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Wednesday, August 28
Four-man rotation could mean more 300-game winners

By Rob Neyer

The following approximates a conversation I recently heard while watching a baseball game on television ...

Play-by-Play Man: Once Clemens and Maddux win 300 games, and maybe Tom Glavine, we might never see a 300-game winner again. Players make so much money these days, they just might not hang around long enough.

Analyst: I don't know about that. I think that if you've got enough desire to win 200 games, you've got enough to win 300.

I've been trying to stimulate discussion here, looking at why teams got away from the four-man rotation in the first place. If we can go back and examine that again, I hope that with what we know about pitch counts, and pitcher fatigue, we can figure out if going back to the four-man rotation makes sense.
Brad Kullman, Reds assistant GM

In this case, the Analyst -- I believe it was Ken Singleton or Jim Kaat, and I think the play-by-play man was Michael Kay -- was exactly right. While it's certainly true that occasionally a player will retire long before his performance gives him no choice, those players are the exception rather than the rule. Baseball stars no longer finish their careers in the minors, as many of them once did, but they do generally hang around in the majors for as long as they can.

For one thing, they still enjoy the competition and comradeship that one can find only in professional sports. And for another, there's the money. For many pro athletes, the huge salaries aren't a reason to quit playing; they're a reason to keep playing.

How many pitchers whose careers began in the 1950s won 300 games? Zero.

How many pitchers whose careers began in the 1970s won 300 games? Zero.

We might have unreasonable expectations because six pitchers -- Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, and Tom Seaver -- whose careers began in the 1960s topped 300 victories.

But that crop of pitchers represent (to repeat a phrase) the exception rather than the rule. In the long history of baseball, only 19 pitchers have managed to win 300 games in the major leagues. Rather than look at today's big winners and see a shortage, perhaps we should look at them and see a bounteous wealth.

Nevertheless, the pitchers of today do have at least two disadvantages compared to their predecessors: they don't pitch as much, and when they do pitch, they're not as likely to get the decision.

Taking the second (and less important) of those first ... Starting pitchers generally don't pitch as deeply into games as they once did, for a variety of reasons. And that means fewer decisions. The five Hall of Fame starters whose careers began in the 1950s got decisions in 78.6 percent of their starts. The 10 Hall of Fame starters whose careers began in the 1960s got decisions in 80 percent of their starts. But the five active pitchers likely to end up in the Hall of Fame -- Clemens, Maddux, Glavine, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez -- have combined to earn decisions in only 77.5 percent of their starts.

Over the course of a long career, the difference might cost a pitcher like Clemens or Maddux approximately 10 wins ... but that's not usually going to make the difference between winning 300 games and not winning 300 games.

Piling Up The Wins
Active wins leaders of pitchers 35 and older:
Pitcher Wins Age
R. Clemens 291 40
G. Maddux 268 36
T. Glavine 240 36
R. Johnson 219 38
C. Finley 198 39
K. Brown 183 37
D. Wells 181 39
J. Moyer 163 39
J. Smoltz 163 35
A. Benes 153 35
C. Schilling 153 35

No, the real difference between your pitchers and your father's pitchers is the five-man rotation. Neither Clemens nor Maddux, the two greatest pitchers of the last 20 years, have combined for 11 seasons with 35 or more starts.

Meanwhile, Steve Carlton started more than 34 times 11 times all by himself. Catfish Hunter started more than 34 games nine times, Jim Palmer eight times, etc. This probably goes without saying, but if you don't start 'em, you can't win 'em. And with pitchers starting their careers later than they used to -- more of them go to college now -- and then starting fewer games per season than they used to, they just don't have as many chances to win 300 games.

So is it true? Might we soon see the permanent demise of the 300-game winner?

Not likely. Right now, living amongst us, there's probably some kid pitcher who will pitch brilliantly for close to 20 years and clear 300 with at least a little room to spare. However, it probably is harder to win 300 now than it's ever been.

But it doesn't have to be that way. There are two obvious ways to ensure that we see more 300-game winners.

1. Keep Pitchers Healthier, Longer
With conditioning and surgery, it's certainly possible that great pitchers of the future could typically pitch effectively well into their early 40s, rather than their late 30s as is now common. Give a great pitcher a few more years, and just watch the wins pile up.

2. Let Pitchers Pitch More Often
In other words, "Bring back the four-man rotation!" Over at Baseball Prospectus, Rany Jazayerli makes a convincing argument for the four-man rotation.

But it's been seven years since any major-league team employed the four-man rotation for even half a season. Has the very idea passed from the minds of baseball executives? No, it hasn't.

"We talk about it from time to time," Brewers general manager Dean Taylor told me on Tuesday. "It's certainly not the conventional wisdom now, and I think that if it were to happen, you'd have to train your pitchers in the minor leagues, so that when they got to the major leagues, they'd be prepared to do it. Because of the way pitchers today are handled and protected, though, I would be surprised if that ever actually happened."

At least one baseball executive, however, thinks it should happen. Brad Kullman is the assistant GM in Cincinnati, and he's a big believer in the four-man rotation.

"I always wondered why it ever left," Kullman says. "As Earl Weaver put it, 'It's easier to find four good starters than five.' I've been trying to stimulate discussion here, looking at why teams got away from the four-man rotation in the first place. If we can go back and examine that again, I hope that with what we know about pitch counts, and pitcher fatigue, we can figure out if going back to the four-man rotation makes sense."

Of course, it's one thing for an assistant GM to propose a radical move, and quite another to bring everyone else aboard. Kullman's making some progress, though.

"(Reds pitching coach) Don Gullett believes in it. (Reds manager) Bob Boone believes in it. Our medical staff believes in it," said Kullman. "But the important thing is to make sure the entire organization believes in it, from the general manager all the way up to ownership. Because when you try something unorthodox, if anything negative happens, it's easy to place the blame on it."

It's a uphill battle. It always is, against Conventional Wisdom. But one of these days, somebody's going to try it, and it will work, and then somebody else will try it ...

And who knows? Combine the four-man rotation with improvements in conditioning and medicine, and maybe in 25 years we'll be talking about the first 350-game winner since Warren Spahn.

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