The 2002 Braves were the most recent team with the rarest of attributes — two eventual 300-game winners on the same pitching staff: Greg Maddux, who reached the milestone two years later, and Tom Glavine, who followed in 2007.
Years from now, we may say the same about the 2008 Dodgers.
Maddux was on that team, too. It was the last of his 23 seasons. He was 42. He didn’t have much left, but Joe Torre wanted him around anyway. Maddux started 33 games for the Dodgers and Padres, maintained a respectable 4.22 ERA and finished his career with two relief appearances in the National League Championship Series against Philadelphia.
The Dodgers’ NLCS bullpen also included a fresh-faced Un-Maddux — power lefty, rather than precision righty. The rookie still was shy of legal drinking age but nonetheless dispensed some of the best pure stuff in baseball. His name was Clayton Kershaw.
Now Kershaw, 23, is coming off his first NL Cy Young Award. He won 21 games and became the first Dodger to claim the pitching Triple Crown since Sandy Koufax. There are those who believe he soon will be the best pitcher in baseball — if he isn’t already.
But that’s subjective. Here’s a fact: Kershaw has more wins (47) than Maddux (45) at the same point in his career.
Maddux acknowledges Kershaw has a chance to win 300 games — at least, as much of a chance as anyone his age could.
“Absolutely,” Maddux said this week at the Texas Rangers’ spring complex, where he’s working as a special instructor. “One of the things you have to do is start pitching when you’re young. It’s hard when you come up when you’re 25 or 26. You need to come up when you’re 20, 21, 22.”
Maddux remembers hearing the predictions that he would be the last of the 300-game winners. He remembers knowing they would be proved wrong, because his close friend Glavine was determined to join him. Then Randy Johnson willed his way past the benchmark in 2009.
Maddux figures The Club will add another new member. He just doesn’t know when. “I’m sure there’s somebody,” Maddux said. “You never know. There might be an eighth-grader out there.”
Or there might be one among active pitchers: Roy Halladay (188), CC Sabathia (176), Mark Buehrle (161) and Justin Verlander (107) have reasonable chances based on wins, age, recent performance trends and health histories. But the math won’t necessarily be easy.
Halladay, who trains like an Olympian, turns 35 in May. Sabathia, 31, will reach 300 wins around his 38th birthday if he averages 18 per year, but questions persist about his long-term durability.
Maddux believes Buehrle could become a surprisingly strong candidate because, as a left-hander who locates well, he can “lose velocity and still be OK.” Verlander, arguably the best pitcher on the planet, probably needs to pitch at 40 to do it — and he’ll need to maintain a 17-win average through his 30s to get the chance.
Verlander committed one cardinal sin of a pitcher with aspirations of reaching 300 wins: He went to college. He didn’t spend a full season in the majors until five years after graduating from high school. Kershaw needed only three. For an excellent pitcher, those two seasons could account for 10 percent (or more) of the journey to 300.
“My bad,” quipped Angels lefty C.J. Wilson, the free-agent prize who played at Loyola Marymount. “When I was 23, I was (in the minors) rehabbing elbow surgery and wishing I was a hitter.”
Of course, an early arrival to the majors only matters so much. Good health and superior ability are obvious factors. But Maddux noticed other shared traits among his contemporaries who reached 300 wins: Glavine, Johnson and Roger Clemens.
“The common thread was the desire to play every day, to win, to keep playing,” Maddux said. “It was never about money. There was a certain love for the game. You have to enjoy going to the ballpark every day, being around your teammates, the competition, the preparation, putting your work in. That’s what they all did.”
Kershaw appears to match many of those criteria. He’s uncommonly mature for a player his age, from his sponsorship of a home for orphaned children in Zambia (where he has visited twice) to the way he appreciates the privilege of playing in the majors.
“Everybody that’s retired says, ‘Enjoy it while you can,’ and that’s what I try to do,” Kershaw said last week. Asked if he would pitch until he’s 40, he laughed and replied, “I’ll pitch until I’m 80 if they let me.”
Maddux didn’t make it quite that far. But he did put his body through more than 5,000 innings in the major leagues while landing on the disabled list only once — and that was for a back injury. Strength and conditioning coaches won’t want to hear the explanation for how he did it.
“Just luck,” he said. “I did my shoulder exercises, but so does everybody else. Just luck, really. I didn’t really do a whole lot. I played golf. That was it. It’s kind of hard to get hurt playing golf.”
Kershaw’s chances at 300 could be aided by working in one of baseball’s great pitcher-friendly ballparks — and playing on a Dodgers team that should become stronger after the ownership transition. Maddux, though, doesn’t put much stock in such things.
“Park, offense, defense — that has jack s— to do with it,” he said. “It’s about how you pitch. I don’t buy into that. Steve Carlton was on the worst team in the world (and still won 27 games). … It’s how you pitch. The pitcher makes the team. If you outpitch the other guy, you win. You’ve got to be better than the guy you’re facing.”
Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum might beg to differ. They are several years older than Kershaw but aren’t far ahead of him in wins — each has 69 — because the San Francisco hitters have offered modest run support. They’ll have their chances to slow Kershaw’s progress toward 300 when they face him this year. But they may need to pitch like Maddux to do it.