Three hundred victories is an iconic thing. I realize, of course, that victories is a generally lousy way to rank pitchers, but it is what it is. Pitcher who win 300 go to the Hall of Fame, no exceptions*. Pitchers who don't win 300 ... maybe they go to the Hall (Gibson, Roberts, Marichal, Drysdale, Hunter) and maybe they don't (Blyleven, John, Kaat, Tiant, Morris).
*Unless the voters decide to punish Roger Clemens.
So, how do you get to 300? Well, this will sound blindingly obvious, I know, but in order to win 300 games in the big leagues you pretty much have to win a lot of games as an old man. Blindingly obvious, yes, but this gets at the question that Bill James and I began to talk about recently in our inaugural co-column: Why is it that every time someone wins 300 games (as Randy Johnsonhas now done) people assume that he will be the last one ever to do it?
The reason, I think, is that you can't project 300 because you have absolutely no idea who is going to win a lot of games from age 35 to 44 -- and having looked hard at the 12 pitchers who have won their 300th game since World War II, winning in those later years is the key to winning 300.
That is, no one since WWII has clinched 300 victories with dominating performances in their 20s. One way to look at it is to take a look at the winningest pitchers, by age, since the War:
Most wins to 25:Dwight Gooden with 119 (career wins: 194), Denny McLain with 114 (career wins: 131) -- none of the top 17 won 300.
Most wins to 27: Gooden with 142, Don Drysdale with 141 (career wins: 209) -- none of the top 10 won 300.
Most wins to 29:Catfish Hunter with 184 (career wins: 224), Robin Roberts with 179 (career wins: 286) -- none of the top 6 won 300.
Most wins to 31: Hunter with 210, Roberts with 206 -- none in the top 5 won 300.
Yes, the march to 300 has been mostly about late-life success. Here's another way to look at it: This is the average number of victories for those 12 pitchers who have won 300 games since WWII, by age:
18-24: 32 victories25-29: 77 victories30-34: 86 victories35-39: 79 victories40-48: 53 victories
Pretty easy to see there -- the 300-game winners averaged more victories from 35 to 39 than they did in their supposed prime of 25-29. They pulled in, on average, 53 victories from age 40 to 48 -- now, admittedly this is somewhat tilted because Phil Niekro won so many games after age 40 (121), but every one of the 300-game winners won more than a dozen games after age 40.
So take someone like Bert Blyleven. After his age-39 season he had 279 victories ... more than half of the post-WWII 300-game winners had at that age, more than Nolan Ryan, Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Tom Glavine, Johnson or Early Wynn. But Blyleven could not quite finish it off. Jack Morris after his age-37 season had 237 victories, pretty darned close to the average of those 12 300-game winners (243). But he won only 17 games in two rough years after that.
So, it's really impossible to predict. Johnson had only 99 victories at age 31. Niekro had only 97 victories at age 33. Perry, Warren Spahn, Ryan, Wynn ... these guys did not look like great bets for 300 when they reached their mid-30s. But they won a lot of games late in their careers. Niekro, as a knuckleballer, just kept going and going and going. Perry had a late-career renaissance -- he won 21 games as a 39-year-old and 47 more after that. Spahn won 20 games or more seven times after he turned 35. Johnson was probably at his very best from age 35 to 40. And so on.
So when looking at potential 300-game winners ... well, there's no way to do it. But we'll go ahead and take a look anyway at the most likely candidates, from age 26 on up. We're not including victories from the first part of this year.
THROUGH AGE 26300-game winners -- Most victories: 95 (Maddux, Clemens, Tom Seaver). Fewest: 2 (Niekro). Average: 61.Active leader:Dontrelle Willis with 68.Comment: How great a story would it be if Willis could be a big contributor to the Tigers this year?
THROUGH AGE 27300-game winners -- Most victories: 116 (Clemens, Seaver). Fewest: 6 (Niekro). Average: 78.Active leader:CC Sabathia with 117. Carlos Zambrano has 96.Comment: CC, as you can see, has more victories through his 27th year than any of the post-WWII 300-game winners. But he's way behind Gooden and Drysdale, so it's way too early to tell. How good will Sabathia be as an old man?
