you're reading...
Sidebars

The Slog to 300 Wins

rough-road-aheadWe recently answered the question: Who had the toughest path to 3,000 hits? Now, with Cy Young just winning a spot in the HoME, we turn to pitchers and ask: Who had the toughest slog to 300 wins?

There is but one condition for earning a win. You have to leave the game with the lead. There are then two exceptions under this condition:

  • starters who don’t go five innings
  • relievers who are more ineffective than their replacement (though this is infrequently invoked).

Beyond their own performances, the single most important factor for the 24 men who won 300 games was the quality of the team around them.

Here are those 24 men, their winning percentage, the winning percentage of their teams when they didn’t pitch, how many wins they notched above what their teammates would have in the same number of decisions (Wins Above Team), and how many wins above their team they had expressed per 25 decisions (which puts it into a modern per annum context).

NAME WINS WIN% w/out DIFF WAT WAT/25
Cy Young 511 .6179 .4767 .1412 +97 2.9
Walter Johnson 417 .5991 .4620 .1372 +95 3.4
Pete Alexander 373 .6420 .5033 .1387 +84 3.6
Roger Clemens 354 .6580 .5219 .1361 +76 3.5
Pud Galvin 365 .5407 .4477 .0930 +75 2.8
Randy Johnson 303 .6461 .5018 .1443 +71 3.8
Tom Seaver 311 .6027 .4816 .1211 +61 3.0
Christy Mathewson 373 .6649 .5371 .1278 +60 2.7
Lefty Grove 300 .6803 .5573 .1230 +52 2.9
Old Hoss Radbourn 309 .6143 .5220 .0923 +50 2.5
Warren Spahn 363 .5970 .5180 .0791 +43 1.8
Phil Niekro 318 .5372 .4844 .0528 +38 1.6
Greg Maddux 355 .6100 .5312 .0788 +38 1.6
Steve Carlton 329 .5742 .5135 .0621 +37 1.6
Mickey Welch 307 .5938 .5336 .0602 +35 1.7
Eddie Plank 326 .6269 .5589 .0680 +33 1.6
Kid Nichols 361 .6344 .5480 .0864 +30 1.3
Tom Glavine 305 .6004 .5255 .0749 +31 1.5
Gaylord Perry 314 .5423 .5120 .0303 +25 1.1
Nolan Ryan 324 .5260 .4995 .0265 +21 0.9
Tim Keefe 342 .6032 .5669 .0362 +18 0.8
Don Sutton 324 .5586 .5346 .0240 +16 0.7
John Clarkson 328 .6482 .5739 .0743 +16 0.8
Early Wynn 300 .5515 .5258 .0257 + 7 0.3

Who had the toughest task here? The answer might be Pud Galvin since his teammates were the worst. Of course, Galvin started most of the games his teams played. On the other hand, Randy Johnson shows the biggest gap in winning percentage with his teammates and, therefore, the most WAT/25 decisions. On a seasonal basis, he dragged his teams to more wins than anyone else on this list. He earned those 304 wins.

Behind the one condition for a win lie some things a pitcher can control, and a host of factors entirely or nearly entirely outside his control. The things that make the road to 300 a tougher slog.

  • Usage: How deep into games is he allowed to go?
  • Run support: Does his team score enough for him to leave with the lead?
  • Defensive support: Even if he pitches well, does his own defense undermine him?
  • Bullpen support: When he leaves with the lead, does his bullpen hold it?

We have quite a bit of information to help us sort through these. Since 1940ish, we have play-by-play data that fills in much of this info, and BB-REF has helpful information. The OFF category below shows how much better or worse a pitcher’s run support was than average per nine innings. DEF does the same for defense. For the bullpen BB-REF gives us the number of wins a pitcher’s bullpens blew (BLOWN). BLOWN% is the number of leads the bullpen blew divided by starts that weren’t complete games. Here’s information from the twelve 300-game winners for whom we have PBP data.

