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Predicting the Next 300-Game Winner

With the special attention pitchers receive today, such as pitch counts, innings limits, as well as the host of PITCHf/x data that can notify teams of when a pitcher is fatigued, it seems like they days of 300-game winners have come and passed. And for the most part, some of this is true. We’ve seen pitchers be shut down during their earlier years to prevent injuries, such as the Nationals keeping a close eye on Stephen Strasburg. When we think of 300 wins, the math isn’t that hard. It’s some combination of 15+ seasons of 15+ wins over an entire career. Let’s dive in to what further breaks down these pitchers.

I gathered data on pitchers who finished their careers after 1980 as well as pitchers younger than that; I did this to avoid looking at pitchers such as Cy Young who are a little tough to compare to the modern day, with rule changes and the different run-scoring environments. In my query, I looked at pitchers with at least 250 wins. This gave me more data, and since 250-win pitchers are reasonably close to 300, it will allow me to get at what exactly creates a pitcher of this caliber.

My list included 19 names:

Greg Maddux

Roger Clemens

Steve Carlton

Nolan Ryan

Don Sutton

Phil Niekro

Gaylord Perry

Tom Seaver

Tom Glavine

Randy Johnson

Tommy John

Bert Blyleven

Fergie Jenkins

Jim Kaat

Mike Mussina

Jamie Moyer

Jim Palmer

Andy Pettitte

Some of these guys were absolute iron men, pitching over 5000 innings in their career. Maddux did this, as well as Carlton, Ryan, and Sutton. Most of this group barely reached 12 wins per season, showing that they reached the 300-club with longevity, not necessarily dominance. The other guys on this list, by default, either had higher win totals or pitched forever, but without racking up a ton of innings (Kaat, Moyer). Surprisingly, or perhaps not, only four of the 19 pitchers did not pitch for 20 seasons, so again, dominance might not be the key factor — instead, longevity.

I then looked at where these pitchers were at when they were 30 years old. Thirty years seems to be about a halfway point, but the data indicates otherwise. In fact, only three of these 19 pitchers had at least 150 wins at 30. This again drives home the point that these pitchers do not necessarily have to be untouchable every single year they pitched; it just means they have to be pitchers that stay healthy and can pitch for a long, long time. At the same time, the average pitcher on this list had 115 wins at 30, so they did need to have a productive youth in terms of racking up wins.

Here is a table displaying the careers of our 19 pitchers:

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-4-07-45-pm

The amazing part, at least in my opinion, is that these pitchers almost seemed to get better with age, at least in terms of wins. I know that wins is not a good stat for tracking the effectiveness of pitchers, but since we are talking the 300-win club, it is what we have in front of us. Anyways, 17 of these 19 pitchers had more wins after 30 than they did before. Again, this hammers home the idea that longevity and durability is more important than complete dominance. Yes, you have to be a good, if not great, pitcher, but you also have to stay healthy.

So when looking at current pitchers that possibly have a chance at 300, I filtered through active pitchers fulfilling a few different qualifications. First, the pitcher must have at least 190 innings pitcher per year, including years of injuries (this helps get at longevity and durability). Also, the pitcher must also average at least 12 wins per year. I came up with a group of pitchers who where close to matching these requirements. From this list of 14 pitchers, I think eight or so have the best chance of eclipsing 300.

Here is a table of possible contenders:

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-4-06-43-pm

This list includes: Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Rick Porcello, Jon Lester, and Felix Hernandez. CC Sabathia, although at 223 career wins, does not make this list, since I don’t think he has 5-8 more seasons of decent pitching in front of him. I will go into each pitcher in more detail to describe what each pitcher needs to do to have a chance.

I’m going to start with Lester. Lester is currently at 146 wins, with 2003 regular-season innings pitched. He has been great through his first 11 seasons, in nine of which he was a full-time starter. In those nine seasons, he failed to pitch 200 innings just once, when he posted 191.2 innings pitched. He has been an iron man, and at age 32, the recipe is simple. He just needs to stay healthy and he needs his game to age well. This is going to be a repetitive theme, but to be honest, that’s what we would expect. Things helping Lester? Well, playing for the Cubs is one. Not only do they have a great defense, but they also create great run support, which can help Lester pick up a lot of wins. He was 19-5 this past year, matching his career high in Boston in 2010.

Now on to Justin Verlander. After an injury-riddled 2015, Verlander was great this year, posting a 16-9 record and an ERA of 3.04 (FIP of 3.48). Currently, he sits at 173 wins and is 33 years old. I mentioned his injury struggles in 2015. He only pitched 133 innings. In his 11 years as a full-time starter, that was the only the second time he failed to reach 200 innings pitched. People may worry that Verlander is starting to lose his velocity, which could mitigate his effectiveness, but in 2016, he struck out batters at a career-high rate and also had a career-best strikeout to walk ratio. Verlander is back with the elite, and if he can avoid injury trouble, he deserves to be in the discussion for a possible 300-win flirtation.

