Why Andy Pettitte's 250 Wins will Not Be the New Career Benchmark

on June 09 2013 10:14 PM
Why Andy Pettitte's 250 Wins will Not Be the New Career Benchmark

Andy Pettitte added a nice little note to his Hall of Fame resume over the weekend, racking up his 250th career win after throwing 7.1 solid innings in the New York Yankees’ 3-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Saturday. 

As with any pitching milestone of its type, Pettitte’s achievement has re-ignited the debate over whether or not we will ever again see a pitcher reach the 300-win mark that has long been considered an automatic ticket to Cooperstown.  Pitchers seem to be throwing fewer pitches in fewer innings than ever before, and it seems like not a week goes by where some hot new phenom breaks down well before his time due to some random arm ailment.

But I’m here to tell you that we will see more players who win 300 games, as the single biggest component in whether or not a player can hit the milestone has not changed.

If the twelve post-1947 pitchers who have reached the milestone are any indication, there are many types of players who are capable of winning 300 games.

Warren Spahn did so as a classic workhorse whose 382 complete games are the highest total of any post-Dead Ball Era pitcher.  On the other hand, the four most recent 300-game winners had 383 complete games combined in their careers.  So clearly, the milestone is not reliant on finishing what you start.

Strikeouts do seem important, as the recent list of 300-game winners includes nine of the top eleven in career punchouts.  But this group includes several starters (Greg Maddux, Don Sutton, and Phil Niekro) who were not exactly regarded as strikeout artists at the time, while one of the most recent to reach 300 wins (Tom Glavine) never led the league in strikeouts during his career and fell well short of the all-time leaderboard.  So clearly, finesse pitchers still have a chance.

There is also no magic number when it comes to run prevention.  Tom Seaver is the only recent 300-game winner with a career ERA under 3.00, while both Sutton and Wynn have adjusted ERAs that are stunningly close to the league averages during their careers.

And for every pitcher like Spahn, Seaver, Maddux, and Roger Clemens that dominated almost from day one, there are others (Wynn, Niekro, Randy Johnson) who did not seem to figure things out until their late-20s.

So what is the one thing that all of these pitchers have in common that explains how they managed to reach 300 wins?

Simple:  They showed up for work every day.

One of the underappreciated changes in the modern game is that starting pitchers actually having longer careers than ever before, allowing them to compensate for fewer starts and throwing fewer innings in a season by pitching more seasons overall.   

This is a major reason why the all-time list for career starts has a decidedly modern flavor.  Of the 22 pitchers with 600 or more career starts, only four (Cy Young, Pud Galvin, Walter Johnson, and Pete Alexander) are pre-integration pitchers. 

On the other hand, each and every one of the post-integration 300-game winners made at least 600 starts in his career.  This, more than anything else, is the reason why modern starters have been able to get to 300 wins.  As long as pitchers keep doing that, we will continue seeing 300-game winners.  It could be a few years, but this would hardly be the first sizable gap in between players hitting the milestone.

Which brings me back to Andy Pettitte, as this idea could have easily applied had he not elected to take a retirement detour two years ago.  After all, Pettitte’s 250th win came in his 501st career start – virtually identical to the 300/600 pace.