NAME

GS

CG

DEC

DEC%

IP/GS

OFF

DEF

BLW

BLW%

PBP era
Warren Spahn

665

382

608

88%

7.7

+0.3

+0.07

18

6.3%

Greg Maddux

740

109

582

78%

6.8

-0.2

+0.11

62

9.8%

Roger Clemens

707

118

538

76%

7.0

+0.1

-0.02

67

11.3%

Steve Carlton

709

254

575

80%

7.3

+0.2

+0.00

36

7.9%

Nolan Ryan

773

222

616

79%

6.9

-0.4

-0.06

45

8.1%

Don Sutton

756

178

580

76%

6.9

-0.1

+0.09

48

8.3%

Phil Niekro

716

245

592

79%

7.2

+0.1

-0.18

47

10.0%

Gaylord Perry

690

303

579

81%

7.5

-0.2

-0.05

37

9.6%

Tom Seaver

647

231

516

79%

7.4

-0.3

-0.01

35

8.4%

Tom Glavine

682

56

508

74%

6.5

+0.0

+0.12

54

8.6%

Randy Johnson

603

100

469

77%

6.8

+0.0

-0.01

48

9.5%

Early Wynn

612

290

544

85%

7.2

+0.3

-0.01

20

6.2%

Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Gaylord Perry faced the toughest tests here. Ryan had the worst combination of offensive and defensive support. Essentially, he began each game with a half-run disadvantage compared to the average pitcher. In the 5326 innings he tossed as a starter that works out to 270 runs. However, his bullpen support ranks second best among post-expansion pitchers and fourth best of all of these twelve guys. Seaver “lucked” into the second worst combination of offensive and defensive support, starting each game with a .3 run disadvantage (165 runs over his career), but his bullpens did a reasonably good job holding leads, probably costing only one or two more wins than Ryan’s did. Perry also had poor support (a .25 run disadvantage per start, 143 runs in his career), and he suffered about six more bullpen blowups than Ryan did in starts not completed. In terms of components, and despite .500 teams around him, Ryan clearly had the worst support.

NAME

GS

CG

DEC

DEC/GS

IP/GS

OFF

DEF

est.BLW**

Pre-PBP era
Cy Young

815

749

827

1.01

8.1

+0.1

+0.10

6

Walter Johnson

666

531

696

0.91*

8.2*

-0.2

+0.05

12

Pete Alexander

600

437

581

0.91*

8.2*

+0.1

+0.06

14

Christy Mathewson

552

435

561

1.02

7.5

+0.4

+0.05

10

Pud Galvin

688

646

675

0.98

8.5

-0.2

-0.01

4

Kid Nichols

562

532

569

1.01

8.2

+0.6

+0.24

3

Tim Keefe

594

554

567

0.95

8.4

+0.4

+0.26

4

John Clarkson

518

485

506

0.98

8.5

+0.9

+0.19

3

Eddie Plank

529

410

520

0.98

7.2

+0.4

+0.04

10

Old Hoss Radbourn

502

488

503

1.00

8.6

+0.2

+0.29

1

Mickey Welch

549

525

517

0.94

8.5

+0.3

+0.18

2

Lefty Grove

457

298

441

0.85*

7.8*

+0.4

-0.01

14

*Only splits data used                                                       

**Rate of 8.7% based on average in PBP era                                                     

Among the earlier guys, we can only make loose estimates of things like decisions/start (by simply dividing decisions by games, except where we have a decent amount of splits data), run support (by dividing team R/G by league R/G), and bullpen support (by subtracting CG from GS and taking the 8.7% blown-lead average from our post-PBP group). Based on what we know and estimate, Pud Galvin had the toughest go. Galvin’s teammates provided negative offensive and defensive support (to the tune of -0.21 runs/9 or about 140 runs) to the tune of about what Perry’s mates did.

The rate at which players get 300 wins has slowed appreciably. Although twelve before the play-by-play era and twelve after seems like an even split, the PBP era has seen 70 percent more total team seasons, and guys are doing it 40 percent less often. Some of the reasons can be teased out of our tables above. When guys pitched underhand from 50 feet away, made 50 to 80 starts a year, and always finished what they started they racked up wins like crazy. That is if their arms held up. Thus we see five 1880s pitchers in the mix. Had Tony Mullane not been suspended for a year, it might have been six. Ditto had Bobby Mathews had a few more sober games. The deadball era also enabled Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Eddie Plank, Christy Mathewson, and even late-career Cy Young to pile up wins because they could cruise along, throwing deadened, dirty baseballs to batters who tried to hit it where they ain’t instead of into the bleachers.

