Monday, November 30, 2009

Randy Johnson's 300th Win Part I: The Introduction

Yeah...I probably should have written this shortly after the game, when I didn't have a lot of responsibilities, instead of having to cram it all into one short week in the middle of cardio just to make it in time for the 6-month anniversary of the most seminal event in my career as a baseball fan, but that's procrastination for you.

And rather than write a 20,000-word article to be posted all at once, I'll do it like how the newspapers do it, writing out six articles in six days, culminating with the 300th win game on December 4, the 6-month anniversary of the milestone.

Or the Complete Story of How I Got to See One of the Greatest Milestones in the History of the Game

Part I: The Introduction (November 30)
Part II: The Player (December 1)
Part III: The Set-Up (December 2)
Part IV: The Rainout (December 3)
Part V: The Game (December 4)
Part VI: The Aftermath (December 5)

or A Defense and a History of the 300-win Milestone

No sport treasures its numbers as much as baseball. Sure, people keep track of things like receiving or rushing yards in football, and points or points per game in basketball. However, and it may be because I'm more of a baseball fan than anything else, but those numbers don't seem to be quite as valued as they are in baseball. You'd really have to search to find out the record for saves by a goalie in hockey (the answer is 2,303 by Roberto Luongo in 2003-04...I found it on Hockey-Reference), but I'm sure most baseball fans can just rattle off the record for saves by a closer...62 by Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez in 2008. I'm not trying to say that baseball is a better sport than the others, just that statistics seem to play a bigger role in baseball than other sports. (Heck, some people may argue that it's a bad thing, but that's a topic for another day.)

As a result, it's probably also safe to assume that no sport values its milestones as much as baseball. There are three milestones in particular that stand out: 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, and 300 wins. Those are the three numbers that many have held as markers of greatness within the sport. Some of the game's greatest luminaries can be found within the annals of these milestone clubs: Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Stan Musial for 3,000 hits; Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Ernie Banks for 500 home runs. The achievement becomes magnified when one begins to consider the greats that never reached the milestones: Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams and Ruth never did get to 3,000 hits even though they all rank in the top 10 in batting average, while Lou Gehrig, Carl Yastrzemski, and Stan the Man never reached 500 home runs despite being among the most prolific run producers of all time.

In recent years, one milestone in particular has come to be seen as more exclusive than the rest: 300 wins. 3,000 hits is a tremendous achievement, but with 27 members it's much bigger than the other two major milestones, with more on the way. (Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez both have very good shots at the milestone, with Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and Manny Ramirez not far behind.) 500 home runs was once the most revered with its small membership and baseball's natural obsession with the long ball, but the sport's recent offensive explosion has diluted the club. 11 of its 25 members (44%) had joined the club in the past 15 years, and of those seven have somehow been linked to steroids, baseball's biggest sin besides betting on games.

And finally that leaves 300 wins as the milestone that may just be held in the highest regard. Yes, some people have attacked it on the basis that the win for a pitcher is a flawed statistic, and in many ways they're right. Wins really are a poor judge of a pitcher's actual performance. To get a win, a pitcher must be the one that last pitched when his team gained a lead that it never relinquished, and if the pitcher is a starting pitcher, he has to pitch at least five innings (the minimum limit for an official game). On May 26, 1959, Harvey Haddix retired 36 hitters in what many believe is one of the best pitching performances of all time. He didn't get the win (and got a loss instead) because his team never did get the lead. On the other hand, on April 7, 2001, Woody Williams allowed 9 runs (eight earned) in 12 hits against the Rockies. His Padres were losing 9-6 by the time he got out of the 5th inning. However, the Padres scored five runs in the top of the 6th to take an 11-9 lead that they would never relinquish. And since Woody was the last Padre on the mound before the Padres took the lead, and he pitched five full innings, he was credited with the win.

So yes, the win is indeed a flawed statistic, especially in this era where a lot of the games are decided by bullpens. (Fun fact: 2009 Cy Young winners Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum had a combined seven wins that their bullpens blew.) However, some other statistics that can be used to judge a pitcher's careers are either too skewed towards certain eras, or they're too complicated for all but the most hardcore fans. Almost all fans can understand ERAs and strikeouts, but comparing career ERAs won't work because pitchers from early in the 20th century have an advantage because they pitched in the dead-ball era with fewer offense (how else can you explain how Doc Crandall of the 1908 New York Giants posted a sparkling 2.93 ERA and still be 18% worse than league average.) And comparing strikeouts wouldn't work because strikeouts have become more common in recent years as players have become more free swingers. (Of the 16 pitchers with 3,000 strikeouts, 13 of them reached the milestone within the past 30 years.) Sabermetricians have come up with statistics like Wins Above Replacement Players or Runs Saved to compare pitchers of different era, but these statistics have yet to come into the public use. So despite its flaws, wins are still the accepted standard to judge pitchers.

And for the past 70 years, 300 wins has become the benchmark limit for pitching greatness. Some have complained that this milestone too skewed towards the pitchers of old, especially in this era of pitch counts and bullpen decisions, but more pitchers have reached the milestone in the past 50 years (12) than the first 50 years of professional baseball (11). And even though there have been long stretches without anybody joining the club, there have always been enough quality pitchers to keep the milestone relevant. Others have complained its it rewards longevity over true greatness, as men like Jim Palmer, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, and Sandy Koufax never did get to 300 wins, while guys like Pud Galvin, Phil Niekro, and Don Sutton get to bask in the glory of 300 wins just because they were able to last longer than others. I agree that pitchers like Palmer and Feller are better than Galvin and Sutton, but the 300 win club is not about making a list of the very best pitchers of all time. Rather, it provides a list of men that manages the right mix of quality, endurance, and just plain luck.

With that said, I think it would be fun to provide a history of the 300-win milestone, because that's one of the two things that I'll be extremely focused towards (the other being EKGs) Anyways, the first eleven men to reach the milestone were:

Pud Galvin on September 4, 1888
Tim Keefe on June 4, 1890
Mickey Welch on July 28, 1890
Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn on June 2, 1891
John Clarkson on September 21, 1892
Kid Nichols on July 7, 1900
Cy Young on July 12, 1901
Christy Mathewson on June 13, 1912
Eddie Plank on September 11, 1915
Walter Johnson on May 14, 1920
Grover Cleveland Alexander on September 20, 1924

I have the feeling that these milestone dates were established retroactively by people from SABR. I'm sure that at the time of these games, stat-tracking was haphazard at best, and nobody really cared about milestones. It's all just about winning the game. It would help to explain how Sam Rice retired with 2,987 hits - just 13 hits away from 3,000. And he retired in 1934. However, sometime in the seven years between 1934 and 1941, people starting taking note of these milestones. A day after Lefty Grove beat the Yankees on May 25, 1941 for his 296th career win, the New York Times began hyping the possibilities of 300 wins. Wrote New York Times sportswriter James P. Dawson:
Grove scored his third victory of the campaign ... and moved a precious step nearer a goal that would make him the fifth pitcher in modern history to with 300 or more games, the twelfth to scale this height in all baseball history. Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Eddie Plank are the only modern pitchers to hit 300. Cy Young, whose 511 victories in twenty-two years tops them all; Charles A. (Kid) Nichols, Tim Keefe, John Clarkson, Charley Radbourne, Mickey Welch and Tony Mullane are the others in the select group.
Note: Historians now credit Mullane with only 284 wins.

The New York Times kept bringing up the 300-win mark every time Grove took the mound, finally culminating with an entire page of coverage after he finally reached the milestone on July 25, 1941. After Grove, 20 years passed before anybody approached the 300-win plateau. There wasn't much talk about the club being dead. It just sort of went into hibernation, and staying there until Warren Spahn cracked the club on August 11, 1961. However, the first predictions of the demise of 300-game winners came shortly after Spahn reached the milestone, and one of the prognosticators was Spahn himself just a day after his milestone win:

Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves said today he wasn't sure whether baseball would see another 300-game winner after Early Wynn of the Chicago White Sox joins the exclusive club.
"It's very possible there won't be any others," Spahn said. "Earned-run averages are higher and the game is one of offense these days. Some pitchers don't even go nine innings."
But the 40-year old Spahn, who scored his 300th pitching victory last night with a pressure-packed, 2-1 triumph over the Chicago Cubs, said he wouldn't rule out the possibility of more 300-game winners

For a while, Spahn's prediction seems to be eerily true. Early Wynn eventually did get 300 wins, yet even that was no easy task. He had 292 wins when Spahn won 300, but was injured and never pitched another game that year. He won seven in 1962 to put him at 299, but lost his final three starts, after which he was dropped by the Chicago White Sox. The Indians signed him halfway through the 1963 season, and after a few unsuccessful attempts he finally reached 300 on July 13, 1963.

After that, it seems like a possibility that Spahn was right. A brief resurgence in pitching culminated in the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, after which baseball lowered the mound and the game returned to an offensive-centered state. This broke down the arms of some of the great pitchers of the 1960s, such as Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal. It wasn't until the early 1980s that people began approaching the 300-plateau.

