Popular opinion is we won’t ever see another 300-game winner. Revered baseball historian Bill James has expressed pessimism for seeing another 300-game winner in his lifetime. Why is 300 important? There isn’t a single 300-game winner that isn’t in the Hall of Fame. It’s the benchmark all starting pitchers are gauged against, the number we can unequivocally use to say someone had a Hall of Fame career. Unlike 500 Home Runs, this number remains largely untainted. Some of the challenges facing today’s starting pitchers in their quest for the magical 300 include: the introduction of 5-man starting rotations, bullpen specialization, and pitch count restrictions. Given these present day roadblocks, will we ever see another 300-game winner? You bet, and here’s why the naysayers are wrong.
300 career wins is an elusive rarity that doesn’t get enough recognition – and it’s only becoming more difficult to achieve. To win 300 career games, a pitcher needs to average 15 wins for a minimum of 20 straight years. Not only does a pitcher have to be dominant, but they generally have to establish themselves by their mid-20’s, and have durability that leads to a lengthy career to even stand a chance at 300. Unfortunately for pitchers, it only takes one pitch to derail a career, so health and luck are the x-factors to reaching 300 career wins. Since WWII, there have only been 11 pitchers to reach 300 career victories. For perspective, there have been more than twice as many hitters to reach 500 career homers since WWII. The last 300-game winner was “The Big Unit” in 2009, finishing with 303 wins at the age of 44. Interestingly enough, we’ve gone through 13, 19, and 20 year gaps between 300-game winners since WWII, so a sizeable gap like the one we’re about to experience isn’t as abnormal as one may think.
Of all active pitchers in the game today, nobody is remotely close to winning 300.
Bartolo, “Big Sexy”, is the current leader and despite the ageless wonder’s cult following, he’ll be 44 this season and will need to pitch until he’s 50 for a shot at 300 wins. CC Sabathia was on his way before knee, shoulder, and a drinking problem derailed his chances by age 32. The rest of this list can also be eliminated minus: Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Zach Greinke. Verlander bounced back after multiple sub-par seasons to finish 2nd in the AL CY voting and reignited his charge to 300. Over the past five seasons he’s averaged 13 wins. He’ll be 34 this season and if he averages a generous 15 wins for the next seven seasons, he’ll still only be at 278 career wins. Zach Greinke is one year younger than Verlander, but also has 18 fewer career victories, so he’s also on pace to fall short. “King Felix” has averaged 14 wins over the past 4 seasons, so if he averages a generous 15 wins for the next decade he’d reach 300. His ERA, WHIP, H/9 IP have risen every year since 2014, and he didn’t make 30 starts for the first time since he was 19. Odds are his health will preclude him from being dominant for another decade, as the cracks are already starting to show. Since nobody whose currently over 150 career victories realistically will win 300 games, it’ll be over a decade until someone does it again – see you in 2030.
There are three pitchers under 150 career victories who have played at least five full seasons and currently have the best shot at winning 300: Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, and Madison Bumgarner. Sale has finished in the top six in AL CY voting five seasons in a row, and currently sits at 74 career wins. His trade to the Red Sox will ensure he’s on a winner during his prime and improve his chances of significantly increasing his win totals. However, 74 wins through his age-27 season puts him 40 victories behind Kershaw at the same age. He’d need to average 15 wins for the next 15 seasons, putting him at 299 career wins. That means he’d also have to consistently be an all-star through the age of 42, making 300 wins a long-shot for Sale.
The easiest pick, but not necessarily my pick, to reach 300 is Kershaw. Currently the best pitcher in the universe, he’s averaged almost 17 wins over the past six seasons en route to three NL CY Awards and a NL MVP Award. He’s at the peak of his game and averaging 17 wins, so if he realistically averages 15 wins for the next 12 seasons, he’ll finish with 306 victories. Through his age-27 season, Kershaw’s 114 career wins puts him one behind Hall of Famer and 354-game winner Greg Maddux through his age 27 season, and two wins behind Hall of Famer and 311-game winner Tom Seaver. He’s been hurt two out of the past three seasons, so being dominant through his age-40 season is no guarantee. I don’t think he’ll pull a Koufax and retire at 30, but players like Koufax and Kershaw who are leagues ahead of their contemporaries rarely sustain their greatness for 20+ seasons. He’s got higher odds than Sale at reaching 300 career wins, but my gut tells me he falls just short. However, given his age and greatness, it wouldn’t come as a shock if he did get to 300.
Being excellent at a young age is a better indicator of making the Hall of Fame than it is for reaching 300 career wins. There’s a history of pitchers on track for 300 career wins who burned out and fell short. Check out this list I compiled and where these pitching greats stood statistically through their age-27 seasons. I’ve added the post WWII 300-game winners, Hall of Famers, and pitchers who appeared to be on their way to 300.
Incredibly, the top nine pitchers in IP through their age-27 seasons all didn’t reach 300 career wins (Felix Hernandez TBD). This is evidence a heavy workload through a pitcher’s 20’s negatively impacts their health and longevity, which doesn’t bode well for King Felix. Instead of exploding on the scene like a Doc Gooden or Fernando Valenzuela, there seems to be a sweet spot for 300 game winners by building up to greatness instead of instantly achieving it. Consistency and longevity above all else seem to be the most important factors to reaching 300. Pitching into a player’s early 40’s is also a common link between all 300-game winners.
Having a better historical understanding of what a 300 win career looks like, I believe the answer to who will be the next 300-game winner is actually, drum roll please – Madison Bumgarner.
Bumgarner, who like Kershaw had his first full season at age 21, has statistically benefitted from breaking into the majors during his age-19 season. Bumgarner has never led the league in wins or finished higher than 4th in the CY voting, but steadily has made 30+ starts six seasons in a row while leading the Giants to three World Championships. At 6’5 and 250 lbs of country strong, Bumgarner is built like a workhorse and only getting better. This may be his greatest advantage over Sale and Kershaw. Over the past 4 seasons he’s increased his IP and SO totals every season, while also posting a sub-3.00 ERA. 2017 will be his age-27 season, so if he has a conservative season of 15 wins, 215 IP with 235 K’s, his projected career totals through age-27 would be almost identical to Kershaw’s through his age-27, which is amazing considering Kershaw is hands down the best pitcher in baseball. I think Bumgarner is built to withstand 20+ seasons of consistent excellence and will benefit from the Giants being perennial contenders. His highs aren’t as high as Kershaw’s, but he’s never had any injuries and I think his consistent approach will ultimately get him to 300 career victories in 2030. I’m looking forward to tracking this throughout the next decade until history is hopefully made again.