Lefty Grove, the last of the pre-war guys is the exception that proves the rule: the only 300-game winner before the PBP era whose career took place entirely during the pinball offense of the 1920s and 1930s. And he barely crossed the finish. Offensive context makes a big difference. When offensive levels reach 1920s or 1990s levels, pitchers must exert themselves more on each pitch. You can’t throw 400 innings that way. Baseball Prospectus used to talk about the “injury nexus.” A young man’s arm remains extremely vulnerable through ages 22–24 before the arm toughens up a bit. But even if you don’t snap a ligament then, there’s wear and tear. If a guy goes through this nexus during a time of elevated offense, could he be more likely to injure his arm than a guy going through it during a deadball period? For example the 1960s/early 1970s or late 1980s/early 1990s? Every post-war 300-game winner except Spahn rose to prominence during an era of depressed offense. Good news for Strassburg, Harvey, or Bumgarner. And Spahn’s didn’t pitch in anger for three years during the injury nexus due to his service time.

Looked at this way, Grove pitched through the most difficult offensive context of any 300-game winner. And even he eventually lost his fastball and got to 300 on guile.

There’s another big thing we’ve touched in those tables: the evolution of pitching usage. First off, there’s the trend of getting fewer and fewer starts out of a team’s best pitchers. In the last ten to twelve years alone, pitchers have gone from 34 or 35 starts a year to 32 or 33. Over a long career that can mean 50 or 60 starts, a huge opportunity cost. And there’s relief pitching. Tom Glavine probably threw nearly two full innings fewer per start than Hoss Radbourn did. On the one hand, Radbourn probably paced himself and didn’t throw with maximum effort the whole game. On the other hand, Radbourn pitched every day and sometimes twice. Glavine threw with something much closer to max effort on each pitch but did so in a five-man rotation. The plan in contemporary baseball is to throw as hard as you can as long as you can, then turn it over to a bullpen full of fresh power arms who close the deal while you watch with an ice pack on your wing. And if you are Tom Glavine, that means you only complete 56 games and your bullpen blows 54 of your would-be wins. Walter Johnson didn’t have to worry about that. But then again, Walter Johnson was the relief ace on his teams too. In general, the more games you give to the bullpen, the more leads you’ll lose. It’s just a numbers game. In this regard, Glavine has the toughest road because he turned the highest percentage of his starts over to his teammates.

But who really had the toughest road? I say it comes down to these guys: Randy Johnson, Ryan, Glavine, Grove, and someone I haven’t mentioned yet, Early Wynn. Johnson did more pulling and dragging of his teammates than anyone else. Ryan had absolutely the worst offensive and defensive support. Grove pitched through the most difficult offensive context imaginable. Glavine’s workload was managed in a way that made it harder for his leads to stand up. Given the uniqueness of his accomplishment, Grove would be my choice for the toughest road to 300—except that Early Wynn stands in his way.

Wynn, a burly, hard-nosed guy played mostly for really good teams. Tteams just about as good as he was. He did have certain advantages that eased his path: he came along during a mini-deadball era when many great hitters were off to war and the league used the balata ball. And he did pitch in an American League extraordinarily slow to integrate even though Aaron, Mays, Robinson, Banks, and Robinson were tearing up the NL. In fact, he played on the two most integrated teams of the era, the Indians and Chisox. He had great run support and average defenses, his teams gave him 140 runs more than the average pitcher. The reason he’s got the hardest slog to 300 is so utterly simple that I probably ought to have spared you all these paragraphs: Wynn just wasn’t that great. Among the twenty-four 300-game winners, he’s last in WAR by far and last in ERA+ (tied with Pud Galvin). He has one signature season three other All-Star type years, and is otherwise a Jeckyll-and-Hyde, alternating average and below average seasons for two decades.

I’m pretty positive that a pitcher like Early Wynn wouldn’t get too far above 250 wins had his career begun in 1979 instead of 1939. He’s the Jack Morris of his era. I can easily see the same kinds of arguments made for him (pitched to the score, leader on good teams, toughness, etc), just as I can see that in Morris’ era, Wynn would have made fewer starts per year, pitched fewer innings in each start, and wound up with about 250 wins instead of 300. So with apologies to Ryan, Johnson, and Grove’s heroic feats, Early Wynn had the most difficult factor to overcome: himself.

—Eric

Advertisements

Discussion

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: 500 Homers, However You Can Get There | the Hall of Miller and Eric - July 14, 2014

Tell us what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Institutional History

%d bloggers like this: