Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Now that CC Sabathia has notched his 3,000th strikeout, it'll be tempting to boil that milestone down to what it says about his Hall of Fame credentials. It's a terrific boost, obviously, but Sabathia authored a marvelous, entertaining career long before he fanned John Ryan Murphy Wednesday night to hit that magic number.
So 3K strikeouts ought to be recognized as an occasion to appreciate what Sabathia has done in his 19 seasons, too, especially because he's retiring at the end of the year. There will be debate about whether he belongs in Cooperstown, but there's no denying that the ride has been something special.
And this nice, round number of strikeouts helps put Sabathia's career into perspective. Three thousand whiffs shows both brilliance and longevity. That's especially impressive for a pitcher who plenty thought was on the way out after the blaze left his fastball. Sabathia used a cutter to reinvent himself as a wizard of weak contact.
You have to wonder how many pitchers will join the 17 who now have 3,000 strikeouts (which, by the way, is 15 fewer members than the 3,000-hit club). Sure, strikeouts are plentiful these days, but starters are asked to do so much less. Who else will pitch - or will stay healthy enough to pitch - long enough to do it?
Justin Verlander, who is second among active pitchers, needs 256 and could reach 3,000 later this season. Max Scherzer, whose 162-game average for strikeouts is 250, according to baseball-reference.com, seems like a lock at age 34 as he sits at 2,503 strikeouts. Can 31-year-old Clayton Kershaw (2,296 strikeouts) endure enough to get there?
There have been flurries of pitchers reaching the milestone -- seven pitchers got their 3,000th strikeout in the 1980s and when John Smoltz got there in 2008, he was the fourth pitcher in four years.
But there have been stretches without the club getting a new member, too. After 1923, when Walter Johnson became the first pitcher with that many strikeouts, no one reached the milestone until Bob Gibson in 1974.
Now Sabathia is the latest and it's all part of a compelling career arc in which the big lefty morphed from 20-year-old phenom to Cy Young Award winner to World Champ. He's fought alcoholism and injuries. He became a vital clubhouse presence and adored teammate.
In 2008, after the Indians traded him to the Brewers as a mid-season rotation boost for playoff-starved Milwaukee, he was 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and routinely started on three days rest down the stretch. He finished fifth in the National League Cy Young voting that year and sixth for MVP, though he made only 17 starts for the Brewers.
Oh, and he did all that while risking his first foray into free agency -- that winter is when he signed a mega-deal with the Yankees. That only enhanced his clubhouse status and Brewers teammates were still talking reverentially about him long after he went to the Bronx.
Here's another snapshot of why he's got elite status as a teammate: In a game last season, Sabathia hit a Rays batter in retaliation, knowing that he'd get ejected from the game because warnings had been issued. Sabathia was in position to collect on a $500,000 innings-incentive in his contract, but the ejection meant he fell six outs shy of a fat check.
But Sabathia thought the message to an opponent - delivered with both horsehide and a parting "That's for you, (bleep)" at the pitcher who had thrown near Austin Romine - was more important. There's no stat for that, but it's the kind of thing that resonates with teammates. The Yankees later gave Sabathia the bonus money anyway, according to the Associated Press.
There will be debate over Sabathia's Hall of Fame chances. Some voters will say he didn't do enough, despite a nifty peak from 2006-12. His ERA of 3.69 (entering Wednesday's game) is high for a Hall of Famer - only three enshrined pitchers have a worse mark. But newly elected Mike Mussina had a career mark of 3.68 and their eras overlapped. Jamie Moyer has more wins (269).
To other voters, Sabathia's case is clear. "To me, he's a slam dunk," said one, who spoke on condition of anonymity and cited, among other pluses, Sabathia's "long-term excellence with a significant period of greatness in his prime."
Sabathia, a six-time All-Star who won the 2007 AL Cy Young Award, has 10 postseason wins and was the MVP of the 2009 ALCS for beating the Angels twice. He had some October stumbles, too - he pitched poorly in the 2007 ALCS as his Indians blew a 2-0 lead to Boston. His postseason ERA is 4.31 in 24 games (23 starts).
But Sabathia is also the AL's all-time leader in strikeouts by a lefty, and trails only Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson overall. Besides Sabathia, who is not yet eligible, the only pitchers with 3,000 career strikeouts who are not in the Hall of Fame are Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens.
Hitting that milestone certainly bolsters Sabathia's Cooperstown case, though we'll have to see if he ever gets there. For now, it should be celebrated as another marker of excellence in a brilliant career.