THROUGH AGE 28300-game winners-- Most victories: 135 (Seaver). Fewest: 17 (Niekro, of course. Johnson had 49). Average: 93.Active leader:Jon Garland with 106.Comment: Garland actually has more victories through age 28 than Ryan or Glavine. And he does seem to be the type who can keep going out there, pitching league average ball and win 14 or 15 games every year for a while. If he has a mid-30s renaissance ... hey, this is the point. You never know.
THROUGH AGE 29300-game winners-- Most victories: 152 (Clemens). Fewest: 31 (Niekro; Johnson had 68), Average: 109.Active leader:Mark Buehrle with 122.Comment: See, Buehrle is exactly the kind of guy who might sneak up on everybody in five or six years. He's off to a great start in 2009, too ... Buehrle does seem like the kind of guy who might just win and win, and then have a late-30s resurgence and suddenly, voila, a potential 300-game winner.
THROUGH AGE 30300-game winners-- Most victories: 168 (Seaver). Fewest: 54 (Niekro; Johnson had 81). Average: 127.Active leader:Roy Oswalt with 129.Comment: Oswalt is actually right on pace, which surprised me. I don't know how he will age, but people have been overlooking him for years.
THROUGH AGE 31300-game winners-- Most victories: 184 (Maddux). Fewest: 66 (Niekro; Johnson still had not broken 100). Average: 143.Active leader:Roy Halladay with 131.Comment: Halladay is a bit behind the curve, but he's still ahead of Spahn, Perry and Wynn's pace (not to mention stragglers Niekro and Unit), but he's just so good now, you wonder if he isn't going to be better in his 30s than he was in his 20s.*
*Here's a fun little bit on Halladay. You know last year he pitched well enough to win the Cy Young ... he only finished second because Cliff Lee had a stunning year. Well, how's he pitching this year compared to last?
ERALast year: 2.78This year: 2.77
HR/9Last year: 0.7This year: 0.6
Strikeout/9Last year: 7.5This year: 8.1
Walks/9Last year: 1.4This year: 1.2
Overall (with 2009 projection)2008: 20-11, 2.78 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 206 Ks, 39 walks2009: 27-3, 2.77 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 246 Ks, 36 walks
That, friends, is consistency.
THROUGH AGE 32300-game winners-- Most victories: 203 (Seaver). Fewest: 81 (Niekro). Average: 160.Active leader:Tim Hudson with 146.Comment: Hudson had Tommy John surgery at the end of last season. Well, if you want to compare ... Tommy John himself had the surgery at 31, and he had 124 victories. He finished with 288. So if Hudson can have the Tommy John second-half of a career ...
THROUGH AGE 33300-game winners-- Most victories: 221 (Maddux). Fewest: 97 (Niekro). Average: 176.Active leader:Livan Hernandez with 147.Comment: Just think how many more victories Livan could get with the Mets if he didn't have that bum Beltran in center field.
THROUGH AGE 34300-game winners-- Most victories: 240 (Maddux). Fewest: 110 (Niekro). Average: 195.Active leader:Matt Morris with 121.Comment: Morris actually retired but he still has more victories than any active 34-year-old.
THROUGH AGE 35300-game winners-- Most victories: 257 (Maddux). Fewest: 130 (Niekro, Johnson had 160). Average: 211.Active leader:Bartolo Colon with 150.Comment: Bartolo does seem older than 35, doesn't he?
THROUGH AGE 36300-game winners-- Most victories: 275 (Maddux). Fewest: 145 (Niekro). Average: 228.Active leader:Andy Pettitte with 215.Comment: Pettitte actually is not much off the pace. He has about as many victories through 36 as Perry, more than Unit. I don't think Pettitte quite has the distance, but it's not impossible.
THROUGH AGE 37300-game winners-- Most victories: 289 (Maddux). Fewest: 162 (Niekro). Average: 243.Active leader:Pedro Martinez with 219.Comment: Pedro was ahead of the average every year until he turned 35. He has obviously faded badly the last three years and he isn't going to win 300 ... unless he starts throwing the knuckleball.
AGE 38Reached 300: Maddux, Steve Carlton
AGE 39Reached 300: No one
AGE 40Reached 300: Spahn, Clemens, Seaver
AGE 41Reached 300:Don Sutton, Glavine
AGE 42Reached 300: No one
AGE 43Reached 300: Wynn, Ryan Perry
AGE 45Reached 300: Johnson
AGE 46Reached 300: Niekro