Posted May 02, 2013

Is the 200-win pitcher an endangered species?

CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Johan Santana, Justin Verlander
CC Sabathia, Yankees

CC Sabathia should be joining the 200-win club very soon but 300 may already be out of reach. (AP)

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:

Rank  Player Age Wins JABO
1 Andy Pettitte 41 248 262
2 Roy Halladay 36 201 285
3 Tim Hudson 37 200 270
4 CC Sabathia 32 195 335
5 Derek Lowe 40 176 204
6 Mark Buehrle 34 175 287
7 Bartolo Colon 40 174 202
8 Barry Zito 35 163 261
9 Freddy Garcia 36 152 236
10 Chris Carpenter 38 144 200
11T Johan Santana 34 139 251
A.J. Burnett 36 139 223
13 Jon Garland 33 134 260
14 Josh Beckett 33 132 258
15 Ted Lilly 37 130 200
16 John Lackey 34 129 241
17T Justin Verlander 30 127 295
Cliff Lee 34 127 239
19 Bronson Arroyo 36 126 210
20 Ryan Dempster 36 125 209

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:

Player   Age Wins JABO
CC Sabathia 32 195 275
Mark Buehrle 34 175 235
Felix Hernandez 27 101 231
Justin Verlander 30 127 227
Clayton Kershaw 25 64 214
Barry Zito 35 163 213
Rick Porcello 24 49 209
Matt Cain 28 85 205
Jon Garland 33 134 204
Trevor Cahill 25 54 204
Jake Peavy 32 123 203
Josh Beckett 33 132 202
Jered Weaver 30 102 202
Zack Greinke 29 92 202
Cole Hamels 29 92 202
Yovani Gallardo 27 72 202
Dan Haren 32 121 201
Chad Billingsley 28 81 201
Ervin Santana 30 99 199
Johan Santana 34 139 199
Jon Lester 29 89 199
Freddy Garcia 36 152 192
David Price 27 62 192
Tim Lincecum 29 81 191
Johnny Cueto 27 61 191
Gio Gonzalez 27 61 191

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.

17 comments
Momus
Momus

Andy Pettitte is 40.  Until 15 June.

Sportfan
Sportfan

Remember when 300 was the big number?

David131
David131

I actually think Bartolo Colon has a shot.  He needs 26 more wins.  He was good last year before the drug bust, and this year he is 3-0 so far (all he does is throw strikes).  I think he can put together 24 between now and the end of next season. 

jeff.tyrie
jeff.tyrie

If you count Yu Darvish's stats from Japan, he's over 100 wins at 26.  He could get 200 "unofficial" wins.  The guy was averaging .170s ERAs over there.

muser
muser

Verlander is 30? Wow...He must have been conflicted while tapping young Kate. Great body...brain of a 5 year old...no wonder that ended...

harold3
harold3

I would include Madison Bumgarner of the SF Giants.  He has 40 wins and is just 23 years old.  He is somebody who could easily average 15+ wins for the next 10 years.  Given his delivery (not maximum effort), body type and the winning organization for which he plays, Bumgarner could very well wind up his career with 300+ wins.

Michael10
Michael10

I've got to think Adam Wainwright is a legitimate candidate for 200. If not for starting his career as a reliever and/or TJ surgery in 2011, he'd be halfway there already and has regained his 2009-2010 ace form. He won't quite get there in the six years remaining on his contract, but plays for a team that wins consistently (unlike King Felix and some others on this list), having helped Wainwright post a W in well over half of his career starts. I don't think 90 wins over the next six years is overly optimistic (barring serious injury) which would put him in striking distance at age 36.

mjone182
mjone182

I've got to say that while wins depend on the offense, the pitcher does have a lot to do with it. Take Maddux for example; there were plenty of times where he won 2-1 games, or 1-0 games. Also, look at Randy Johnson, overall ERA of 3.29 in his 303 wins. 

I don't think that 200 wins will be the new 300, but 250 will be. With pitch counts, more extensive use of the bullpen, overuse of the DL, and less durable players, I think that we're going to see a lot less wins by pitchers in the next few years. 

John NoLastName
John NoLastName

"it’s worth reiterating that wins are by no means the ultimate barometer of pitching success. "

Yeah, everybody knows that pitcher wins is a meaningless statistic. Walter Johnson won 400+ games, but he was just lucky. 

Warren Spahn? Greg Maddux? Lefty Grove? I don't know how they even managed to stay in the Big Leagues.

Tom Seaver? Christy Mathewson? Whitey Ford? They belonged in AA, man.

Randy Johnson? Juan Marichal? You should take those guys to Vegas, they were so lucky.

RCH
RCH

@Sportfan Just part of the trend in sports of applauding mediocrity that begins at a young age. Such as giving out 5th place ribbons now days. 

Everybody is a winner yeaa!

Sportfan
Sportfan

Or Guys threatening to reach 250?

Michael10
Michael10

@harold3 No one "easily" averages 15 wins a season. Glavine and Johnson averaged 13 and took 22 years each to reach 300. Nolan Ryan averaged 12. Even Roger Clemens and Bob Gibson only averaged 14 per season--and Gibson pitched every fourth day! Bumgarner's won 15 games once in his career--150 over the next ten constitutes some very long odds...

muser
muser

@mjone182 You forgot to mention the 36 inch wide strike zone that umpires inexplicably gave Maddux...

N
N

@John NoLastName I feel like you and I read a different sentence, even though what you quoted is the same as what I read.

Michael10
Michael10

@John NoLastName   There's a big leap from "ultimate barometer" to "meaningless stat." But to make a point using your own examples--how many might Walter Johnson have won pitching for the same 1950's Yankees and Whitey Ford? Better yet, would anyone remember Whitey Ford had he pitched for the Washington Senators? It's unlikely he would have even reached the 200-win plateau (Ford was actually a very similar pitcher to Tim Hudson and certainly not as great as the company you place him in here...)

MatthewMurphy
MatthewMurphy

@RCH @Sportfan I think it has more to do with the advent of multiple middle relievers and the specialization of the closer role.