On Sunday, Justin Verlander played the stopper, withstanding a trio of homers by the A’s to grind out 5.1 unspectacular but much needed innings to help the slumping Astros regain sole possession of first place atop the AL West. It certainly wasn’t an outing fit for hanging in a museum, but the fact that it was Verlander’s 200th career victory did significantly increase the likelihood that his own likeness will hang in Cooperstown one day. While only three out of the 12 starting pitchers the BBWAA has elected since 1992 finished with fewer than 300 wins (2011 honoree Bert Blyleven plus 2015 honorees Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz), only one starter with fewer than 200 wins has been elected since 1956, namely Sandy Koufax (1972).
At the moment, Verlander, Bartolo Colon (247 wins), and CC Sabathia (244) are the only active pitchers with at least 200 wins. Zack Greinke (184) is about a year away from the mark, while Jon Lester (172), Félix Hernández (168), Max Scherzer (157), Cole Hamels (155), and Clayton Kershaw (150) will need several years. As for 300 wins, who knows when we’ll see another. The careers of both the 45-year-old Colon and the 38-year-old Sabathia are on their last legs, almost literally. For as iconic as Colon is, he’s also a replacement-level pitcher at this point. Sabathia, though still effective, has mulled retirement, and his arthritic right knee, which requires regular injections for maintenance, recently drove him to the disabled list yet again.
Given the sort of analysis that appears at this site, chances are that you don’t care much about starting pitcher wins — and you shouldn’t, as there are better ways to measure pitcher performance, whether you’re focusing on run prevention or the component skills that underly it (e.g., the Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs versions of WAR). I don’t care much about pitcher wins, either. In the context of pondering the Hall of Fame, however — which, remarkably, is part of my job — the topic is unavoidable, particularly when focusing upon this current generation of players for whom round-numbered milestones beyond 200 wins seem increasingly remote.
Over the past few decades, the job of the starter has evolved alongside our tools for understanding baseball. We see with greater clarity that those precious Ws are less a measure of one man’s intestinal fortitude and more the product of adequate offensive, defensive, and bullpen support. We also appreciate that the movements towards fewer complete games (due to the rise of bullpen specialists), fewer pitches (in the service of lowering injury risks), and fewer innings (in light of the third-time-through-the-order effect as well as the aforementioned factors) have made those Ws increasingly rare in what I’ve previously called the workload constraint era. Right now, in this Year of Our Opener Two Thousand Eighteen, the job of the starting pitcher appears particularly precarious.
Via our splits, which go back to 1974, we can trace the recent erosion of the starting pitcher’s stature via the gradual decline in innings per start and the decreased frequency with which starters are credited with wins:
Only once in the past 20 years have pitchers topped 6.0 innings per start (2011), but as recently as 2014, they were at 5.97 per start. Over the past five seasons, both that average and the rate of wins per start (35.1% circa 2014) have fallen at a nearly identical rate of 9.4%. The three-percentage-point drop in the latter category amounts to the disappearance of about one win per 32-start season. The rate hovered in the 35-38% range for most of the 1974-2014 period, but we’re now around 32%.
For as much as I advocate focusing upon advanced statistics — particularly by means of WAR and my JAWS system — instead of win totals within Hall of Fame discussions, the reality is that the W will still be with us for a while in that context. Even with the elections of Martinez and Smoltz, the fates of Mike Mussina (270 wins) and Curt Schilling (216) remain unresolved in part due to a certain faction of the electorate that is resistant to voting for pitchers who fall short of the 300-win threshold, at least when unaccompanied by Cy Young awards. This winter, we’ll see how they handle the late Roy Halladay, with his 203 wins and two Cys.
Back to Verlander and his active peers, it’s rare for the majors to include such a small number of 200-game winners — rare but hardly unprecedented. Thanks to some data from Baseball-Reference’s Sean Forman, here’s an historical chart:
From 2010 to -12, Jamie Moyer and Andy Pettitte were the only active 200-win pitchers save for a two-week period at the end of 2011 when Tim Wakefield reached the milestone, then retired. In 1995 and -96, Dennis Martinez — whose record for wins among Latin America-born pitchers Colon recently broke — was the only active 200-game winner. Before that, one has to dial back to the 1967-1973 period, when there were anywhere from one to three such pitchers active. The 1946-1955 period also featured three or fewer, and so on.
