June 3, 2009

Pardon the Inanity

BI should probably preface this by saying I love ESPN's Pardon the Interruption. I watch it every day, religiously, and if my DVR doesn't pick it up for some reason, I am seriously bummed. But sometimes it's clear that while Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are seriously entertaining, they don't necessarily know what they are talking about. Especially when it comes to baseball.

Case in point: With Randy Johnson closing in on 300 victories, they discussed whether the Big Unit was going to be the last 300-game winner ever in baseball.
Tony Kornheiser: 'Ever' is a long time, but it looks to me like for the next 30 or 40 years, yeah.(1) I mean there are four guys now with over 200. Jamie Moyer's not getting 300. John Smoltz has got 210, he's not getting 300. Pedro's not in the league at the moment, and Andy Pettitte is 37, he's not going to get 300.(2) So you look down the road at Sabathia and Santana, cuz they've got over 100.(3) ...

Michael Wilbon: Sabathia's the only guy.(4)

TK: But here's the thing. The game's not in your control anymore. Because you are taken out in the seventh or the eighth inning.(5) ...

MW: Yes...

TK: Santana last year lost a potential of seven wins 'cause the Mets' bullpen couldn't get it done. I don't see it.

MW: That's the point. It's never going to happen again, just like 400's never going to happen.(6) You can look back when Walter Johnson made it to 417...

TK: 400's never happening.

MW: ... It's just never going to happen.

TK: Never...

MW: No it's never. But he had 500 complete games pitched. The relief pitcher means no more 300 ever.(7) Never, ever, ever, ever.

TK: Well also, you used to start every fourth day in the rotation...

MW: Now it's fifth.(8)

TK: Now it's five full starters, and sometimes they hold you out for another reason.

MW: That's right.

TK: You get at most 35 starts. Robin Roberts, Fergie Jenkins, those guys started 45 games a year. So it's not going to happen.(9)

MW: They started 8 and 9 more games a year.

TK: It's not going to happen.

MW: Bye-bye to 300 victories, Tone. It's over. Done.(10)
In a word, preposterous! Let's go frame-by-frame.

1. Of all the completely ludicrous things these guys said here, this one might take the cake. Kornheiser's position, that is might be 30 or 40 years until we see this milestone, is basically that the next 300-game winner likely hasn't even been born yet. How in the world can he think that not only is there no potential 300-game winner active, but that such a player won't enter the league for another 10-20 years?

The longest drought in baseball history between 300 game winners is 20 seasons, between Lefty Grove in 1941 and Warren Spahn in 1961. For arguments sake, let's break baseball history 35-year blocks; because next year is season number 140 -- and we know there will be no additional 300-game winners anyway -- I'll include it to make everything even. From 1871-1905, there were seven pitchers who won 300 games. From 1906-1940, four more joined the club;1941-1975, three; and 1976-2010, ten. And yet Kornheiser thinks that it might be 40 years until the next one? While this era has been particularly bountiful, as long as baseball is still around for the duration, I guarantee we'll see a handful of others before then.

2. Kornheiser's reasoning that there are only four 200-game winners now, making a 300-game winner completely infeasible, is horribly flawed. Check out the active career wins leaders in 1994, the year after Nolan Ryan retired, with the pitchers' age in parentheses:
Jack Morris (39) 254
Dennis Martinez (39) 219
Charlie Hough (46) 216
Bob Welch (37) 211
That's right. Just four 200-game winners, none of whom had a legitimate shot at 300 -- sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? And yet here we are, a mere 15 years later -- What? Not 30 or 40? -- and Johnson is poised to become the fourth new member of the 300-win club since 1994, joining Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine.*

* From here on out, I'll call them the Factual Four, because sportswriters in 1994 were saying the exact same things that the PTI guys said yesterday -- that the 300-game winner would be extinct, despite a mountain of evidence that indicated that would not be the case -- and these four did, in fact, win 300 games.

How in the world did this happen? Read on.

3. Finally, a hint of sanity. Of course Santana (116 wins at 30) and Sabathia (122 at 28) have a shot. So do Roy Halladay (140 at 32) and Roy Oswalt (131 at 31). Even lesser lights like current/former White Sox hurlers Mark Buehrle (128 at 30), Javier Vazquez (131 at 32), and Jon Garland (not bloody likely, but still at 110 wins at 29) have a shot. As do 28-year-olds Carlos Zambrano and Jake Peavy, who are at 99 and 91, respectively. And I'll even throw in Josh Beckett (95 at 29) for good measure.

Because the key to winning 300 games isn't necessarily how many wins a player has right now, it's how many he can pick up late in his career. Quite obviously, the key is longevity, and the number of victories a guy can collect as he moves past his supposed prime. Since his age 30 season, Johnson has won a whopping 232 games; Maddux won 205, Clemens 202, and Glavine 181. On average, that's roughly 200 wins after 30. If even one of the 10 pitchers I mentioned in the previous paragraph does that, we'll have another 300-game winner in 10 or 15 years.

4. C'mon Mike. Sabathia's the only one with a shot? While he might be the best bet, the previous paragraph will attest that many guys -- including some that I did not mention -- have a chance, and I'm guessing three or four currently active pitchers will get to 300.

5. The "no chance because they're taken out of the seventh or eighth inning" argument just doesn't hold water. Here are some relevant numbers: 39, 29, 23. Those are the complete game totals, respectively, for Clemens, Maddux, and Glavine from their age 30 seasons on. They weren't finishing games, either, and yet they were able to add about 200 wins to their bottom line. Next!

6. Hey, good job guys -- 400 wins is highly unlikely. Even Clemens and Maddux both fell about 50 short. Plus it hasn't happened since 1926, when it occurred for only the second time. Unless there is a fundamental shift in baseball's thinking -- like moving back to four- or even three-man rotations -- 400 wins won't be sniffed. It's a mistake to say never, because it is usually based on the assumption that the way things are now is the way they will continue to be. But just because rotations have expanded over the years does not mean that they won't one day contract; if that happens, 400 wins will again become a remote possibility.

7. Apparently, Wilbon thinks the Factual Four pitched in some different, reliever-free era. As opposed to mostly the 90's and beyond, when managers used their bullpens in a manner strikingly similar to today.

8. See #7. The Factual Four were almost exclusively members of five-man rotations.

9. First off, I'm hoping Kornheiser used Roberts and Jenkins as examples because each fell short of 300 wins despite starting so many games per season, though with his lack of knowledge on full display, I can't be certain he doesn't think both won 300. Anyway, the point is that none of the Factual Four ever started anywhere close to 45 games in a season; in fact none ever started more than 37, and that only happened once, by Maddux. Clemens' high was 36 (once), Glavine started 36 thrice, and Johnson's high was 35. Again, this is a product of being in a five-man rotation.

In addition, with the advances in medicine, today's pitchers can overcome injuries that were formerly career-enders. A guy with as many back problems as Johnson would have been toast more than 50 wins ago pitching in a previous era. So while today's pitchers may start less games per year, they have far fewer impediments to pitching for more seasons.

10. The only thing I'm waving bye-bye to? Wilbon and Kornheiser's credibility on questions relating to baseball. There is virtually no way that we won't see at least a few 300-game winners in the next 20 years, let alone one.

What I love is that the Pardon the Interruption guys are almost never in complete agreement, and the one time they are, they are completely, irretrievably wrong. I don't think it's exactly ironic, but it sure is something. Precisely what, I don't know, but it was certainly engrossing. So thoroughly engrossing that I just dedicated five-plus hours to writing and researching this post. Unfortunately, given my current level of employment, my PTI-fueled interlude didn't even interrupt anything.

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