MLB

The next 200-game winner after Adam Wainwright: Likely Gerrit Cole, then … nobody?

On the walk back from dropping kiddo off at school Monday morning, I started talking baseball with a neighbor, as often happens, in the context of Adam Wainwright going for the 200th win of his career. He asked me which milestone I thought would happen more often in the future, a pitcher winning 300 games or a batter reaching the 3,000-hit plateau. 

It was an easy choice, because the days of 300-game winners seems like a thing of the ancient past. Four players who retired between 2007-09 finished with 300-plus wins — Greg Maddux (355), Roger Clemens (354), Tom Glavine (305) and Randy Johnson (303) — but before that, nobody had reached the plateau since Nolan Ryan, late in the 1990 season. 

Truth is, Wainwright — who got his 200th later that evening, a thrilling 1-0 win during which he used his aching old arm and pushed the sun back into the sky and gave us one more day of summer with seven shutout innings — is part of a club that probably won’t have many future members, either. He’s the fifth active member of the club, which is led by 40-year-old Justin Verlander, at 255. He’s followed by Zack Greinke (224), Max Scherzer (214), Clayton Kershaw (209). Nobody in that group is getting to 300, or even close.

FAGAN: Wainwright reaches elusive milestone with throwback masterpiece

Who will be the next 200-game winner?

So here’s the more relevant question: Who’s the next to 200? 

Before we start looking at the potentials, let’s look at the combination of time and production necessary to get to 200 career wins.  

Average of 16 wins a season … 12.5 seasons
Average of 15 wins a season … 13.3 seasons
Average of 14 wins a season … 14.3 seasons
Average of 13 wins a season … 15.4 seasons

So, yeah. Lots of longevity is the first ingredient. That’s far from a given in today’s climate of max effort, high velocity and Tommy John surgeries. Aside from the members of the 200-win club, guess which active pitcher has the most seasons of at least 14 wins. 

Give up? It’s 39-year-old Charlie Morton with … five. Yep, five. 

Before we go any further, yes, pitcher wins are a highly flawed stat. Stupid, even. There are too many factors beyond the pitcher’s control involved in getting a win for the W to carry the same significance it did in the early days of baseball. I’ve written about this often, using 1989 Topps baseball cards and Joe Magrane. 

“We’ve seen that it isn’t necessarily the best number for pitcher,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told me before Monday’s game. “There are pitchers that have great seasons that don’t win a lot of games in the season. But it’s still clearly a signal of durability, getting deep into games, and that is something to behold. It’s just harder to do now, it’s harder to do, because the game changes. That doesn’t mean it’s worse. It just changes.”

As the smart baseball man said, it’s still a number of historical significance. If nothing else, looking at pitcher wins from the 1880 through the 1980s and contrasting them to current-day pitchers helps tell the story of how the game has changed. 

Case in point, here are the numbers of times an individual pitcher won at least 16 games in a season, in a couple of different decades.

1960-69: 194
1980-89: 181
2000-09: 177
2010-19: 145

This year, the MLB leader in pitcher wins is Spencer Strider, with 17, which puts 2023 on track to become just the fourth non-strike/pandemic season where no pitcher won at least 20 games. The others: 2017, 2009 and 2006. Justin Steele (16 wins) is the only other pitcher who has more than 15 this season. It’s not that pitchers are “worse” than they were back in the older days of the sport — far from it — but they’re used in a way that’s not conducive to picking up wins and losses.

“There’s still great pitchers. There’s really, really good pitchers. The quality of the pitcher has not gone down,” Counsell said. “… What’s changed is the velocity of pitchers, and what we ask of pitchers to do. It’s just changed.”

OK, so let’s get to the names. Which players are at least within shouting distance? Guess that depends on how strong the voice is, because nobody’s particularly close.

Closest players to 200 wins

Here’s a list of the top 10 active pitchers in career wins (unlike the Nationals, we’ve accepted that Stephen Strasburg will not pitch in the bigs again, whether or not he’s asked to report to camp next spring) …

1. Johnny Cueto (Age 37 season), 144 wins
2. Gerrit Cole (32), 143
3. Madison Bumgarner (33), 134
4. Lance Lynn (36), 134
5. Charlie Morton (39), 130
6. Chris Sale (34), 120
7. Corey Kluber (37), 116
8. Carlos Carrasco (36), 107
9. Wade Miley (36), 107
10. Ian Kennedy (38), 104

Of that group, Cole is the only one with a realistic shot. As you see, he’s the youngest in the top 10; the next-youngest guy, Bumgarner, was released in April with a 10.26 ERA and did not sign with a team the rest of the season. Sale, at 34, has only made 29 starts the past three seasons. Of the Age 36 club — Lynn, Carrasco and Miley — only Miley seems to have much left in the tank, in a Jamie Moyer sort of way. 

As for Cole, barring injury, it’s probably going to happen. He’s been as durable as any pitcher in the bigs and there’s no reason to believe he can’t continue to be effective into his late 30s — he’s likely to win this year’s AL Cy Young award, with a 13-4 record and an AL-best 2.81 ERA. For comparison’s sake, Wainwright had 119 wins at the end of his Age 32 season. If he maintains his recent production’s pace (roughly 14 wins a season), he could get there early in the 2028 season, which just happens to be his last year under contract with the Yankees. He’d be in his Age 37 season. 

After Cole, though? 

Do you hear those crickets, or is it just me?

Here’s a list of the top five pitchers ranked by wins who are in their Age 30 or younger season. You probably noticed there weren’t any in the Top 10 overall. 

1. Aaron Nola (30), 90 wins
2. Jose Berrios (29), 83
3. Eduardo Rodriguez (30), 80
4. Blake Snell (30), 71
5. Taijuan Walker (30), 69

Every single one of those pitchers would need a second half of their career that’s better than the first half, which is a big ask. Not impossible, of course, just a lot to ask. Look at the current group of 200-game winners, starting with their Age 31 seasons. Wainwright has 120 wins, Verlander has 118 wins, Scherzer has 109 wins and Greinke has 101. Kershaw has 56, but he’s still only 35.

Could Spencer Strider be next after Gerrit Cole?

Drop that age limit to guys currently in their Age 26 or younger season and the picture really gets painted with more clarity. We’ve gotten so used to talking about baseball’s young superstars doing incredible things — guys like Ronald Acuña Jr, Juan Soto, Julio Rodriguez, etc. — that maybe we haven’t noticed almost all of those guys are doing work on the offensive side of things. And when it comes to wins, the difference is stark. 

1. Julio Urias (26), 60
2. Logan Webb (26), 41
3. Shane McClanahan (26), 33
4. Logan Gilbert (26), 32
5 (tie). Cristian Javier (26), 29
5 (tie). Spencer Strider (24), 29 

Of all the pitchers on this list, Strider is probably next in line on the list of possibility behind Cole. At first, that seems silly to say, considering he has just the 29 wins. But he’s younger than the others, and when you consider that part of getting those Ws depends on your offense scoring a lot of runs, then you look at all the young hitters the Braves have locked up for at least the next five years, it starts to make sense. Strider has the 17 wins despite a 3.73 ERA, meaning there is a margin for error with his starts that doesn’t exist for others. 

I asked Cardinals manager Oli Marmol about the gap between Wainwright and the next group of pitchers on the career wins list. He sat back in his chair. 

“I mean, he’s done it for two decades, man,” he said. “That’s a long time.”

He asked who was next. I told him Cueto, then Cole, and how far back they were. Marmol smiled.

“That’s real. That’s real,” he said. “It’s awesome, though.”

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