Let me begin this article by stipulating that I am well aware that individual pitcher wins mean less than they ever have in the history of major-league baseball. The rise of specialized bullpens and the desire by team management to limit starters’ innings to protect multi-million dollar investments are just two of many reasons why it really doesn’t matter what a pitcher’s won-lost record is.
Those facts and others surrounding various pitching milestones are touched on in this New York Times article by Tyler Kepner, in which he notes the milestone reached by Cubs lefthander Jon Lester this past week, his 150th win. Lester doesn’t think any pitcher will reach 300 wins again:
“It won’t happen,” said Lester, 33, who signed a six-year, $155 million contract before the 2015 season. “Pitch counts, specialized bullpens — and we don’t have to play as long. I was fortunate enough to sign this deal. I don’t have to grind out into my 40s to try to make more money to set myself up.”
The article goes on to note how pitchers are having their innings limited these days. No starter has thrown 250 innings in a regular season since 2011 (Justin Verlander), a milestone that used to be common.
“Absolutely, going into this season, that was part of the game plan,” Manager Joe Maddon said. “Everybody talks about the World Series; the year before that we went pretty deeply also, and that’s been my concern from the beginning: wear and tear, a lot of innings piled on. But I think we’ve been proactively trying to avoid overworking them early.”
This is a good thing and you have likely seen the early hooks Maddon has made throughout his time as Cubs manager. While this does preserve starters’ arms for later in the season, it can put pressure on bullpens. Only eight Cubs games this year have seen a starter go seven innings or longer (four by Lester, two by John Lackey and one each from Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks).
Those kinds of starts are down throughout baseball. In 2,070 total starts for pitchers so far in 2017, just 426 have been seven innings or longer (20.6 percent). That’s down significantly even from last year, when there were 1,097 such starts out of 4,856 opportunities (22.6 percent). 10 years ago, in 2007, that percentage was 28.9 (1,403 out of 4,862).
So this has, among other things, reduced the opportunity for a starting pitcher to record a win. Kepner’s article notes:
Going into Friday’s games, Lester ranked seventh on the career wins list among active pitchers, tied with Jered Weaver and trailing Bartolo Colon (235), C. C. Sabathia (230), John Lackey (180), Verlander (177), Zack Greinke (163) and Felix Hernandez (156).
The win is a flawed measure of performance in a small sample of games, but over time it does tend to resonate. Of the 24 pitchers who reached 300, all are in the Hall of Fame except Roger Clemens, whose ties to performance-enhancing drugs have complicated his candidacy.
There’s one pitcher not noted on Kepner’s list, and he’s pictured at the top of this article. All the pitchers on Kepner’s list are at least 31 years old. But Clayton Kershaw, who leads the major leagues in wins so far this year with 10 (including one Monday night), has 136 wins and is two years younger than the youngest pitcher on that list (King Felix).
Kershaw has been the best pitcher on the planet for several seasons and might well be on his way to his fourth Cy Young Award this year. With 10 wins in 15 starts, he could easily post another 10-12 in his remaining starts this year, likely 17 starts presuming he starts every fifth game of the Dodgers’ remaining 89.
At 145-148 wins before he hits 30 (he’ll get to that birthday milestone during spring training next year), I think Kershaw has a real shot at 300, if he so chooses. Lester might be right, that modern pitchers don’t have to pitch into their 40s, as several recent 300-game winners did (including Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine) to get to that milestone.
Difficult? Sure. Meaningful? Not as much as it used to be.
But if Clayton Kershaw gets to 300 wins a decade or so from now, it might be one of the most significant accomplishments in recent major-league history, as it’ll be difficult to reach for any of the other pitchers on the list above, with the possible exception of Verlander.
There will be other criteria Hall of Fame voters will have to look at in future years as they consider pitchers for induction.
And by the time he’s done, Kershaw — who’s only about four years or so away from another milestone, 3,000 strikeouts — just might be remembered as the best pitcher of all time.