By Gary Hill
If you take the time to scroll through a list of endangered species, you are sure to find the California condor, Asiatic cheetah, Chinese giant salamander, and the 300-game winner. Only four pitchers have joined the exclusive 300 Club since 1990. Three-hundred wins has traditionally been seen as the automatic key to open the Baseball Hall of Fame lock, but the prestigious mark seems to becoming more elusive as each year passes.
Felix Hernandez claimed his 100th MLB victory Monday night in Houston thanks to another dominant effort. His fastball was furious and his changeup danced like famous ballerina Anna Pavlova. Felix became just the 67th pitcher in MLB history to reach the 100-win mark by his age 27 season, which begs an important question: Is 300 wins possible? Let history be our guide for the answer.
The following is the list of all 24 300-game winners along with their age when they captured their 100th win. Note: Some ages appear as age seasons instead of actual age. For example, a player could have won 100 as a 28-year-old, but still considered in his 27-year-old season.
It should be noted that only five other pitchers since 1969 have reach 100 wins at a younger age than Felix, and none of them reached 300. In fact, only Bert Blyleven (287) won more than the 209 of Vida Blue.
Clearly, longevity plays a key role in climbing to the 300-win summit. Since 1982, all 10 pitchers who have made the list pitched into their 40s. None of the 10 (Maddux, Clemens, Carlton, Ryan, Sutton, Niekro, Perry, Seaver, Glavine or Johnson) reached 100 wins before the age of 27. The 10 pitchers as a group retired at an average age just a touch above 43. Phil Niekro spun his knuckler to the dish until he was 48. Randy Johnson won more games in his 40’s than he did in his 20’s.
It is interesting to examine how all 10 racked up wins as their careers progressed. Johnson, Clemens and Ryan all maintained superior stuff ridiculously late into their careers. Ryan’s last year was 1993, and his strikeout rate per nine innings the previous two seasons were 8.98 and 10.56. Johnson maintained a rate of 8.46 and 11.44 the years before his finale. Clemens sat at 8.10 and 7.88 before he called it quits.
Niekro did not win his 100th game until the age of 34, but the knuckle ball carried him to 300 wins before retiring just short of 50 years old. Glavine and Maddux were ultra-control freaks. Perry and Sutton leaned to the control/spitter side of the equation. Seaver and Carlton are more difficult to classify because they went through more of a pitching transformation late in their careers than did the three flamethrowers mentioned previously.
If history is the guide, then Felix will need to pitch into his 40s to get to 300. In 2005 he threw his fastball at an average of almost 96 miles per hour. This season his fastball has been sitting at 90.5 mph. Yet he’s more effective than ever thanks to his changeup. He has already made the transition from a young thrower who relied on pure octane to a pitcher who uses his change as his primary weapon. Can Felix get to 300? It is possible. He will need to pitch for a long time and ride his changeup all the way there.