Baseball is still mourning the loss of one of its all-time greats, Phil Niekro. Not only was he a great person and ambassador for the game, but he was one of its greatest pitchers. He did something only 18 pitchers have ever done, striking out 3,000 or more in his career. But he also did something that only 24 have done – win 300 games. That makes him one of only ten pitchers ever to be a member of both the 3,000 Strikeout Club and the 300 Win Club.
It is surprising that anyone would downplay membership in either. The membership rosters of both clubs are thin in a vacuum, but when considering that 6,696 different people have started a major league game as a pitcher, those numbers become microscopic – 18 out of 6,696 and 24 out of 6,696 makes 0.3% and 0.4%, respectively.
But let’s focus on the 300 Win Club even further. Other than Roger Clemens, who is still on the ballot, membership in the Club has meant an automatic entry to the Hall of Fame. It is not hard to see why. When eliminating everyone who pitched at all in the 1800s – some of whom started 50, 60, or even 70 games in a season – membership drops to 17. Prior to the end of World War I, the top-notch pitchers regularly started 40-plus games in a season. Taking away everyone whose career ended prior to the end of World War I knocks out two more. Modern-day pitching rules, with minor exceptions, became what they are today when the Live Ball Era began around 1920. Removing the two pitchers whose careers spanned both eras thins the herd even further to 13.
Joining the 300 Win Club Has Always Been Difficult
The most recent of those 13 to win his 300th game was Randy Johnson, who did so in 2009. One common sentiment among baseball fans is that we will never see another member get added to the 300 Win Club. A common statement seen is “the way the game is played now, it’ll never happen.” Another is “it’s now so hard to do.”
However, it has always been hard to do. If a pitcher were to average 20 wins per season, it would take 15 years to reach 300 wins. If a pitcher were to average 15 per season, it would take 20 years. Keep in mind, though, that these are averages. Pitchers rarely start their careers with their peak production. Furthermore, unless they retire early, they always see a decline in performance at the end of their careers. That means that a pitcher needs enough seasons with more than those win marks to make up for those with fewer.
No one in the Live Ball Era has ever had 15 20-win seasons. Warren Spahn came the closest with 13. The next two closest – Jim Palmer and Lefty Grove – have eight. No one in this era has had 20 15-win seasons, either. The top two in that category are outliers – Greg Maddux (18) and Spahn (16), and both won more than 350 games. Beyond that, no one has had more than 13, and the three to do it are all in the 300 Win Club – Niekro, Tom Seaver, and Gaylord Perry.
Future Members of the 300 Win Club
Between 1924 and 1982, only three pitchers joined the Club – Lefty Grove, Spahn, and Early Wynn –and Grove was the only one in a nearly 40-year stretch (1924-1961). Six more – Perry, Steve Carlton, Seaver, Niekro, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan – crossed the threshold between 1982 and 1990. It took 13 more seasons before anyone else won their 300th, and that came in 2003 when Clemens did it. He was one of four to win his 300th game between 2003 and 2009. Those four – Clemens, Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Johnson – are the last to do it to date.
Are there any active pitchers who have even a remote chance of joining the 300 Win Club? There are, but little can go wrong. The ninth- and tenth-place guys on the active career wins list (Rick Porcello and David Price) have 150 after 12 seasons. Since Porcello is 31 and Price is 34, we can effectively rule them out. Three pitchers – Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, and Cole Hamels – are in the 160s. They are all in the twilight of their careers, with Hernandez running on fumes. Each of them would have to exceed their career averages for several years in order to make it, so they’re out.
That leaves the top five – Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer. Kershaw and Scherzer each have 175. Lester has 193, Greinke has 208, and Verlander has 226. For any of them to win 300 – especially after they lost out on 20 starts in 2020 – will obviously be difficult. However, to have at least one of them win 300 is not impossible.
Verlander entered 2020 with 225 wins, and since he had averaged 17 wins per season between 2016 and 2019, he looked like he had at least a halfway-decent chance. He was entering 2020 at the age of 37. Averaging 15 wins per season for five years would have given him exactly 300, and he would have been 41 when reaching the feat. That was not at all far-fetched.
Then the pandemic wiped out nearly two thirds of the season. When Verlander returned, he won his first start but strained his forearm in the process. That canned the rest of his season. To make matters worse for him, he had Tommy John surgery in the offseason and probably will not return until 2022. If he comes back in April of 2022, he’ll be 39. Averaging 15 wins per season for five years would give him 301 wins in his career; 17 per season over the same stretch would give him 311. This would be in 2026, when he’ll be 43.
Another pitcher whose path to 300 grew much more difficult with the debacle known as 2020 is Greinke. He was on a roll between 2012 and 2019, riding a .721 winning percentage to a 129-50 record. Over that span, he averaged 16 wins per year. Even the latter half of that (2016-2019), which kicked in when he started with the Arizona Diamondbacks at the age of 32, still saw him average 16 wins per year. He entered 2020 with 205 career wins. Continuing that average for six more seasons would have had him reaching the 300-win mark at the tail end of 2025, when he’ll be 41.
