Why Mets’ Justin Verlander could be last pitcher with 300 wins

Imagine a manned spacecraft is five years from Pluto and it is iffy whether it has enough fuel to complete the mission (really, stick with me). 

If the ship doesn’t reach the destination, it is possible that the person who will invent the technology that will make completing such a journey feasible is not even born yet.

This is how I feel about Justin Verlander and 300 wins. He is nearing an achievement that more and more feels as distant as Pluto. And if he does not have the gas to get there, it is possible the next person who will has yet to be born.

And that is assuming a next person ever will get there.

Twenty-four pitchers have reached 300 wins. Randy Johnson was the last to do so — on June 4, 2009. The following week, Stephen Strasburg was hailed as the best pitcher ever taken No. 1 in the draft. A series of arm injuries have left it questionable whether he will pitch again. He has 113 career wins.

That same season, Tim Lincecum won his second straight NL Cy Young award. He was 25. He was done as an elite starting pitcher by 27. Done for good at 32. He finished with 110 wins.

Zack Greinke won the AL Cy Young that year. He was 25. He is still around, back with the Royals. He has the second-most wins among active pitchers with 223. He is 39 and eight months younger than the active leader in wins.

San Francisco Giants starter Randy Johnson (R) kisses his wife Lisa after earning his 300th career win in a victory over the Washington Nationals in their National League MLB baseball game in Washington, June 4, 2009.
Randy Johnson kisses his wife Lisa in 2009 after winning his 300th game, a feat no one has matched since.

That is Verlander, who turned 40 a week into his first spring training after signing a two-year, $86.7 million pact to join the Mets. Verlander has 244 wins. He is 56 away from 300. But the difference between who Greinke and Verlander are today is stark.

Greinke, with his intellect and athleticism, can endure as a fine mid-to-bottom-of-the-rotation starter with a lesser version of his prime stuff. He made 26 starts last year: He finished with four wins and pitched at least seven innings just one time. He is a finesse pitcher now, with a fastball average of 89.2 mph — the fifth-softest for those with at least 130 innings in 2022.

Verlander has remade himself in the second chapter of his career — different arm slot, different areas he attacks in the zone, different use of his arsenal — but he remains a power pitcher. His 95.1 mph average fastball was MLB’s 17th-best. He made 27 starts, finished with 18 wins and pitched at least seven innings 12 times — tied for the second-most in the AL.

Oh yeah, and he won his third AL Cy Young award.

Greinke is not going to get the 77 wins he needs for 300. And Max Scherzer, 39 in July, probably is not going to get the 99 wins he needs for 300. That concludes the list of active pitchers with even 200 wins. Clayton Kershaw is at 197 and turns 35 in two weeks, but he physically breaks down annually and contemplates retirement regularly.

Gerrit Cole has 130 wins through his age-31 season, 22 fewer than Verlander had at the same point. Jacob deGrom has 82 wins through his age-34 season. Aaron Nola has 78 through age 29. Shane Bieber has 54 through age 27.

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Zack Greinke throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Surprise, Ariz.
At age 39, Zack Greinke has returned to where his career started, in Kansas City, where he’ll start the season needing 77 wins to reach 300.

Really, if it isn’t Verlander, who would it be who is active? Verlander just might be the last person to climb this Everest.

“I take a lot of pride in that [potentially being the last of a breed],” Verlander said. “It’s a difficult question, because like a lot of things I’ve accomplished in my career, you aspire to do certain things, but that’s not why you play, so it’s hard for me to sit here and say that’s a shiny goal that I want to reach. Of course, I want to get there, but I want to get there because I continued to pitch well while I worked my ass off. Everything that’s led me to this point gets me to that point.

“Obviously, you know, it would be something cool for legacy sake. But again, it’s not why I pitch, and it seems cliche to say that, but it’s true.”

Yet, Verlander has talked about being the baseball Tom Brady and going to age 45. That would be six years, and if he can do that, it would mean averaging nine wins a season for those six years to join a list that began on Sept. 4, 1888, when Pud Galvin was the first to reach 300.

What was perhaps most interesting about delving into this subject was how incredulous Cole and Lance McCullers Jr. — both former Astros teammates of Verlander — were when I asked whether Verlander could get to 300. They treated it as if I asked whether Tuesday follows Monday. As in: Of course he will get there. Though both said what Verlander didn’t — that he yearns to get there.

“I think he’s probably going to be able to pitch until he wants to stop, and he’d like to get 300 wins,” Cole said, chuckling at the thought, as if that simple combination all but guaranteed it. “I don’t think he will take minor league deals and grind to try to get the last however many he would need [for 300]. But he’s got 56 to go and he nearly won 20 last year, so realistically, he is probably two and a half great seasons away. And he is still great. So, to me, he looks good right now [to do it].”

Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole during the MLB All-Star weekend in July 2022.
Gerrit Cole, who reunited with his former Astros teammate during the MLB All-Star weekend in July 2022, believes Verlander will successfully pursue 300 wins.
MLB Photos via Getty Images

McCullers said: “I think he gets there because a lot of times you’re around guys and when they say stuff, they mean it. And I know that’s a goal of his, and I’ve never known Justin, since we traded for him in 2017, not to accomplish or achieve his goals.

“The odds are stacked against him. But the odds were stacked against him when he was getting older and people were wondering how much time he had left. That was back in 2014 [when Verlander had a 4.54 ERA at age 31]. He has made so many changes [to his pitching style/repertoire] and found greatness again.

“After he had Tommy John surgery [and missed all but one start in 2020-21], people asked the same question. But he finished second for the Cy Young in 2016 and he finished second in 2018 and he won in 2019. …Then he didn’t pitch in 2020 and 2021, and last year when he pitched he won the Cy Young again. You are talking about a guy on a run. When he has pitched, he has been Justin Verlander. So there is nothing I think he can’t do if he puts his mind to it, and I know he wants 300, so I think he will get there.”

We have come this far and we have not even really talked about the concept of the “win” itself, so why don’t we begin 3Up by discussing it:

1. If Verlander does reach 300 wins, he will be the first to do so in an era when the pitcher “win” has lost its allure. It had begun to do so as Roger Clemens (2003), Greg Maddux (2004), Tom Glavine (2007) and Johnson became the only pitchers in this century to reach 300.

Justin Verlander poses with his wife Kate Upton and his American League Cy Young Award during the 2023 Baseball Writers' Association of America awards dinner at New York Hilton on January 28, 2023 in New York City.
Since struggling with a 4.54 ERA in 2014, Verlander has won two Cy Young Awards, including last year, which he celebrated with his wife, model Kate Upton, after the season.
Getty Images

There are  a variety of reasons why. In part, it is about the game being played differently. The four-man rotation vanished in the early 1970s. Over the past 50 years — the past 30, in particular — the size and importance of bullpens have grown. So has the analytics-based understanding that it is generally more advantageous for a team to unleash one hard-throwing reliever after another at offenses than to let a tiring starter be seen for a third and certainly a fourth time by an opponent.

All of this (and a greater willingness to use the injured list) has led to fewer starts in a season and fewer innings within starts — a combination that will choke the ability to build big win totals. If you think of reaching 300 wins as 20 seasons averaging 15 wins, well, there were 28 15-game winners in 2002 and half that many 20 years later in 2022.

Plus, a greater appreciation has developed for what a pitcher is responsible for and what he is not, and how so much of a win is beyond a pitcher’s control and the win itself is reflective of a team.

In a way, Greinke’s second half last year — in which he made 11 starts and pitched to a 2.48 ERA yet earned just one win — exemplifies why it is so difficult to accumulate wins, particularly now.

Despite pitching well, Greinke completed six innings in just five of the 11 starts and seven innings once. He played for a bad Royals team, and unearned runs twice cost him chances at wins. His bullpen blew two leads, including once after he had thrown seven shutout innings. The offense did not score while he was on the mound in four of those games.

Because of all of these factors working against a starter gaining a win, if he gets there, Verlander’s 300 might be the most impressive of all.

Look, a win will never mean what it meant when I was becoming a baseball fan. Rightfully. But I wonder if this has swung too far the other way. I get it, there are 10, 15, 20 stats I might look at before “wins” to gauge the value of a starter. And the “win” certainly was overvalued as a defining stat for the first century-plus of the game.

New York Mets pitcher Justin Verlander throws in the outfield at Spring Training, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Port St. Lucie, FL.
Verlander, beginning the season with 244 wins, will need to keep pitching beyond the two-year contract he signed with the Mets.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

But I think it is underappreciated now. Because a win does tell a little story. First, in an age of openers and quick hooks, a starter has to pitch five innings to qualify for a win. In 2002, a starter worked fewer than five innings 865 times. It was 1,470 last year. That comes out to 20 games per team in which a starter could not by rule earn a win compared to two decades earlier.

Plus, going five innings probably is not enough to gain the win. Of the 1,443 games won by a starter in 2022, 296 (or 20.5 percent) were exactly five innings, 68.1 percent were of six innings or more and 28.6 percent were seven innings or more. The average start for a winning pitcher last year was 6 1/3 innings.

The days of bulldog starters such as Jack Morris and Dave Stewart being allowed to keep plugging along if they gave up four or five runs are not as common. A starter won just 79 times last year giving up at least four runs, compared to 295 times in 2000. A starter won 22 times giving up five or more runs. It was 101 wins in 2000. The combined ERA of starters in games they won in 2022 was 1.75 (thanks to Lee Sinins in MLB Network’s research department for this stat).

Thus, a win at this time pretty much indicates a starter who pitched well and deep and helped save the bullpen for others in an age when that is more valuable than ever. It does one other thing: It means your team won, which is the whole idea of this endeavor.

“If you look at what constitutes a win on a granular level, yeah, you can get wins in bad starts,” said Verlander, who has averaged seven innings and a 1.86 ERA in his 244 wins. “But if you look at it on a macro level, like, if you look at the bulk of my career, and probably take my numbers from my wins, they are probably pretty [bleeping] good. Over the course of a season, if you win 15, 16, 17, 20, 21 games, you pitched damn well most of the time. Are there a few outlier games? Of course. But when you start looking at bulk numbers — 200-plus wins or 300 wins — you probably pitched well most of the time.

In this Oct. 27, 1991, file photo, Minnesota Twins' Jack Morris throws against the Atlanta Braves during first inning of Game 7 of the baseball World Series in Minneapolis.
Wins have been harder to come by for pitchers since the era of allowing starters such as Jack Morris to remain in games after giving up a few runs has all but ended.

“So I understand the value of the win being diminished on an analytical level on a game-by-game basis, but overall, you start looking at all the value it provides in eating innings and the importance that it has on the bullpen the day before and the day after [a winning start]. It’s a trickle-down impact or a butterfly effect that analytics hasn’t valued. They don’t know how to value it. This is what analytics does, right? If you don’t know how to value it, you don’t [value it]. So, of course, they’ve devalued the win. It’s not something that numbers can really quantify — the repercussions of pitching seven good innings routinely and outlasting the other starter.”

2. To even approach 300 wins, you better be able to adjust to the reality of age and your body throughout your career.

As McCullers said, “[Verlander] has the ability to adapt to being a new pitcher. Early in his career, if you watched his highlights of how he pitched, it is so much different than how he pitches now. I don’t think a lot of guys have that ability. I think a lot of guys make it to the big leagues and are good and they have their own way of being good. Whereas Justin was able to be great early in his career, and then he had those kinds of years in ’13. ’14 and ’15 that he had some injuries and it was touch and go and maybe not his best seasons (33-32, 104 ERA-plus) [before] he started to redevelop himself. He finished second for the Cy Young in ’16 and then came over to [the Astros] in ’17. That process was still happening, but if you see Justin Verlander now, he is just a different pitcher.

“It’s a different type of greatness than he had early in his career. He got traded to us, and he is so talented and so good that he was totally able to reshape his game and how he throws the baseball mechanically and have another bout of greatness. It was a total adjustment. A total change.

“Go watch him pitch for Detroit in 2006, ’07, ’08, ‘09 and ‘10. His arm slot was lower. There was a little more run to his fastball, a big curveball. Now we are talking about a guy straight over the top who has one of the best, if not the best, four-seams in the game. Big curveball that is more of a for-a-strike pitch. And that devastating wipeout slider. He’s just recreated himself and had the talent level to do that. A lot of guys don’t have that. That is why he’s been great and stayed great.”

Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers pitches against the New York Yankees during a Major League Baseball game on March 31, 2011 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Verlander played for the Tigers from 2005-17.
Teammates who have watched Verlander throughout his career noticed how he has changed his mechanics since his first few seasons in Detroit and remained one of baseball’s elite starters.
Getty Images

Verlander said he “was stuck in my ways” and thought “I had it all figured out” early in his career. But beginning with his need for core surgery after the 2013 season and then enduring a subpar (for him) season in 2014, “I’ve taken an active role in seeking out information in any possible aspect — body, mind, pitching, analytics, anything whatsoever, I am open to it. Probably the best thing I’ve had going for me is my feel for my body. I can take in a lot of information. I can try things and I can either be like, ‘OK, I like that, that works’ or ‘No, it doesn’t’ and spit it out.”

3. For Verlander, there also has been another change. He admits that early in his career, he was withdrawn. He does not think he was a bad teammate, more perhaps an absent one as he fixated on what he needed to do for greatness.

But he feels there have been changes over time that have influenced him to be a more available, giving person and teammate. He noted marrying model Kate Upton in 2017: “My connection with my wife is amazing, and she’s an amazing woman and has helped change me to be a better man.” The birth of his daughter, Genevieve, in November 2017. And not pitching for most of the 2020-21 seasons gave him time at home that made him happy, but also made him realize how much he loves to be part of a team.

This all should help his assault on 300 wins because it makes him want to play as long as possible.

“I’ve changed as a person,” Verlander said. “I’m actively trying to grow as a human being. And this is part of that. Communicating and connecting with others is important.

Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros celebrates after defeating the Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 to win the 2022 World Series in Game Six of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 05, 2022 in Houston, Texas.
Verlander credits his marriage to model Kate Upton and the birth of his daughter, Genevieve, with helping to motivate him to keep pitching and appreciate the connections he has with his family and his teammates.
Getty Images

“If I was going to boil it down to a specific event, it’s the birth of my daughter. … I was doing my Tommy John rehab and had a ton of time at home and just, like, appreciating these connections that I have in life. These are my people, right? It just made me feel so full and happy, and I really wanted to extend that happiness to the rest of my life and not be so stuck in just baseball mode.

“When I’m at the field, I have time now to open up, and previously I didn’t. I don’t regret it [his attitude early in his career] at all. I needed that to be the kind of pitcher that I am. Everything in life happens for a reason, and I didn’t have room for anybody else or anytime; it was really hard for me to connect with people. I was super locked in, focused all the time, and not everybody can always connect with that. It’s hard to get in. I wasn’t very open. I’m probably still not. I’m still actively trying to grow and become better.

“I’m still just 40 years old, and the big scheme of things in the game of life, man, I was just 20-something years old and a not-fully-evolved human at that age. You’re still figuring yourself out. I was, more importantly, figuring my baseball life out, so I thought that was what took precedence for me — my entire life was built around baseball. That was it. And more recently, things have changed.”

McCullers, who was Verlander’s teammate from 2017-22, says there was a distinct delineation for Verlander — before and after Tommy John surgery. McCullers mentioned the “willingness and enthusiasm” Verlander brought to being a more connected teammate after the surgery.

“Justin was always great for us on the field and he was always fine off of it, but when he came back, he grew into a leadership role where he was willing, every day, to go above and beyond so the other guys felt his presence around the team,” McCullers said.

“Money is the easy part. We have money, and you can give gifts and do dinners. It’s about the time that you give. The difference was just the time and the daily amount of time you put in with just individual people on the team and being present is what makes you a leader. And when he came back, he had that.”