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100 Wins for Matt Cain

I want to write something about Matt Cain getting his hundredth win. I am terribly distracted by the trade deadline, though—my Giants just traded the future away for the present, as contending teams do, and it has suddenly become very important to conceptualize the appropriate exchange rate between putative 2016 wins and putative 2018 wins. Still, a hundred wins for Matt Cain at last.

First of all, of course pitcher wins are a ridiculous stat. They make no sense even on their own terms, and if somebody introduced the stat now, without any history to it, nobody would it seriously. Still, since it has been a thing for a long time, those of us who grew up with the stat use it even if we don’t believe in it, and for all its flaws comparing one pitcher to another, the benchmarks can remind us about how few pitchers have what we would call a great career. And should spark some sort of appreciation for those who do.

Matt Cain is not one of those pitchers. He was a great pitcher, and had six very good seasons, but not a great career. In June 2012, I wrote that he will be the greatest pitcher ever to drop off the Hall of Fame Ballot after the first year. I also said that after 2010, it would have been easy to imagine him finishing with a record something like 145-160, but that was harder to imagine in June 2012. He finished his seventh season with 85 wins and 78 losses. He was 27. The next year, he was lousy. Since the end of that 2012 season he has 15 wins and 27 losses in 72 starts; he is now 31 years old, and the chances of him getting another twenty-five wins are vanishingly small, I’m afraid.

Compare him, maybe, to Jose Rijo. He came up early, spent a little time in the bullpen, so it’s not a good comparison in terms of career, but when after his age 27 season his win-loss record was 83-68. Finished his career with 116 wins.

Maybe a better comparison is Javier Vasquez. After seven seasons, he was 27 and had a record of 78-78. An All-Star. And unlike Matt Cain, he had seven more years, a couple of them very good. Finished with 165 wins. No way Matt Cain is getting there.

Perhaps we should compare him to Chris Tillman. Tillman’s having a good year. He’s 28 and he’s 70-45. That’s a hell of a record, isn’t it. What odds would you give that he wins a hundred games? He only needs thirty more, after all, that’s two good years. Matt Cain didn’t have those years. Chris Tillman might, but then again, he might not.

What about Rick Porcello? Porcello was never as good a pitcher as Cain, but hell, after eight years in the majors, he’s 99-80. He may win his hundredth game his next time out. He’s twenty-seven years old. What odds would you put on him winning two hundred? A hundred and fifty?

Let’s consider, for a moment, Camillo Pascual. After his age 27 season (in 1961) he’s 72-100. Wins twenty in 1962. Wins twenty-one in 1963. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? That can happen! Finished his career 174-170. That’s… fewer than two hundred wins.

What I’m saying is that a hundred wins is awfully good. Right now, there are only 28 pitchers in the majors with a hundred wins. Some of them aren’t getting very many more. Kyle Lohse is at 147 wins and may not make it to 150. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young in each of his first two seasons—nobody does that!—and has 109 wins and may never get another one. Maybe he will! Maybe he’ll get ten more. I doubt it, though.

Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball for years. An astonishing display of dominance. His record is 125-58; he’s 28 years old and hurt. He’ll probably get to two hundred wins, sure. But would you bet on it?

John Lackey has 173 wins. 173! That’s amazing. He’s 37 years old and he’s 8-7 this year. That’s wonderful. Wonderful. He could win fifteen this year, plausibly enough. That would get him to 180. Would you bet on him getting to two hundred?

There are two players in baseball right now with more than two hundred wins. C.C. Sabathia and Bartolo Colon. They are amazing. Appreciate them. They’ve been good, and they’ve been lucky. Appreciate the good, and appreciate the luck. There have been so many great pitchers that didn’t have those careers. You probably are thinking of one or two of them right now. Great pitchers with back luck, or bad injuries, or just not enough years.

Matt Cain almost didn’t reach that 100-win benchmark. Now he has. It’s a silly benchmark and doesn’t mean anything, but it means so much.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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