The goofy 2020 season did not do Greinke any favors. He went 3-3 with a 4.03 ERA – his highest in 10 years. He will need to bounce back in 2021 in order to have any chance to hit 300 wins. He needs 92 more wins. Averaging 16 wins per season would have him reaching the mark 3/4 of the way through the 2026 season; averaging 15 gets him there toward the beginning of 2027.
Lester, who will turn 37 on January 7, is third amongst active players on the career win list with 193 in 15 seasons. Between 2016 and 2019, he averaged 16 wins per year. However, he struggled in 2020, going 3-3. His last start of the season – September 26 against the Chicago White Sox – was a nightmare that pushed his season ERA up to 5.16. He is currently a free agent who is not rumored to be going anywhere as of this writing. If anyone were to sign him, he would take seven years to reach 300 wins if he averages 16 wins per year. He’d be 44 at that point.
There is a tie for fourth place on the active career wins list between Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, who each have 175. Scherzer, who debuted in 2008, was one of the top pitchers in the 2010s. From 2016 to 2019, Scherzer averaged 16 wins per season. Had he won 16 games in 2020, he would be sitting at 186. However, he won five.
If he had won only five in a normal season, this would be cause for concern, but we all know that 2020 was a fluke. If Scherzer were to average 16 wins a year, it would take him until around August or September of 2028 to notch his 300th. He’ll turn 43 in July of that season. Averaging 15 per year, which is what he’s done since his breakout season in 2010, gets him there at the beginning of 2029. Either way, he’d have to pitch well into his 40s to join the 300 Win Club.
Kershaw, who will turn 33 on March 19, is the youngest member of this quintet. He also had a better 2020 season than any of the other four, going 6-2 with a 2.16 ERA (50 ERA-minus) and a ridiculous 0.840 WHIP. From 2016 to 2019, he averaged 14 wins per season – but take this with a grain of salt. He also had back trouble the entire time, so he averaged 26 starts per season instead of the standard 32-35. When applying that average to 34 starts, his average wins per year runs to 19.
If Kershaw were to average either 14 or 15 wins per season until he hit 300 wins, it would take him until 2029. Sixteen or seventeen per season would get him to the milestone in 2028; 18 per year would get him there in 2027. His ages during those seasons would be 41, 40, and 39, respectively. Although it all depends on the health of his back, none of this is unrealistic.
Many will immediately think that it will be impossible for Verlander, Greinke, Scherzer, or Kershaw to reach 300 due to how long it will take to get there. They’d have to pitch until they were in their 40s. In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast!” Look at the 13 Live Ball Era members of the 300 Win Club. Here is how old they were when they won their 300th game:
|Lefty Grove – 41||Don Sutton – 41|
|Warren Spahn – 40||Nolan Ryan – 43|
|Early Wynn – 43||Roger Clemens – 40|
|Gaylord Perry – 43||Greg Maddux – 38|
|Steve Carlton – 38||Tom Glavine – 41|
|Tom Seaver – 40||Randy Johnson – 45|
|Phil Niekro – 46|
Everyone except Maddux and Carlton was over 40 when he notched his 300th win. Some were running on fumes, holding onto their careers just long enough to join the Club.
Having said all this, the active player with the best chance to join the 300 Win Club is Kershaw simply due to his age compared to the others. The second-best chance probably goes to Scherzer, who could do it if he returns to his 2016-2019 form, but he would have to pitch that way for eight more seasons. When 2019 ended, Greinke and Verlander each had an outside chance of joining the Club – with Verlander having a better chance than Greinke – but losing out on the 2020 season greatly hurt their chances. Verlander missing all of 2021 makes his odds even lower.
300 Win Club Is No Small Feat
It is almost impossible to overstate how big of an accomplishment 300 wins in a career is. To even win 200, let alone 250, is difficult enough as it is. This is why 300 wins has never been a minimum to get into the Hall of Fame but – unless PEDs have clouded a career – has always been a guarantee of making it to Cooperstown. No one can just “be a compiler” and win 300. It takes around two decades – sometimes two and a half – of consistently solid production to reach this goal.
Verlander, Greinke, Scherzer, and Kershaw are probably the four best pitchers of the last decade. They have given between 13 and 17 seasons of consistently solid production, yet each would still have to have a lot go in their favor in order to join the 300 Win Club. While it is not impossible for us to have another 300-game winner, it will certainly be difficult.
Just like it’s always been.
Members of the 300 Win Club, in the order they joined:
Pud Galvin, Tim Keefe, Mickey Welch, Old Hoss Radbourn, John Clarkson, Kid Nichols, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank, Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Early Wynn, Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson