Pitchers on the cusp

Greinke, Lester, Chapman, and Scherzer could make history in 2021

The previous installment of Baseball’s Best (and Worst) focused on 10 batting milestones that might be surmounted this season.

Pitchers get equal time today, as we offer a status check of 10 of their career categories. There’s no need for a lengthy introduction, since the format is the same as it was last week. All statistics come from Baseball-Reference.com through the games of April 17.


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Wins

  • Nearing milestones: Justin Verlander (Astros) at 226, Zack Greinke (Astros) at 210, Jon Lester (Nationals) at 193.

  • Situation: Twenty-four pitchers have won at least 300 games in their careers. Who will be No. 25? Nobody currently active is closer than the 38-year-old Verlander, who is 74 victories short of the magic number. But he underwent Tommy John surgery last year, and he’s not expected to pitch until next season. Greinke is the only other active pitcher above 200, while Lester has a shot at joining the 200-plus club.

  • Prospects: Verlander was dominant in the last full season, 2019, when he won 21 games and a Cy Young Award. He would have to maintain that pace for three and a half years to reach 300 wins by age 42, which seems a doubtful prospect. Greinke and Lester are both 37. Neither is likely to make it to 300, and Lester’s assault on 200 has been delayed by Covid.

Earned run average

  • Nearing milestones: Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers) at 2.43, Jacob deGrom (Mets) at 2.57, Chris Sale (Red Sox) at 3.03.

  • Situation: This is a fluid category, of course, since ERA can go up and down. Kershaw and deGrom are the only active pitchers who have worked more than 1,000 innings and have kept their ERAs below 3.00. Sale, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, is the closest to breaking the three-run barrier, though there’s a catch. He hasn’t appeared in a game since August 2019.

  • Prospects: Kershaw and deGrom are substantially below 3.00, and they’re continuing to pitch well. The Dodgers ace has posted a 2.19 ERA in four starts this season, while deGrom sits at a microscopic 0.45 after three starts. They both seem safe bets to keep their career arcs on the sunny side of 3.00. Sale has a chance of joining them if he can bounce back strongly from his surgery.

Games pitched

  • Nearing milestones: Joe Smith (Astros) at 788, Tyler Clippard (Diamondbacks) at 777, Oliver Perez (Indians) at 695.

  • Situation: Precisely 50 pitchers have taken the mound in at least 800 games. The active leader, Smith, is just 12 appearances short of joining the party. He has relieved for six franchises over 14 seasons. Clippard is a single game behind Smith, though a pesky shoulder injury has sidelined him. Perez is just five appearances away from reaching 700.

  • Prospects: Smith has already worked six games for the Astros, though he has been ineffective. He still seems likely to pitch his 800th game by the end of May, and Perez should hit 700 even earlier.

Games started

  • Nearing milestones: Zack Greinke (Astros) at 463, Justin Verlander (Astros) at 454, Jon Lester (Nationals) at 423.

  • Situation: Only three active pitchers — the same three who lead in wins — have started more than 400 games. They’re trying to join the 48 men throughout baseball history who have made at least 500 starts.

  • Prospects: Greinke is in the best position — just 37 starts short of the mark — and he’s the only current contender who is not on the injured list. He won’t reach 500 starts this season, but next year is a good bet.

Innings pitched

  • Nearing milestones: Justin Verlander (Astros) at 2,988, Zack Greinke (Astros) at 2,965, Johnny Cueto (Giants) at 1,940.

  • Situation: We’ve already encountered the first two names in a pair of categories above. Verlander and Greinke are the only active pitchers within striking distance of 3,000 career innings. Cueto is closest to the 2,000-inning threshold.

  • Prospects: The injured Verlander will remain 12 innings short of 3,000 at the end of the season, but Greinke is almost certain to surpass the target. Cueto has already worked 20 innings for the Giants in 2021. He needs just 60 more to hit 2,000.

Saves

  • Nearing milestones: Aroldis Chapman (Yankees) at 277.

  • Situation: Two present-day relievers have piled up more than 300 career saves: Craig Kimbrel (Cubs) at 351 and Kenley Jansen (Dodgers) at 315. Neither has a short path to 400. But Chapman, who is third on the active list, has a decent shot at reaching 300 this year. 

  • Prospects: Chapman saved 37 New York wins in 2019, the last complete season. He needs only 23 to reach his milestone in 2021, and he’s likely to do it.

Strikeouts

  • Nearing milestones: Max Scherzer (Nationals) at 2,808, Zack Greinke (Astros) at 2,705, David Price (Dodgers) at 1,991.

  • Situation: Justin Verlander crossed the 3,000-strikeout threshold in late 2019, the 18th pitcher in the game’s history to do so. Scherzer and Greinke are the only active pitchers within 300 strikeouts of joining him, while Price is on the cusp of 2,000.

  • Prospects: Scherzer has delivered at least 240 strikeouts in each of his last seven complete seasons. If he can maintain that pace in 2021, he’ll cross 3,000 before the end of the year. Greinke is most likely to join him in 2022. Price, on the other hand, could be just days away from reaching 2,000.

Walks

  • Nearing milestones: Scott Kazmir (Giants) at 681, Zack Greinke (Astros) at 680.

  • Situation: Four active pitchers have walked at least 700 batters in their careers, led by Verlander with 851 bases on balls. Kazmir and Greinke are the closest active pitchers to 700 — 19 and 20 short, respectively.

  • Prospects: Kazmir gets an asterisk. He tried a comeback with the Giants this spring, but appears destined for the minors. Who knows if he will ever pitch in the majors again? Greinke gives up only 2.1 walks per nine innings, but he’s a cinch to issue at least 20 this season.

Wild pitches

  • Nearing milestones: Trevor Cahill (Pirates) at 99, Ervin Santana (Royals) at 97.

  • Situation: Cahill and Santana are the active leaders in wild pitches. They’re both exceedingly close to pushing their career totals to 100.

  • Prospects: Cahill uncorked 14 wild pitches in 2019 alone, making him a virtual lock to throw the single WP necessary to reach 100 for his career. Santana has reached double digits in five different seasons, giving him a very good chance of joining the 100-plus club.

Losses

  • Nearing milestones: Madison Bumgarner (Diamondbacks) at 98, Trevor Cahill (Pirates) at 96, Scott Kazmir (Giants) at 96, Max Scherzer (Nationals) at 94.

  • Situation: You have to be an awfully good pitcher to lose in triple digits. If not, you would have been released long before suffering the 100th defeat. Verlander has the most losses among active pitchers (129), with five others having reached the threshold of 100. The four men listed above are knocking on the door. 

  • Prospects: Bumgarner and Cahill have both suffered two losses so far this year. They’re almost certain to reach 100 defeats before the end of the 2021 season, and the same is true of Scherzer, who is six losses away. It remains to be seen if Kazmir will pitch in the big leagues.