The old cliche says that records are made to be broken, but certain Major League Baseball records inspire an awful lot of pessimism among the most ravenous consumers of baseball statistics. No starting pitcher has achieved 300 career wins since Randy Johnson did so in 2009, and the prevailing wisdom seems to be that it won’t happen again for a long time, barring some unforeseen shift in the way baseball is played. Increased bullpen usage, larger pitching rotations, and greater mindfulness toward injuries will prevent pitchers from logging the innings needed to notch 300 wins, they say.
Nevertheless, a handful of active pitchers aren’t out of the 300-game running. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner have hoarded a fair number of wins in their young careers, but they haven’t even made it to the 100-win threshold yet. At age 29, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez has won 125 games (excluding the 2015 season – more on that later) and has the best chance of any active pitcher to make up the difference during the rest of his career.
Dating back to the 19th century, there are 24 members of baseball’s 300-win club. Ten of these members came out of what I’ll call the “modern era,” starting their careers after 1960. They are: Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Don Sutton. Some pretty exclusive company, to be sure. To get a sense of where King Felix stands in his quest, I compared Hernandez’s career performance with the performances of the modern-era 300-game winners prior to their age-29 seasons.
I excluded the 2015 season for simplicity’s sake, but it should be noted that, as of this writing, Felix Hernandez is leading the American League in wins, with nine of them in just 13 starts. That puts him on pace for over 23 wins, which would easily trump his career high (19, in 2009). Is he actually going to win 23 games? Probably not. In his most recent start, he allowed eight runs while retiring only one batter, which increased his ERA by almost a full run. But recent struggles aside, he’s still having a great year, and could realistically end 2015 with his first 20-win season. So, keep in mind that he’s on a slightly better pace than these results indicate.
The Good News
Some like to say that the Mariners’ traditionally mediocre offenses are hurting Hernandez’s chances to reach 300 wins, and it’s true that his run support has often been lacking. In 2010, despite leading the league in ERA, games started, and innings pitched, he finished with a 13-12 record. In 2014, he led the league in ERA, games started, and WHIP, but walked away with only a marginally better 15-9 record. In spite of this, Hernandez has still managed to rack up wins more quickly than most of the 300-game winners from the modern era. The table below shows that only three of the ten 300-gamers were on a better pace than Hernandez prior to their age-29 seasons.
The Bad News
I also wanted to know what the win totals looked like as a percentage of the 300-gamers’ career numbers. Hernandez’s 125 wins put him 41.3 percent of the way to 300; only Tom Seaver had a higher percentage of his career wins (43.4) prior to age 29. The average 300-gamer had just 30 percent of his total wins at this point in his career. Even if outlier Phil Niekro, a knuckleballer who didn’t really get going until he was 28, is excluded, the percentage only rises to 32.7. At that rate, Felix Hernandez would be on pace to win 382 games. Smooth sailing, right?
Well, not really, because that rate would require Hernandez to pitch until age 50. Each of the 300-win pitchers had uncommon longevity that will be tough for Hernandez to match. Felix’s 12.5 wins per season put him on pace to break 300 during his age-43 season, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that a big reason why he’s doing well in this statistic is that he got a head start. Hernandez made his debut at 19, and thus played more seasons before age 29 (ten of them) than anyone else on the list. (Nolan Ryan also entered the big leagues at 19, in 1966, but did not see any MLB action during the 1967 season.) Can someone who started as young as Hernandez pitch well into his forties? The wear-and-tear of MLB pitching is certainly greater than that of minor-league ball, but Ryan managed to keep going until 46.
More Bad News
I calculated the winning percentages of the ten 300-win pitchers and Hernandez. Here, “winning percentage” is defined as wins divided by total games started, rather than the typical statistic of wins divided by total decisions (since losses don’t matter in this analysis). Giving more credence to the claim that Hernandez’s offenses haven’t provided enough support, he ended up below all of the 300-gamers in winning percentage.
I hypothesized that the pitchers’ winning percentages before age 29 would be higher than their career winning percentages. Sure, the 300-gamers made most of their starts when they got older, but the pitfalls of old age must’ve made wins a little harder to come by, right? For the most part, this seemed to be true. Seven of the nine pitchers whose pre-29 winning percentages I calculated had better numbers when they were younger (but for some, the drop was negligible). The only (big) exception was Randy Johnson, who aged incredibly well. His post-29 winning percentage was helped by a run 81 wins between 1999 and 2002, during his age-35 through age-38 seasons. But unless Hernandez experiences this type of late-career hot streak, his already low winning percentage is likely to fall before his career is over.
