300 Wins: The Hand of Lady Luck

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When it comes to pitching, 300 wins is the equivalent to 500 home runs; or, at least, this is what a certain school of thought espouses. It is the gold standard, the pinnacle of what any pitcher can accomplish. Winning 300 games involves a lot of dedication and a lot of practice. It means showing up to work every single day believing that a victory is a foregone conclusion. However, it also involves a great amount of luck. A pitcher can have the greatest curveball in the world, yet wind up on a team full of defunct bats or dreadful defense. There’s also the injury bug to take into account, and a whole host of other variables, premeditated or not.

Now, this piece is not meant to deride those pitchers enshrined in Cooperstown who have 300 wins. If anything, it proves their own dominance even more. That said, there are a few hurlers in today’s game who are nowhere close to the milestone and are destined for the Hall. We will be examining their careers and seeing where things “went wrong.” In other words, how a group of pitchers with significantly fewer than 300 wins have built such strong resumes.

300 Wins Example #1: Justin Verlander

We begin with Justin Verlander, a man who continues to pitch well even near his age-40 season. His 3,044 strikeouts are second to another pitcher on this list for most among active players. He’s led the league in the category five times and has had the lowest WHIP four times. His days with the Detroit Tigers are legendary. He took home Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, finishing in the top ten in Cy Young voting. In 2011, he pulled off a rarity, winning both the MVP and Cy Young Awards in the same season. Only one pitcher has done that since then. In 2019, at the age of 36, he won his second Cy Young Award. This one came with the Houston Astros.

This is definitely a Hall of Fame resume. However, Verlander only has 230 wins. One of the reasons for this is his 2008 season. Frankly, he had a mediocre year for a mediocre team, as the Tigers finished 74-88. His ERA+ dropped below 100 in a full season for the first time, and he posted a WHIP of over 1.400. His BB/9 rate was a rather concerning 3.9, stemming from a walk percentage near ten. Game logs from 2008 reflect his down season. In fact, during his first month, he won one game with an ERA right at 6.50. His trouble around the zone is reflected in the fact that only 7% of his strikes were swinging and 15% were looking. He also walked 18 batters in 36 innings. So, when it comes to Verlander, if his quest for 300 wins fizzles out, 2008 may be a major reason why.

300 Wins Example #2: Max Scherzer

Saying that New York Mets hurler Max Scherzer is a lock for the Hall of Fame is like saying skies are blue and grass is green. It’s simply an indisputable fact. Despite his appearance here, the eight-time All-Star has three Cy Young Awards to his credit. This goes with a World Series title and three consecutive top-ten finishes in MVP voting. He’s placed in the top five in Cy Young voting an astonishing eight times. The records continue as he is the active leader in career strikeouts (3,069) and is in the top five for WAR (66.5) and ERA+ (133). Despite this, the superstar remains, at the time of writing, six wins away from 200. He’s already 37, so reaching 300 wins seems like an impossibility.

A big part of this was the comparatively slow start to his career. For the first three years, he hovered around that part of the pitching spectrum that a lot of people shrug about. He went 9-11 for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009 before being traded as part of a three-team deal. Then, as he solidified himself in his new home of Detroit, he began winning more. It was in 2013 that he had his first breakout year (21-3, 2.90 ERA, 144 ERA+, 0.970 WHIP). This launched the Hall of Fame part of his career. However, it stands to reason that his first three seasons impacted his career negatively. While he may wind up with a plaque one day, one has to wonder where he might be now had he won more earlier in his career.

300 Wins Example #3: Clayton Kershaw

Our final examinee is Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw. Much like the two other examples, his credentials are well-earned. In fact, he and Scherzer read almost like mirror images of one another. Kershaw is also an eight-time All-Star and a three-time Cy Young Award winner. He’s the only other pitcher since Verlander in 2011 to win both the MVP and Cy Young trophies in the same season (2014). For four years in a row (2011-’14), Kershaw terrorized opposing batters to the tune of a 2.11 ERA and a staggering 172 ERA+. His ability to keep the ball in the park was amazing as well, giving up a mere 51 homers in 895 1/3 innings. In percentage terms, that’s a minuscule 1.2%.

Yet, once again, we find a pitcher whose stat line far outweighs his win total. His 189 wins are fourth among active pitchers, true. However, there are a few holes in his career that show why he hasn’t even cracked 200 triumphs. One of these is that, much like Scherzer, Kershaw had a little bit of a bumpy start. He won five games in his first season with an ERA a tad over 4.20. The next season was uneventful as well. It was 2010 that he finally achieved this goal, winning 13 contests. From then on, he took off, winning his first Cy Young in 2011 and posting his first 20+ win season. In 2018, he fell back below 10 wins for the first time since 2009. The pandemic of 2020 kept him to six wins, though he still managed a 2.16 ERA.

An Intriguing Milestone

These three are simple examples. There are a host of other pitchers within striking distance of 300 wins. The chances of these men achieving the goal is slim. However, it does make one ponder the milestone more than others in the game. 300 wins takes a lot of skill, but also a lot of luck. When it comes to things like 500 homers or 3,000 hits, being on a bad team won’t hinder that. The big bats of players like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, or Pete Rose weren’t silenced if their teams did not perform well. 300 wins, on the other hand, is an intriguing milestone simply because of everything that has to go right in order for it to happen. Injuries, landing on the right team, it all has to click. Whether or not it should be a measuring stick for Hall of Fame status is up to the individual. One thing’s for sure, it’s amazing when it does happen.

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Players Mentioned:

Justin Verlander, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Pete Rose, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer,