One of the baseball stories I get a little tired of, and one that is going to pop up again pretty soon, is the demise of the 300 game winner. In a few weeks Randy Johnson will win his 300th (he’s at 295 as I write), and there will be a trove of media stories about how pitchers don’t win as much any more, they’re not as tough as the old days, and that we may never see a 300 game winner again, at least not in our lifetimes.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on wins and other stuff to do with pitching, and I’m going to start sharing some of it with you. Here’s the first piece, and we’ll start with a chart:
From this, you can tell that I like ugly charts, and it’s probably too small to read. Click it to go to Flickr and see it larger if you wish.
This chart is showing you two things: the red dots are the year that a pitcher reached 300 wins (mostly one a year, in a few cases two reached in the same year), and the blue line is the number of active 300 game winners by year.
The blue line does need a little clarification: it means when a 300 game winner was pitching, not when a guy who would win 300 was pitching. For example, Greg Maddux won his 300th in 2004, so he counts from 2004-2008, the years he had 300 or more wins, but he doesn’t count from 1986-2003, the part of his career when he had fewer than 300.
What I am attempting to show here is scarcity. There have only been 23 300 game winners in baseball history. If you take the history of baseball as being from 1870-present, that’s about one every six years. If you count from 1888 (the first year someone won 300), it’s still only once every five years. But here’s something interesting: they appear to have some clustering. Take the last five years, for example, and you have three guys who made it. From 1983-90, you’d expect about one and a half, but you actually have six! The peaks of the blue lines show how clustered things seem to be.
Now, the point of all this was the meme that the 300 game winner is going the way of the dodo. The point I am making is that we’ve gone through a recent history where there have been more 300 game winners than ever before, and although this is a historical blip, somehow writers are assuming it has been the norm, and they’re thinking that things are going wrong. Fact is, there have been more 300 game winners in the last 25 years than in any 25 year period before. The only comparable time was the late 1800s, when a group hit 300, in the days when baseball was a lot different than today.
To suggest that 300 game winners are dying because we are dropping down from a peak is like suggesting that home runs are disappearing because we’re coming off recent records. We went from the 1930s to the 60s with just a single 300 game winner, and from the 30s to the 80s with just three. At those times you might have had a reasonable argument that the 300 game winner had disappeared, but they came back with a bang. Incidentally, this may in some ways devalue the 300 game winners of the 80s, because it suggests they were somehow lucky to be pitching in the time they were, where for whatever reason a group of guys made it to 300 together.
Next time I’ll show you how the 300 game winners got there. If you thought this chart was ugly, you’ll think the next one was drawn by my four year old.