I admit that this statistic isn’t perfect. I omitted relief appearances from the calculation, but did not eliminate relief wins (nor did I comb through game logs to figure out how many of these, if any, the pitchers actually received). Of the ten 300-gamers, only Tom Glavine has zero relief appearances to his credit. Some, like Johnson and Clemens, made very few, while Perry and Niekro combined for over 200 bullpen appearances. Niekro’s pre-29 winning percentage was not calculated, because he made just 21 starts in 125 games.
Even More News Of The Bad Variety
If Felix Hernandez wants to make it to 300 wins, a big part of that is simply getting out on the mound for as many starts as possible. I wanted to see how his starts per season compared with the 300-gamers.
As you can see in the “GS per season” column, he’s doing okay, finding himself in the middle of the pack with just over 30 starts per year. But the other two statistics in the table are more worrisome. Hernandez has started no more than 34 games in any given season, which lags far behind the 40+ starts the ’70s workhorse pitchers logged as career highs. It’s unlikely that Felix’s max of 34 games started will get any higher; no MLB pitcher has started 35 games since 2010, and no pitcher has started 36 games since 2003.
I’m quite comfortable predicting that Hernandez will never start more than 34 games for the rest of his career, which brings me to the problem of the shortened season. Another statistic I made up for the purposes of this investigation, the “shortened season” refers to any season in which a pitcher played in fewer than 25 games (including relief appearances). Hernandez has been relatively healthy, so he’s done well in avoiding these seasons so far (only his 2005 debut season, in which he pitched 16 times, has been shortened). But the 300-win pitchers average three shortened seasons during their careers, which doesn’t bode well for Hernandez if he wants to keep his starts-per-season above Randy Johnson’s last-place 27.8.
Yet Another Piece Of Bad News… This Is Seriously Not Good, You Guys
Lastly, I took a look at how many of the pitchers’ total games played resulted in wins or losses, and calculated what I call “decision percentage.” A greater number of decisions means a greater number of wins, which is the name of the game in the quest for 300. Unlike some of the other statistics, relief appearances were included in the calculations…
…and Hernandez still comes out near the bottom, trailing only Niekro and his aforementioned 104 relief appearances. Now is a good time to note that King Felix, like Tom Glavine, has ZERO career relief appearances. None. So, even though ALL of Hernandez’s career appearances have given him a great chance to pick up either a win or a loss, he still lags behind the others. Why? He lacks innings pitched. The longer a pitcher stays in a game, the more likely he is to receive a decision. The conventions of modern baseball keep Hernandez from going as deep into games as pitchers of decades past, even with his top-notch stamina. The other guys on the list had many seasons in which they ate up at least 250 innings, and often many more (Nolan Ryan even broke 300 innings in two separate seasons). Hernandez’s career high stands at a humorous 249.2 innings pitched.
A five-percent difference in decision percentage equals of a difference of about one win per season. And, of course, should Hernandez ever step into a reliever’s role, even for just a few games, his decision percentage will fall even closer to Niekro levels.
The Limitations Of This Investigation, or: I Am Not Nate Silver
Confession: if you hadn’t guessed this already, the investigation you just read wasn’t as scientific as it could have been. Sure, it used a lot more data and logic than Skip Bayless might, but there were imperfections that would make Nate Silver turn up his nose at me. For one thing, any statistics that resulted from a game after a pitcher’s 300th win should have been removed from the data, because they’re basically irrelevant. And I didn’t actually predict anything, nor did I take into account all of the different variables that could’ve had something to do with pitcher performance (scoring trends, ballparks, mullets, etc.)
But I’m confident that the statistics I looked at have something meaningful to say about Felix Hernandez’s chances of winning 300 games, even if what they offer is far from the complete picture. Sorry, Felix, but it doesn’t look good. Keep trying, though, because it would be fun to see you get there, and I’ve been proven wrong so many times that it wouldn’t bother me one bit.
Photo by hj_west / Creative Commons
Dustin Petzold is Editor-in-Chief of Crooked Scoreboard and 324 wins behind Don Sutton on the all-time list. You should follow CSB on Twitter.