On the other hand, the 1978-1983 period featured 10 or 11 such pitchers, including six (Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Don Sutton) who would reach 300 and Cooperstown. The 2007 season featured the all-time high of 12 such pitchers: Roger Clemens (354), Greg Maddux (347), Tom Glavine (303), Randy Johnson (284), Mussina (250), David Wells (239), Jamie Moyer (230), Schilling (216), Kenny Rogers (210), Martinez (209), Smoltz (207), and Pettitte (201).
In considering the potential rarity of Verlander’s feat going forward, I asked our in-house projectionist, ZiPS-master Dan Szymborski, to run some projections showing the odds of today’s starters reaching 200, 250, and 300 wins. Dan did so, but in our conversations in the aftermath, we both agreed that the resulting estimates look a bit high. Operating as it does with decades of historical precedent in mind, the ZiPS machine isn’t sensitive enough to this current moment in decreasing workloads to be as pessimistic as I am, and rewiring it on a moment’s notice to suit my perceptions wasn’t an option. Thus I suggest taking these numbers with a grain or two of salt:
|Pitcher||Age||Total||200 Wins||250 Wins||300 Wins|
Dan supplied me with a list of every active pitcher with at least a 50% chance at 150 wins; apparently, James Shields (36, 143 wins) falls below that threshold. I’ve limited the display to pitchers who already have at least 90 wins in the bank, and will save the odds of the pitchers further away — such as 24-year-old Luis Severino (38 wins) and 26-year-old Carlos Martinez (52 wins) — for another day.
Roughly speaking, ZiPS estimates that our current crop of pitchers will yield two 300-game winners, eight 250-game winners, and 16 200-game winners, all of which seem like a lot, but dial back to 2007 and the active ranks included four pitchers who would get to at least 300 wins, seven who would win at least 250, and 19 who would win at least 200, including Verlander, who at that point had totaled just 35 wins. It will take more than a decade to get a full return from this particular precinct, by which point we’ll probably be talking about how much better pitcher Florps are than WAR and JAWS.
The odds suggest that Kershaw, Sabathia, Sale, and Verlander and all have similar chances of reaching 300. In light of what we know about Sabathia’s stance on retirement, he almost certainly doesn’t belong in that group, but the ZiPS machine doesn’t read the headlines. The other three pitchers’ chances might be slimmer than these projections, as well. Verlander, who’s on pace to finish the season with 204 wins, would need to continue averaging 16 wins a year for another six seasons (2019-24, his age-36 to -41 seasons) to reach 300, which seems like a longshot. Kershaw would need nearly 15 wins a year over the next decade to reach the mark in his age-40 season, and Sale, who’s currently on the DL for shoulder inflammation (gulp) would need about 18 a year for 11 years to reach the mark in his age-40 season. Anyone reaching the milestone might need to pitch to 44 or 45, à la the Big Unit, to nose over the line.
On the other hand, ZiPS gives Greinke, Kershaw, Lester, Sale, Scherzer, and even Porcello very good odds at reaching 200 wins, but the news is comparatively dismal with regards to Hernández (but then we suspected as much), and even Price’s odds relative to those of his Boston staffmates seem quite low. There’s a lot more to be said about these projections, enough that I may revisit this data set soon.
For now, though, the take-home is that 200 wins remains a pretty impressive feat in this day and age, even given what we know about its imperfect relationship with pitcher skill and value. But even with no other imminent arrival in that particular club, it’s too early to place it on the endangered species list. Verlander is the first of a coming wave of hurlers who will make their runs at Cooperstown not only on the basis of 200-plus wins but also 3,000 strikeouts (he needs 361) and a high JAWS mark relative to his era if not above the standard (he’s at 52.9, where the average starter is at 61.8; see here). It’s just going to take a while for it all to come into focus.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.