Eleven years ago, on June 13, 2003, Roger Clemens pulled off perhaps the rarest dual-milestone game in baseball history: Win No. 300 and strikeout No. 4,000 — on the same day. What’s so special about either accomplishment is that they’re just so exceedingly rare.
Clemens was the first player in 13 years (since Nolan Ryan in 1990) to win 300 career games, and only Greg Maddux, Tom Galvine, and Randy Johnson have followed suit in the 11 years since. Johnson is the only one to surpass 4,000 K’s since Clemens’ big day, but will anybody break either number again any time soon? This becomes a much more deflating proposition while looking at the career leaders in both categories.
But there is some hope. A few candidates, with the right kind of luck, can break on through, but let’s assume any given pitcher with somewhat durable health can give it a go until he’s 40 years old and consider anything after that a bonus. Factoring in youth, durability and overall stuff, here are the best bets — mostly long shots — in each group.
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers (needs 218 wins) — It seems absurd to say the most likley person to next reach 300 wins is less than a third of the way there, but Kershaw has a lot going in his favor. At 26, he’s pitched the equivalent of six full seasons and is averaging about 14 wins a year. Reaching 300 wins by age 40 would mean a slightly more aggressive win rate — around 15.5 per year — but Kershaw has also had 30 or more games started in each of the past five seasons. Durability, thus far, has not been much of an issue.
2. CC Sabathia, New York Yankees (needs 92) — Whereas Kershaw’s health is a non-issue, the same can’t be said for the Yankees’ No. 2 man in the rotation. Though Sabathia hasn’t dipped below 200 innings in a season since 2006, the 33-year-old is clearly careening along the downslope of his career. He’s been on the DL for the past month with inflamation in his right knee, the same one he had surgically repaired following the 2010 season. He needs only about 13 wins a season to reach 300 by age 40, and that might’ve seemed doable as of this past winter, but not much is going right now for Sabathia, and his future prospects are as fuzzy as they’ve ever been.
3. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners (needs 182) — King Felix has everything in his favor right now: He’s in his 10th season at age 28, so he’s already up to 118 wins. He needs just a hair over 15 wins a season to reach 300 at age 40, but he’s never had a major injury and has posted at least 30 starts in nine consecutive seasons. One thing that may hold him back is playing for a team that generally doesn’t win a whole lot of games, but he’s already at 8-1 this season, so maybe that’s less of a concerning factor looking forward than it has been.
4. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers (needs 157) — His disappointing 2014 season aside, Verlander is 31 years old and would need more than 17 wins a season to reach 300 by age 40. Not exactly a bettor’s dream scenario.
5. Bartolo Colon, New York Mets (needs 106) — OK, yes, he’s 41 years old, but if there’s anyone baseball can see pitching effectively until he’s 50, racking around 10 wins or so a year, isn’t it Colon? Julio Franco would be proud.
1. Hernandez (needs 2,191) — Youth is on his side. King Felix needs only to average 182 K’s a year to hit 4,000 by age 40. He’s averaged 222 per season over the last five, is on pace to beat that mark this year and is only getting better as a strikeout pitcher. His K rate over the past few years:
Though he’s not even halfway to 4K, one has to like his chances.
2. Kershaw (needs 2,730) — He’s only slightly less likely than Hernandez to join this club, and Kershaw can average 195 a year and hit this by age 40. Totally doable, especially since he’s averaging 230 K’s the last four years. Bank them now, and that average steadily goes down.
3. Sabathia (needs 1,563) — Averaging 223 strikeouts a year for the next seven years seems overly ambitious, since he hasn’t actually eclipsed that single-season total since 2011. Give him nine more seasons to do it and he only needs 174 per year, but that may be generous given his continously declining durability.
4. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants (needs 2,420) — Even in his bad years (see: 2012 or ’13), Lincecum has shown that his 200-K stuff never truly goes away. He can hit 4,000 if he average 200 K’s a year for the next 12 seasons, or until he’s 42. Not that outlandish a projection, compared to some of his contemporaries. He was hurt mostly by not reaching the majors until age 23, or else he’d be right behind Felix.
5. Matt Harvey, New York Mets (needs, 3,739) — A total wild card and completely ridiculous to even consider … but let’s look at what we know with a full-ish season’s worth of data: 178 innings, 9.64 K/9, 27.7 K percent, walk rate under 5 percent. Game it out past this year, which is already lost to injury, and Harvey needs to average 220 strikeouts to rach 4,000 by age 43.
Completely out of the question … probably, but he, more than any other first- or second-year pitcher, has the stuff to pull it off. If Harvey returns to form after his Tomy John surgery and puts together a long career, he has a chance at this milestone, among many others.