Is the win dead? If not dead, it’s at least on life support. Major League Baseball pitchers are winning fewer games than ever.
As the 2023 MLB season began there were only three pitchers with as many as 200 wins. One other, Clayton Kerahaw of the Dodgers, had 197 victories.
That means only a handful of pitchers were as much as two-thirds of the way toward 300 wins, a milestone once considered the hallmark of greatness. But not any longer.
The chances of another pitcher joining the exclusive 300-win club are moving towards slim and none. The active wins leader (Justin Verlander), is still more than 50 wins away from 300, and he hasn’t thrown a pitch from his 39-year old shoulder yet in 2023 due to an injury. His teammate, Max Scherzer, would need to average 16 wins per season until he’s 43 years old, when he’s averaged only 12 wins for the last five years.
Every season that comes, every year analytics becomes more entrenched in the game, the less likely we’ll see another pitcher even sniff 300 wins.
If you’re under the age of 25, you probably don’t remember the last 300-game winner. To those people of that age, a 300-game winner is a mythical figure. Like a mermaid, chimera, or a unicorn.
That’s because the last 300-game winner entered MLB in 1988. The 300-game winner is becoming unusual indeed.
There have been twenty-four 300-game winners in MLB history. But if it feels like they are as rare as a black swan, that’s because they are. Of those great hurlers, 22 of them debuted before 1987.
In this bulleted list we group the 300-game winners by the season of their MLB debut:
The last 300-game winner, Randy Johnson, made his MLB debut in 1988. That’s 35 years ago. Johnson won his 300th game in June of 2009, just a few months into the first term of Barack Obama. For many baseball fans, they’ve never seen a pitcher even come close to 300 wins.
In order to win games, you have to start a lot of games, and you have to be in a position to earn those wins. But several trends are conspiring to make that less possible:
In a four-man rotation, which was used from the 1920s until the mid-1970s by many teams, an ace pitcher could make 40 starts per season. In the five-man, that same ace could expect 33-35 starts. Today, with the amount of money invested in their pitchers, teams are wary of using pitchers too often. At the first sign of any discomfort or slight injury, teams sideline pitchers.
In 1971, there were fourteen 20-game winners in MLB. Winning 20 games goes a long way to eating away at the wins needed to get to 100, 200, or 300 wins. But since 2019, there have been only four 20-game winners. Last season, the National League Cy Young Award winner, Sandy Alcantara, won only 14 games. Two seasons ago, the two Cy Young winners combined for 24 wins.
To get to 300 wins, a pitcher must average 15 wins for two decades. In 1992, there were 29 pitchers who won at least 15 games in the major leagues. Last season, there were fewer than half of that, 14. Back in 1975, there were 39 15-game winners.
With current wins totals stuck at 10-15 wins for most pitchers, it’s dubious that any starter could forge enough momentum to approach 300 victories. Unless, a win as we know it, is changed.
With all the rules changes in MLB for 2023, it might be easy to forget some of the basic rules that need to be re-addressed. Like the win rule.
When’s the last time you thought about the win rule? Probably not in a while. Here’s the rule: a starting pitcher must complete five innings and his team must have the lead before the next pitcher enters the game. If his team maintains that lead and wins the game, the pitcher earns the win.
But wins are not easy to come by in modern baseball. That’s because far fewer starters are pitching at least five innings. Here’s the average number of innings for a starting pitcher:
Almost every season before 1943, starting pitchers averaged at least 8 innings per start. In 1950 for the first time, starting pitcher innings per start fell under 8 innings, and in 1962 they fell under 7 innings, though only for that one season. In 1974, MLB starters went under 7 innings per start, and have stayed under that figure every year since. Twenty years later, in 1994, the per start innings average dipped under six innings for the initial time.
Since 2011, the average number of innings by a starting pitcher has been under 6 innings every season. Finally, in the short 2020 season it went under 5, and we were under 5 innings per start in 2022.
Is it time to change the rule by shifting the innings requirement down to four innings for a starting pitcher? That could increase the number of decisions starters would receive. Or MLB could simply remove the innings requirement, which would allow a starting pitcher to be in line for a win regardless of the number of innings he throws.
Verlander has expressed the desire to reach 300 wins: it’s a stated goal of the future Hall of Famer. But, even Verlander with all his unyielding will, may not be able to defeat the circumstances aligned against his mission, let alone Father Time. At his recent win-rate, Verlander would need five more years to reach the magical 300.
Cy Young’s 500+ wins have seemed astounding since he set down his glove more than a century ago. One other, Walter Johnson, who many feel is the greatest pitcher of all-time, topped 400, a total that dwarfs the efforts of mere mortals. Now, given the scarcity of even 200-game winners, the prospect of any hurler, even one with a golden arm that shoots lightning bolts, winning 300 seems implausible.
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