-lock for 200 wins this year, and Buehrle's under contract through 2015, having reached exactly 13 wins in each of the past four seasons, so we can expect both of them to climb above 200.
Who's next after that? Lowe and Colon are at the tail ends of their careers; the former has been consigned to long relief duty and the latter has been pitching on borrowed time since resurfacing in 2011 after five years in the wilderness. Garcia is on a minor league contract, Carpenter is sitting out this year due to a career-threatening injury, Santana's about to undergo his second anterior capsule surgery and Lilly and Garland are trying to come back from shoulder surgery. It's not going too far out on a limb to say none of those guys will make it to 200.
A few of the others appear to have a chance. Verlander is young and elite, with an MLB-high 81 wins since the beginning of the 2009 season and no real history of physical issues. The rest here have a whole lot of "ifs" and "buts" in their paths. Lee remains an outstanding pitcher, but he has dealt with back issues and struggled to compile wins thanks to lousy offensive support; from 2009 through 2012 he put up a 2.98 ERA across 222 innings a year, but averaged just 12 wins. Zito's in the last year of a whopping $126 million contract, with one season with an ERA+ better than 100 in his first six years as a Giant; if he can continue to maintain the momentum of his late-2012 run, maybe he gets up off the mat.
Burnett has shed his reputation for fragility with five straight seasons of at least 31 starts, revitalizing his career in Pittsburgh and still missing bats (12.3 strikeouts per nine thus far); if the ex-Yankee can maintain that post-Bronx momentum, perhaps he can hang on long enough to get there. Beckett, 32, has time on his side but is notoriously shaky in the health department, and still looking to reinvent himself having lost significant velocity. Lackey is back from Tommy John surgery with much-improved conditioning and a potent offense supporting him, but he hasn't topped 14 wins since 2007.
That last column in the table, JABO, stands for Jaffe Blind Optimism, a metric I invented back in 2009 — with tongue firmly planted in cheek — in an attempt to identify the next pitcher to reach 300 wins after Randy Johnson. JABO assumes a pitcher will continue pitching from this point through his age 42 season while averaging 14 wins per year (originally 15), with the small fragment of this season not held against that average. How blind is that optimism? Consider that over the 2003-2012 decade, only Halladay (162) and Sabathia (161) topped that 14-win average, with 10 other pitchers averaging between 12 and 13 wins.
By the looks of those JABOs, Sabathia is the only 300-win candidate, though Verlander is close, and if we extend the methodology further down the active wins list, Hernandez winds up with 311 and 25-year-old Clayton Kershaw with 302. That's basically if the lights are on with all of them all the way through their careers, which the odds suggest won't be the case. Even well-established pitchers in their late 20s such as Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke (29 years old, with 92 wins apiece), Jon Lester (29, 89 wins), Matt Cain (28, 85 wins) wind up in the 270-280 range with the most favorable assumptions.
On the other hand, JABO is laughably generous at assuming all of those pitchers in the table will reach 200 if they haven't already. If we set slightly more realistic assumptions, at a level of 10 wins a year — something 26 pitchers managed over the past decade — through age 40, the list is winnowed considerably:
That's 18 pitchers who could wind up above 200, with another eight in the 190-199 range, including the unlikely pairing of the unrelated Santanas. Note that the majority of the 18 would clear the bar by fewer than 10 wins; even under such favorable assumptions, they have little margin for error, and again, it's not hard to rule out some of them given their current health or level of effectiveness.
If we apply a bit of common sense to that first cut by ruling out pitchers based upon their inability to stay healthy by averaging at least 150 innings a year or maintaining even a league-average ERA (100 ERA+) over the last three seasons and change, that would bump off Garland, Beckett, Lincecum, Garcia, the Santanas, Porcello and Zito off the list.
That leaves five who would clear the 200 bar with considerable breathing room (Sabathia, Buehrle, Hernandez, Verlander and Kershaw), another nine who do so by fewer than five wins (Cain, Cahill, Peavy, Weaver, Grenke, Hamels, Gallardo and Haren) and four near-misses (Lester, Price, Cueto and Gonzalez). They won't all make it, and in fact I'd bet that far less than half do, because for pitchers, there's simply so much that can go wrong. Only seven of those 18 are even halfway to 200, and one of the best, Kershaw, isn't even a third of the way there. Once the two "gimmes," Sabathia and Buehrle, clear the list, we might be lucky to see five or six of the remaining 16 make it. None of which is to say that 200 should be considered the new 300 when it comes to the Hall of Fame voting; I've spent the past decade trying to point voters and statheads away from using win totals as such a measuring stick in favor of more sophisticated statistics that account for context. But given that round-numbered milestones provide high-profile opportunities for a broad section of the baseball world to stand and cheer a player's accomplishments, it doesn't hurt to savor the moment when a pitcher reaches 200, because they're becoming an endangered species, and we just won't see that many more of them.