I’ll now move on to Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball for the past five years, and has only struggled with injuries for this past year, when he hit the DL with back issues. He still picked up 12 wins, and looked like peak Kershaw when he came back. Kershaw continues to strike out hitters and not allow walks, and in his shortened 2016, he posted a career-best FIP. Kershaw currently sits at 126 wins, and is 28 years old, in the middle of his prime. I think there are two factors that could keep Kershaw from getting close. The first one is his back. The Dodgers shut Kershaw down for half the year, and hopefully it heals, but if it is one of those lingering injuries that can also affect his timing a delivery as well as his overall health, he won’t be able to age his game to the necessary limits needed to hit 300. Also, he should get more wins. I’m not sure this will be a big factor now that the Dodgers have Andrew Friedman at the helm, but if he cannot get the run support he needs, that could lead to two or three fewer wins every year.

Chris Sale is next. Sale sits at 74 wins and is 27. He has some work to do. He has been relatively healthy, however, over his five full years as a starter. I think the best bet for Sale is to get out of Chicago, or at least the White Sox, and get on a team that can give him some good defense and offense. His win totals just aren’t high enough, but he is young enough where if he finds a new team and can age well, he might be able to hit 250.

I’ll do Bumgarner next. He really hasn’t had any injury trouble in his six years as a full-time starter. He is 27 and has 100 wins. He is a little harder to project, but I would say he’s got a better shot than Sale. I mean, he is already at 100 and only 27. Kershaw might have a leg up on him, but MadBum has been able to stay healthy. To be honest, Kershaw had been healthy too before this year, which somewhat shows that pitching 20 full seasons does not happen to often. Anyways, Bumgarner hasn’t quite been as dominant as some of the other names on this list, but he has been very good, and has stayed healthy. He is on a solid team with a good defense. The conditions are correct, he just needs to age well and stay healthy. I still like Kershaw’s odds a little more, but Bumgarner’s are not far behind.

Now I’ll move on to David Price. Price is 31, has 121 wins, and has pitched relatively healthy for seven full seasons. He is on the Red Sox now, which — although their poor defense won’t help some of his pitching metrics, they should give him the run support he needs. He wasn’t terrible this year; I have a feeling people think he fell off the map. He had 17 wins, and a ERA of 3.99 and a FIP of 3.60. His ERA and FIP were at career highs, but the FIP really wasn’t too far off what we’d expect. I’d credit the higher ERA to playing in Fenway with not the best defense behind him. Price may not be as dominant as he once was, but the Red Sox should give him support. He might be a little behind pace, but he could be the next CC Sabathia or Mike Mussina, where upon retirement, we say, “I didn’t realize he had 260 wins!” For the record, I doubt CC gets there, but the point is that if Price can stay healthy and moderately effective on a team that will support him, he may be able to move up in the wins chart. Will he hit 300? I don’t see it, but realistically, I’m not sure any of these guys will.

Now I’ll move on to the other Red Sox pitcher on this list: Rick Porcello. Porcello had a modest beginning in Detroit, but his FIP always seemed to outperform his ERA, so he has that going for him. Porcello is only 27 and somehow has 107 wins already. Although he is on the Red Sox, who can support him, Porcello really hasn’t been able to stay healthy over his career, and only eclipsed 200 innings pitched in a season twice: 2014 in Detroit, and this past season in Boston. Still, he is young, and if he can hang around awhile, he might be able to pick up 100 wins or more if he can stay decent on an offensive team. Again, he doesn’t need to contend for the Cy Young, but he has to stay relatively effective, so he keeps his starting spot and racks up wins.

Finally, I move on to my dark horse, King Felix Hernandez. Felix is only 30, but has been a full-time starter for 11 years. He sits at 154 wins. I feel like as a baseball community, we tend to forget about Felix. He has been very durable, although he hit the DL this past season by injuring his calf when celebrating a win. But hey, forgive the guy; he plays in Seattle, who hadn’t given him much help until recently. He is my dark horse on the list. He now plays on a good Seattle team, so he should be able to pick up wins. He might not be as good as he once was, but if he can stay effective, he has the best chance of anyone on this list. He can age well, he has stayed healthy, and he now plays on a winning team. The conditions are there, and I think he has the best shot of anyone on this list.

Realistically, if I had to choose between none of them winning 300 or one of them winning, that would be a much harder choice than picking one out of the group. Realistically, do I think any of these guys have a shot? Sure, but a shot is a lot different than actually getting there. Who knows, maybe one of these guys will age well and will stay healthy. Your guess may be as good as mine.