08/07/2004 7:48 PM ET
No. 300 as amazing now as ever
As game changes, feat becomes increasingly rare
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
It was a poignant, memorable highlight of this summer's All-Star Game festivities. Active players with 500 career homers participated in the Home Run Derby in front of a gallery that included all 10 other living members of the 500 Club.
In suitably solemn tones, fans were reminded of witnessing a parade of sports' most exclusive club.
Well, with all due respect, we now beg to differ.
"Most exclusive" has to be reserved for the club which has just initiated Greg Maddux.
For one thing, a reunion of all living 300-game winners would number only eight -- testament to the feat having been thinly spread over the continuum of baseball.
And ignore that the once-and-again Cubbie pushes 300-win enrollment to 22, a few weeks after Ken Griffey Jr. became only the 20th in the 500-homer circle.
Membership in the 300-win club is so exclusive because it is finite. New wings will continue to be added to the 500-homer club (Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, etc.), but Maddux brings up the rear of 300-win lineage.
Maddux's ascension comes wrapped in novelty.
He follows in the footsteps of Roger Clemens' arrival last June, a very rare instance of pitchers making it in consecutive seasons.
Also, Maddux finessed his way into the fraternity. Unlike modern predecessors (Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, The Rocket), Maddux can't fire the ball through a wall -- but he can certainly hit a dime taped to it.
Mostly, however, the occasion is unique because once the gate to the Hall of Fame clangs shut behind Maddux's generation, we will never see it again.
Greg Maddux became the first NL pitcher to win 300 games since Steve Carlton in 1983. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
Never say "never again?" That might be good advice, generally. But the claim can be made confidently when it comes to the subject of winning 300 Major League Baseball games.
The marvel of qualifying for the 300-win club is verified by the fact only 22 have made it out of the thousands who, at least theoretically, have tried. Where Maddux is concerned, however, that's just the start of it.
Maddux did not thunder into the circle; he tap-danced there. He has run a steady marathon, not occasional wind-sprints. He has been the Hank Aaron of 300-game winners.
Just as The Hammer was celebrated for a consistent career that never peaked above 47 homers for a season but wound up reaching 755, Maddux never broke through 20 (albeit posting that exact figure twice over a decade ago) but reached 15 in a record 16 consecutive seasons.
Now, that clockwork dependability has netted the ultimate payoff, and in record time.
At 38, Maddux is the youngest 300-game winner of the post-World War II era. The only one even in his neighborhood is Steve Carlton, who was 38 years, nine months and a day old when he banked No. 300 on Sept. 23, 1983.
No one else is close to Maddux, who will not turn 39 until the 2005 season is underway. The other nine 300-game winners since 1941 were all 40-plus.
So Maddux lifted off earlier than most, and now orbits in a pitching stratosphere out of reach for this and future generations.
Always the epitome of endurance and consistency, the 300-game winner has been pushed into extinction by bullpen relays, pitch counts and preventive sports medicine.
Present elite left-handed company possibly excepted, of course. Tom Glavine (258 wins into the 2004 All-Star break) is a longshot and Randy Johnson (240) faces prohibitive odds, but isn't yet off the board.
As for anyone else ever joining the exclusive club ... forget it -- not gonna happen.
Winning 300 games has never been a very accessible plateau in the modern game to begin with. Of the 22 at the pinnacle, seven reached it prior to 1900. Two others made it in the pre-War era -- that's World War I -- meaning there were already nine 300-game winners by the time the American League marked its 15th anniversary in 1916.
The portrait of 300-game winners was distorted by a remarkable decade in the 1980s, when, in quick succession, six pitchers posted the magic number. But getting there has never been easy, few have made it throughout baseball's many distinct eras and certainly rarer have been those who have stormed into the circle with the still-prime-time effectiveness of a Maddux.
Actually, the demise of the 300-game winner can be traced to a single late-'80s development. What happened? Dennis Eckersley happened.
Eckersley, ironically, was himself on target for 300 wins prior to landing in Oakland in 1987. Having already been a rotation anchor for three different teams, he had 151 wins at the age of 31 -- the exact number as Nolan Ryan.
But then A's manager Tony La Russa inserted him into his bullpen, set him up with a shuttle of relievers with defined roles, and made it all work to perfection. Eckersley became a Hall of Famer, and the La Russa Method became a persuasive blueprint for today's game.
The Eck Line marks the beginning of baseball's post-300 win era.
Significantly, but hardly coincidentally, Clemens (1983), Maddux (1984) and hopefuls Glavine (1984) and Johnson (1982) all became pros and were developed in an environment without Eck's influence.
In other words, no pitcher whose career began after Eckersley & Co. reinvented the post-seventh inning game is even a remote threat to winning 300.
Extrapolating age and current wins, the prime post-Eck candidates are Pedro Martinez (175 wins at 31), Mike Mussina (208 at 34) and Andy Pettitte (154 at 31). To get there, Pedro would have to average 20 wins until he's 38, Mussina until he's 39 and Pettitte until he's 38.
Doable? That's a trick scenario, because 20-game winners themselves are endangered. Martinez has done it twice in 12 years, Pettitte also twice and Mussina never. The same factors that preclude future 300-game winners have elevated a 15-win season to the status once reserved for 20-game winners. So add a couple of years to each pitcher's timetable.
And about those factors ...
The five-man rotation, a '70s innovation, is usually the first thing cited. As Maddux did the math, "In a four-man, pitchers get 40-45 starts, compared to 33-36. In 10 years, that's 60 starts. That could mean 30 wins. Some pitchers who last longer are getting 100 fewer starts with a five-man."
In reality, this has nothing to do with it. Today's standard is 35 starts. But that was also the typical workload of Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and other 300-game winners. Warren Spahn, considered one of the throwbacks to four-man rotations, started more than 36 games precisely twice in his 21-season, 363-win career.
It's not how many you start, but how many you finish. And that's where the Eck Line is drawn.
Maddux's 103 complete games are by far the fewest of any 300-game winner; at that, he has gone the route only 14 times the last six seasons. The first 13 pitchers to reach 300 wins since 1900 averaged 292 complete games.
In a world where a "quality start" is defined by six innings, all those late-game decisions are being vultured by relievers.
Signposts of the post-300 era:
Baseball's two freshest franchises, Arizona and Tampa Bay, combined for 115 complete games through their first six seasons of competition. After their sixth seasons, the Mets alone had 227 complete games, the Angels 178, and the Blue Jays 219.
Through the first half of the 2004 season, Major League teams combined for 133 shutouts -- but only 74 complete games; even on their best days, starting pitchers have short leashes.
Prior to the 2004 All-Star break, the Majors had also produced 19 games that ended in a 1-0 score -- and involved an astounding total of 108 pitchers; so an average of over three relievers were shuttled even into these minimal games.
"The changing game makes it tougher and tougher for starting pitchers," says Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "The emphasis is on winning, but not necessarily with the starting pitcher."
In 2003, Roy Halladay, Bartolo Colon and Tim Hudson were the only Major League pitchers to top 240 innings. In 1986, the last pre-Eck season, 18 topped that figure.
If bullpens shorten games, the urge to coddle valuable arms shortens stays in the rotation, and seven-figure contracts shorten careers. Given today's salary structure, there is no financial incentive to pitch into 300 territory, and rare is the pitcher driven on by competitive fires alone.
As rare as dinosaurs, which, in due time, also became extinct.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.