Thursday, June 4, 2009

America digs the long ball, not a mulleted 299-game winner

Hey! We've got a 299-game winner over here! (Or: All business in the front, 299 wins in the back.) Photo from this site.

Randy Johnson’s first attempt at becoming the 24th 300-game winner was rained out after a four-hour delay last night. He’ll make his second first attempt at the milestone this afternoon in the first game of a doubleheader in Washington, which is a lot like Pearl Jam playing the second stage at Lollapalooza (which, much to my surprise, still exists, albeit only in a three-day format in Chicago).

Yet Johnson going for his 300th win in an afterthought afternoon game played in front of what will almost surely be a sparse crowd makes a whole lot of sense considering America’s response to Johnson’s pursuit has been a giant yawn. No round-the-clock coverage on ESPN (of course, things might be different if Johnson threw a football or shot a basketball), nor is a big deal being made of the pursuit on any of the major sports and news sites.

How is this possible? The countdown to 300 should be one of reverential anticipation, one in line with its status as baseball’s ultimate career achievement.

Is Johnson accomplishing the feat in anonymity because of his prickly personality and journeyman-like travels? Yahoo!’s Tim Brown had a hard time finding an ex-teammate in Arizona who was excited over Johnson’s imminent entry into the 300-win club. But Johnson surely isn’t the first 300-game winner to rub teammates the wrong way, nor will he be the first to collect his 300th win with a team with whom he’s not easily identified.

Phil Niekro won his 300th game for the Yankees, for whom he pitched two seasons after 20 years with the Braves. Don Sutton won his 300th game for the Angels, the fourth team he played for in a seven-year span after he spent the first 15 years of his career with the Dodgers. Tom Seaver won his 300th game for the White Sox, for whom he pitched only 2 ½ seasons. Braves legend Tom Glavine won his 300th game for the Mets, with whom he always seemed an odd fit despite five seasons in Queens. And you could probably win a lot of bar bets armed with the knowledge that Gaylord Perry won his 300th game with the Mariners, his seventh big league team and a club for whom he won a grand total of 13 games.

But I also don’t recall a whole lot of hype surrounding Glavine and Greg Maddux when they approached 300 (there was plenty of buildup for Roger Clemens’ 300th win in 2003, but if there’s anything that guy knows how to do, it’s make a scene).

Is this more proof that, to paraphrase the awesome ‘90s shoe commercial featuring Glavine and Maddux, that fans dig the long ball? But even if that’s the case, wouldn’t the explosion in offense that has lessened the luster of 500 homers also increase the prestige of 300 wins?

The 500-homer club has nearly doubled—from 13 to 24—over the last 10 years, though it could be a while before it expands again. Carlos Delgado is 27 homers away but out for months after hip surgery, while Chipper Jones would still be 15 homers shy of 500 at the end of his age-39 season in 2011 even if he hits as many homers (77) from 2009-11 as he did from 2006-08. The next member of the 500-homer club is probably Albert Pujols, who, at 335, should be more than halfway to Barry Bonds by the time he turns 31 in 2011. (If, of course, you believe that Pujols was really born in 1980)

But after Johnson, we’re almost certainly looking at a decade or more before the next 300-game winner joins the club. Nobody else is knocking on the door of 300, unless you count Jamie Moyer, and since he’s 50 wins away at age 46, you probably shouldn’t, my post from last month excepted.

After Johnson and Moyer, only two active players have as many as 200 wins, and there is no way Andy Pettitte (220) and John Smoltz (210) stick around long enough to get to 300. To give you an idea of just how far off the next 300-game winner is, realize that the third-winningest active pitcher is Tim Wakefield with 184. Even if he wins 17 games this year, bringing his career total to 195, he’d have to average 14 wins a season for another eight years—through his age-51 year—to get to 300 wins. He’s got a rubber arm, not a robotic one, folks.

With no 300-game winners on the horizon, the urge is to write that Johnson will very likely be the last of the breed. And sure, with starters throwing less than ever before and the four-man rotation not likely to return any decade soon, there’s a chance that the baseball fans of the 22nd century will look back on the opening days of the 21st century—during which four pitchers reached the 300-win mark in a span of five years—much like we do the late 19th century and early 20th century, when it wasn’t unusual for players to leg out 20 or more triples in a season. Only seven players have done that since 1950.

But history suggests those fans will be a lot less blown away by the concept of 300 wins in a career than we are by 30 triples in a season, even if the next 300-game winner is a decade or more away. Such a drought is not unprecedented: Grover Cleveland Alexander won his 300th game in 1924, after which only three players—Lefty Grove in 1941, Warren Spahn in 1961 and Early Wynn in 1963—reached the mark in the next 57 years.

Perry, though, began a rush of 300-game winners when he joined the club in 1982. Johnson will be the 10th pitcher to reach 300 wins in the last 27 years. There were only nine 300-game winners between 1888 and 1915, way back when men were men, pitchers started and completed 154 games a year and threw until their arms fell off, at which point they taught themselves to pitch with their other arm.

Johnson will also be the fourth pitcher to spend his entire career in a five-man rotation to reach 300 wins, indicating it’s not inconceivable the present-day aces have a better shot than we might believe at joining the club. Here’s four possibilities to follow in the footsteps of Johnson, Glavine, Maddux and Clemens as 300-game winners in a five-man era:

—Roy Halladay, 140 wins. Won 113 games from 2002-08. If he maintained that pace from 2009-15, he’d be at 244 wins at age 38. Halladay would have to average 17 wins per season into his age-42 season in 2019 in order to win 300.

—CC Sabathia, 122 wins. Won 117 games from 2001-08. If he maintained that pace from 2009-16, he’d be at 234 wins at age 36. Sabathia would have to average 15 wins a season for the next 12-plus seasons—taking him into his age-41 season in 2021—in order to win 300.

—Mark Buehrle, 128 wins. Won 118 games from 2001-08. If he maintained that pace from 2009-16, he'd be at 240 wins at age 37. Buehrle would have to average 15 wins a season for the next 12-plus seasons—taking him through his 42nd birthday in 2022—in order to win 300.

—Johan Santana, 116 wins. Won 98 games from 2003-08. If he maintained that pace from 2009-14, he would be at 207 wins at age 35. He’d have to average 17 wins a season for the next 11-plus seasons—taking him through his 41st birthday in 2020—in order to win 300.

Of course, all caveats apply about how it’s folly to try and project the performance of pitchers because there’s just so much that can go wrong. A few years ago, I thought Mark Mulder might have been the best young candidate for 300 wins. He won 97 games in his first six seasons, at which point he was just 28. But he’s won just six games since then thanks to multiple shoulder injuries that will likely end his career. June 15 will be the third anniversary of his most recent victory.

It’s also impossible to project who will beat the odds and be a much better pitcher in his 30s than in his 20s. Do you think anyone foresaw 300 wins for Johnson on Sept. 10, 1993, when he turned 30 with all of 64 wins to his credit?

Maybe Josh Beckett, who won his 95th game last night and is 11 months away from his 30th birthday, is as brilliant in his 30s as Curt Schilling, who won 155 games during that decade, and is within 40 wins by his 40th birthday in 2020.

Or perhaps the next 300-game winner is someone who isn’t yet eligible for arbitration (Tim Lincecum?). Maybe he’s someone who still can’t legally buy a beer (Stephen Strasburg?). Or maybe he hasn’t even hit puberty yet (a Little Leaguer somewhere?).

He’s probably out there, somewhere. But it’s going to be a long time before he becomes the 25th member of the 300-win club. Maybe by then we’ll be able to muster up the anticipation missing from Johnson’s pursuit.

Email Jerry at

No comments:

Post a Comment