When Randy Johnson won his 300th game earlier this year, the notion that Johnson would be the last pitcher to win 300 games began to gain credibility. The rationale for this claim is that pitchers face tougher offenses, pitch fewer innings, and win 20 games in a season less frequently than in the past. The point is generally further argued by noting how few young pitchers today seem on a pace to get them to 300 wins. Given all this, it is undoubtedly true that we will never see another 300 game winner-until we do.
All of the arguments explaining why there will never be another 300 game winner are reasonable, but taken together they don’t add up because they are too myopic and lack perspective. Clearly top pitchers win 20 games a year far less frequently than they used to. Moreover win totals of 25 or higher, while rare since the 1930s, are now almost never seen. Pitchers get more no decisions; offenses are tougher and early leads are lost a lot meaning that five or six inning wins are harder to get. Jumping from these truisms to a belief that there will never be another 300 game winner, however, reveals a striking lack of imagination and a deep ahistoricism.
To better understand this ahistorism, it is useful to think back to an event that happened 87 years ago this season when Pirate star Max Carey stole the 500th base of his career. Incidentally, Carey did this in the middle of a season in which he would go on to steal 51 bases while getting caught only twice. Baseball was different then; and it is unlikely that this accomplishment drew much attention. Carey was a very good player, but other stars such as Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins were still playing and had stolen more bases than Carey. Moreover, 500 stolen bases was not all that unusual at the time. Carey was the 19th player to reach this milestone, including numerous now forgotten stars of the 19th century. By the late 1920s, however, observers and fans probably noticed that the stolen base was becoming a considerably less important offensive weapon and that nobody had passed the 500 stolen base mark since Carey. Perhaps some speculated that nobody would ever steal 500 bases again.
By the 1940s and 1950s, 500 stolen bases must have seemed like a milestone from another era as stealing even 40 bases a year was very unusual and players often led their league with less than 30 stolen bases. A plausible argument could have been made at that time that nobody would ever steal 500 bases again; and nobody did-until Maury Wills. In 1968, Wills stole his 500th base. It took 46 years, a long time to be sure, but far from forever, after Max Carey for another player to steal 500 bases. In the 40 years since Wills stole his 500th base, 16 players have reached this milestone.
Sometime between 1922, in the early years of the live ball era and 1969, the tail end of the pitching dominated 1960s, the game changed. As pitching began to dominate during the 1960s, playing for one run became a more sensible strategy and stolen bases began to come back. Once stolen bases began to come back, players whose strongest suit was stealing bases were promoted quickly and allowed to play at the big league level. Players with Omar Moreno’s, for example, skill set would not have stuck too long in the period from 1930-1960. Additionally, power hitters, perhaps most archetypically Willie Mays, and later Bonds pere and fils, started stealing bases as well, a skill that had previously not been sought or noticed in home run hitters.
The revival of the stolen base has bearing on the 300 win debate because it demonstrates how the game can change. Baseball will change in the next years as well. It is not easy to know precisely what these changes might be but some possibilities are evident. As pitch counts become almost ubiquitous, it is not impossible that careers will last longer, allowing more pitchers to pitch into their 40s and preventing some career ending injuries. With pitchers throwing fewer pitchers per start, some teams may begin experimenting with the four man rotation which was common for much of the 20th century. This would significantly increase the number of starts a healthy pitcher would get in a season, from 32 to 40, which over the course of a 20 year career could mean somewhere between 50-100 extra wins. Lastly, it is possible that teams will begin to keep fewer pitchers on their roster thus giving starting pitchers more opportunities to pitch into the later innings and increase the likelihood of getting a decision.
Unknowable future changes in the game are not the only reason we will likely see another 300 game winner in the not too distant future. The career of the game’s greatest base stealer, Rickey Henderson, is also instructive in this regard. Among the best base stealers of the post-war period were Lou Brock, Tim Raines, Wills and Vince Coleman, all of whom stole well over 500 bases. However, Rickey Henderson’s accomplishments on the base paths tower over Brock, Wills, Raines and everybody else.
Rickey Henderson is important to the issue of future 300 game winners because he demonstrates how the most special players can change the game and the record book. Henderson, who began his career in the height of the stolen base boomlet of the 1970s and 1980s, but ended his career when the stolen base was no longer a frequently used offensive weapon, rewrote the record book with regards to stolen bases. He didn’t just set the record for stolen bases, but outpaced previous record holder Lou Brock by 478 stolen bases. Henderson was able to steal so many bases not just because he was a great base stealer but because he played for a very long time, possessed important related skills, notably the ability to get on base, stayed healthy for most of his career and played the first part of his career at a time when base stealing was at a historic high. In short, Henderson was a player of extraordinary and unprecedented talent whose career was a unique combination of timing and skills which could not have been anticipated.
To believe that nobody will ever win 300 games again is to believe not only that the game will be stagnant with no future changes that will effect pitching statistics, but that no pitcher comparable to Rickey Henderson will emerge-a pitcher so unusual that older precedents will no longer apply. Baseball, however, has always changed and evolved and has always produced sui generis stars with unique skills and abilities. This latter point should be obvious in any discussion about Randy Johnson. After all, nobody, as Mel Brooks might have said, anticipates six foot ten inch skinny lefties who are able to pitch into their mid-40s.