How magical are “magic numbers”? (part 1)
Hall of Fame elections are tricky. In the past, if a player had reached certain milestones, or “magic numbers,” he was assured a spot in Cooperstown. With the recent revelation of steroids in the game and the tainting of our precious statistics, those “magic numbers” are now marred with allegations and accusations. Players like Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, and Rafael Palmeiro are no longer guaranteed admittance into the sacred company.
But I got to thinking, how magic are those magic numbers? For hitters, the magic numbers are 3000 hits and 500 home runs. For pitchers, 3000 strikeouts and 300 wins. How easy is it for a player to get in with those numbers? Let’s take a look, starting with pitchers…
- Cy Young (511 wins) – Selected to HOF in 1937 by BBWAA (2nd year receiving votes)
- Walter Johnson (417) – Selected to HOF in 1936 by BBWAA (1st)
- Pete Alexander (373) – Selected to HOF in 1938 by BBWAA (3rd)
- Christy Mathewson (373) – Selected to HOF in 1936 by BBWAA (1st)
- Pud Galvin (365) – Selected to HOF in 1965 by Veteran’s Committee
- Warren Spahn (363) – Selected to HOF in 1973 by BBWAA (1st year on ballot under current rules)
- Kid Nichols (361) – Selected to HOF in 1949 by Old Timers Committee (4 years on BBWAA ballot, never received more than 2.6%)
- Greg Maddux (355) – Not yet eligible
- Roger Clemens (354) – Not yet eligible, plus the steroids taint
- Tim Keefe (342) – Selected to HOF in 1964 by Veteran’s Committee
- Steve Carlton (329) – Selected to HOF in 1994 by BBWAA (1st)
- John Clarkson (328) – Selected to HOF in 1963 by Veteran’s Committee
- Eddie Plank (326) – Selected to HOF in 1946 by Old Timers Committee (spent 5 years on BBWAA ballot, high support was 27%)
- Nolan Ryan (324) – Selected to HOF in 1999 by BBWAA (1st)
- Don Sutton (324) – Selected to HOF in 1998 by BBWAA (5th)
- Phil Niekro (318) – Selected to HOF in 1997 by BBWAA (5th)
- Gaylord Perry (314) – Selected to HOF in 1991 by BBWAA (3rd)
- Tom Seaver (311) – Selected to HOF in 1992 by BBWAA (1st)
- Old Hoss Radbourn (309) – Selected to HOF in 1939 by Old Timers Committee
- Mickey Welch (307) – Selected to HOF in 1973 by Veteran’s Committee
- Tom Glavine (305) – Not yet eligible
- Randy Johnson (303) – Not yet eligible
- Lefty Grove (300) – Selected to HOF in 1947 by BBWAA (3rd)
- Early Wynn (300) – Selected to HOF in 1972 by BBWAA (4th)
Twenty-four pitchers in the history of baseball have won 300 ballgames. Seven of those guys were inducted by the Veterean’s Committee or the Old Timers Committee, while another four are not yet eligible. The top four were in the very early days of the Hall of Fame, and there was a tremendous backlog of players on the ballot at that time. It’s amazing that Cy Young did not get enough support that first year, despite being the only pitcher in history with more than 500 victories, but at the same time we’re not going to hold it against the voters because they did get it right eventually.
If we eliminate those fifteen names, we have nine guys to look at, mostly in the modern era, with 300 wins: Spahn, Carlton, Ryan, Sutton, Niekro, Perry, Seaver, Grove, and Wynn. Spahn, Carlton, Ryan, and Seaver were first ballot guys (we’re ignoring the vote cast for Spahn while he was still active in 1958, which would not be allowed under current rules). Why were the others forced to wait three, four, even five years, despite 300 wins?
Personally, I look at the career of a player rather than the peak. Sutton, Niekro, and Perry reached the 300-win plateau as well as 3000 strikeouts. Shouldn’t that end the conversation? Alright, I understand the hesitation on Perry…
But for Sutton and Niekro, there should have been no debate. Sutton only had one 20-win season; Niekro had three. Sutton had a nice 5-year peak in the 1970s with several top-five finishes in Cy Young voting and All-Star appearances. Niekro spread out his success more, with Cy Young support and All-Star honors in three decades. In the end, I suppose both were seen more as compilers than dominant forces, but credit has to be given for longevity, doesn’t it?
Despite 300 wins and 3000 strikeouts, both were forced by the BBWAA to wait five years before enshrinement.
Now look at a few other players that reached 3000 strikeouts in their career, but did not reach the 300-win mark.
- Bert Blyleven(3701 strikeouts) – Selected to HOF in 2011 by BBWAA (14th year receiving votes)
- Fergie Jenkins(3192) – Selected to HOF in 1991 by BBWAA (3rd)
- Bob Gibson (3117) – Selected to HOF in 1981 by BBWAA (1st)
We all know the struggles Blyleven faced. Just one 20-win season, two All-Star games, three top-ten finishes in Cy Young voting. Like Sutton and Niekro, he was seen as a compiler, and he fell just short of 300 victories. Jenkins battled the stigma of a cocaine-related arrest which may have forced him to wait a few years for induction.
So back to the original question, how magical are the milestones of 300 wins and 3000 strikeouts? No eligible pitcher has been denied induction, but neither are the marks automatic first-ballot guarantees.