Gaylord Perry had 279 wins when the 1980s began. He would eventually win his 300th on May 6, 1982.
Steve Carlton had 265 wins when Perry won 300. He would join the club on September 23, 1983.
Tom Seaver won his 273rd game a day after Carlton won 300. He sealed his 300th win on August 4, 1985.
Phil Niekro was in the opposing dugout with 294 wins when Seaver reached the milestone. He joined the club on October 6, 1985.
Don Sutton had 295 wins at the end of the 1985 season. He would eventually hit 300 on June 18, 1986.
Nolan Ryan had only 244 wins when Sutton reached the milestone, but he persevered and won his 300th game on July 31, 1990.

When Ryan reached 300, Bert Blyleven had 279 wins and seemed like a good bet to get 300 wins, but he got hurt, missed all of 1991, and was never the same after that. He got only eight wins in 1992 and retired after getting cut from spring training in 1993, 13 wins away from 300.

Following Blyleven, the other great pitchers from the 1980s and the ones that seem to be on the fast track to 300 were Jack Morris, Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, and Roger Clemens. Morris had 191 wins when Ryan won 300, but he suffered a rapid decline after a 21-win 1992 season and was out of baseball by 1994 with only 254 wins. Valenzuela had 136 wins as of 7/31/1990 and had pitched a no-hitter earlier that year, but his career derailed due to injury after 1991 and never even became a threat for 200, finishing with only 173. Gooden had 111 wins and was only 25 when Ryan hit the 300 mark, but his drug addiction turned his career into a struggle for survival. He too missed 200, retiring with 194 wins. Clemens won his 109th game a day before Ryan won 300, but he began to struggle, winning only 40 games during a four-year-stretch from 1993-1996.

When those four pitchers got derailed, the chorus proclaiming the death of 300-win pitchers began again. It was because of the five-men rotation, they said. It was because of the rise of the bullpen. When Beckett Baseball Monthly gave their predictions about players with the best chances of cracking the three major milestones, they listed Clemens and Greg Maddux as the ones with the best chances, but even then they conceded their chances were slim.

But then the Rocket started winning again (either legitimately or not, but that's a tale for another time.) He won 21 games in 1997, 20 in 1998, and 20 more in 2001 to put himself at 280 at the start of the 2002 season. He would go on to win his 300th game on June 13, 2003. And Maddux kept winning consistently as well. He reached at least 15 wins every year between 1988 and 2004, putting together the longest such streak in baseball history. Along the way, he won his 300th game on August 7, 2004.

And after Maddux, who's next? Tom Glavine was the closest, but he was the same age as Maddux and was 50 wins off, and he won only 9 games in 2003. This led ESPN senior writer Jayson Stark to say: "But if you enjoy this sort of thing (this sort of thing being the presence of two active 300-game winners), our advice is: Savor it. Because if you gaze into the future, it's obvious that 300-game winners are about to get harder to locate than the Loch Ness Monster." But Glavine proved Stark wrong. He worked with pitching coach Rick Peterson to change his pitching approach, and that led to 13 wins in 2005 and 15 in 2006. He won his 300th on August 5, 2007.

And as soon as Glavine won his 300th game, the questions started arising: Will he be the last to get to 300? There was one guy who was 16 wins off, but he was out for the year with back surgery, and it seems unlikely that anybody can come back and win 16 games from a procedure like that. Beyond this, nobody seemed to be on a good pace. Surely the next 300-game winner is still in college (Stephen Strasburg, maybe?), in little league, or perhaps not even born yet...

Sources: This concludes Part I of the six-part series documenting Randy Johnson's 300th win. Baseball and Retrosheet were a lot of help in getting the information to put this together, but I'm more than indebted to the Advanced Search on ProQuest, which gave me access to articles for the New York Times dating back to 1829. I was able to get the news articles for every 300-win game except for Eddie Plank's, mostly because Plank reached 300 wins with the outlaw Federal League. And was very helpful for articles regarding the 300-win milestone in recent years.

And here's a snippet that I wrote out, but cut out because I had a better example. It was about the flaws of the win as a statistic:

"On the other hand, 51 pitchers got a total of 59 wins since 2000 while throwing no more than 1 pitch. That one pitch got them out of the inning in a tie game or a game where their team was losing, and then their team came right back to win the game. And of course, these 51 men got the win because they were the last to pitch before the team took the lead."

Part II: The Player

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