If Greg Maddux can win just one more game this season, he'll become the first pitcher in major-league history to win at least 15 games in 16 straight seasons.
The first. Ever.
But what does Maddux's streak mean?
Well, it means that he's been an excellent pitcher. But we already knew that.
It also means that he's been an extraordinarily healthy and consistent pitcher. We already knew that, too.
To find meaning in Maddux's streak, we can look at other pitchers with comparable streaks ... if we can find any, that is. As it happens, the list of pitchers with streaks like Maddux's is mighty short. Cy Young had his 15-season streak, of course, but after that the next-longest streak is 13 seasons, and aside from Maddux only seven pitchers have managed even a 10-season streak of seasons with at least 15 wins.
How rare are such streaks? Nolan Ryan won 324 games, and his longest streak was three seasons. Tommy John won 288 games, and his longest streak was four seasons. Jim Palmer won 266 games, and his longest streak was five seasons. Dennis Martinez won 245 games, and his longest streak was two seasons. Basically, winning 15 games once isn't easy, and winning 15 games more than a few seasons straight is very hard.
Still, let's look at those seven pitchers and see what we can see.
Tim Keefe (10 straight seasons of 15 or more wins)
Tim Keefe's first "major league" team? The National League's Troy Haymakers. Yes, the city of Troy, New York, once boasted a big-league baseball team. In his second season with the Haymakers, Keefe won 18 games to begin a streak of 10 straight 15-win seasons. Keefe led the National League with a 1.58 ERA in 1885, and in 1886 he topped the loop with 42 wins. Keefe finished his 10-season run with 17 wins in 1890 (it would have been more, but on August 19 he suffered a broken finger during a practice session). Keefe struggled in 1891, but came back to win 19 games with the Phillies in 1892 before fading, presumably due to all his hard work over the years.
Kid Nichols (10)
Charles "Kid" Nichols, another of the great pitchers of the 19th century, was an immediate sensation. As a rookie with Boston in 1890, Nichols won 27 games and led the National League with seven shutouts. Unlike most pitchers of his time, Nichols didn't have any trouble with the heavy workloads expected of him, and from 1890 through 1898 his lowest single-season win total was 26.
Nichols' streak finally got busted in 1900, when he started only 27 games, winning 13 of them (though he did lead the NL with four shutouts and posted a solid ERA). He rebounded with 19 wins in 1901, and then -- after a two-year hiatus due to a salary dispute -- returned to the National League in 1904 and won 21 games for the Cardinals.
Walter Johnson (10)
It took The Big Train a few years to win more than 14 games -- mostly because his teammates couldn't hit -- but once he got there, he stayed there for a long time. Johnson won 25 games in 1910 and didn't win fewer than 20 until 1920, when he slumped to 8-10 because of a sore arm and a strained groin muscle (though Johnson did pitch a no-hitter that season).
Johnson came back in 1921 and, though he was never what he'd been, did reel off a six-season streak of 15 (or more) wins.
Warren Spahn (11)
Spahn came close, so close, to putting together a 17-season streak of 15-plus wins. In 1947, he won 21 games to start a five-season streak. In 1953, he won 23 games to start an 11-season streak. And in 1952? Spahn started 35 games and pitched 290 innings, but went 14-19 despite a 2.98 ERA.
Pud Galvin (11)
Galvin, another 19th-century pitcher, won 361 games in only 14 seasons.
Christy Mathewson (12)
Like Spahn, Mathewson missed a longer streak due almost solely to bad luck. As a rookie in 1901, Mathewson won 20 games, and in 1903 he won 30 games to start a 12-year streak of seasons in which he won at least 22 games each season. And in the intervening season? Mathewson went 14-17 despite a 2.12 that was eighth best in the National League.
Gaylord Perry (13)
Perry, whose last season (1983) came three years before Maddux's first, got all his 15-win seasons during his 13-season streak; his season high before the streak was 12 wins (in 1964) and his season high after the streak was 12 wins (in 1978). It was the streak, from '66 through '78, that put the spitballer into the Hall of Fame.
Cy Young (15)
At 23, Young was relatively old when he won his first game in the National League. But when he was 24 he won 27 games ... and he won at least 18 games in every season until he was 39, in 1906.
Young went just 13-21 that season, leading to 1) reports that he suffered from a sore elbow that prevented him from throwing his curveball effectively, and 2) suggestions that he was pretty much finished in the major leagues.
The former might have been true, but the latter was not. Young rebounded with 21 wins in both 1907 and 1908, then 19 in 1909 (when he was 42 years old) before physical woes finally laid him low in 1910. So for Young, it was 18 15-win seasons -- actually, it was 18 19-win seasons -- out of 19 ... a "record" that even Greg Maddux is unlikely to match.
Is Maddux's streak of 16 15-win seasons really more impressive than Cy Young's streak of 19 13-win seasons or Warren Spahn's streak of 17 14-win seasons?
No, not really. If we draw the line at 15, we're doing it simply to glorify Greg Maddux, (whose streak includes two 16-win seasons and three 15-win seasons), and he doesn't need us to glorify him. It's enough, I think, to say this:
In baseball's first half-century, Cy Young was the game's most durable and consistent pitcher.
In baseball's second half-century, Warren Spahn was the game's most durable and consistent pitcher.
And in baseball's third half-century, Greg Maddux has been the game's most durable and consistent pitcher.
If Maddux wins one more game this season, he won't magically become the greatest pitcher since Cy Young, nor even the greatest pitcher of his generation. But if you were born after 1965 -- Spahn's last season -- then Greg Maddux is something that you've never seen before.
And that's plenty good.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site. This Saturday at 4:30 p.m. PT, Rob will be signing copies of his new book, at Elliott Bay Book Company in downtown Seattle.