CC Sabathia Joins the 3,000 Strikeout Club

On Tuesday night in Arizona, CC Sabathia claimed a little slice of baseball history. With his strikeout of the Diamondbacks’ John Ryan Murphy, the 38-year-old Yankee became just the 17th pitcher to reach 3,000 for his career, the first since John Smoltz on April 22, 2008, and just the third southpaw ever, after Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson. It’s a milestone worthy of celebration, a testament to longevity, dominance, and tenacity. It’s also inextricably a product of this high-strikeout era, a point worth considering when placing Sabathia’s accomplishment in context.

But first, to savor the moment. Sabathia, who entered the night three strikeouts short of 3,000, collected all three in the second inning, first freezing David Peralta looking at a sinker, then whiffing Christian Walker on a high cutter. After yielding a solo homer to Wilmer Flores and an infield single to Nick Ahmed — the latter on an 0-2 changeup well outside the strike zone — he induced Murphy (who caught Sabathia’s 2,500th strikeout in 2015) to chase an 84.2 mph changeup:

Alas, while Diamondbacks starter Zack Greinke — himself a potential 3,000 strikeout club member, more on which below — held the banged-up Yankee lineup to a single run over 7.2 innings, Flores also added a fourth-inning RBI double off Sabathia. The big lefty departed on the short end of a 2-1 score, and the Yankees ultimately lost, 3-1, putting a mild damper on the celebration.

Of the major traditional milestones among pitchers and hitters, 3,000 strikeouts is the least common. Thirty-two players have notched at least 3,000 hits, and 27 have swatted 500 home runs. On the pitching side, 24 pitchers have collected 300 wins. Nearly all of the players who have reached any of those round numbers have been elected to the Hall of Fame, with the exceptions generally related to performance-enhancing drugs and other bad behavior. Among the members of the 3,000 strikeout club who have preceded Sabathia, only Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling remain outside, for reasons besides on-field performance. This could very well be the big man’s ticket to Cooperstown.

Now in his 19th and final season, Sabathia has never led his league in strikeouts, and he’s not about to break that streak this year given the constraints of his workload. Still, for the first 12 years of his career (2001-12), he was a staple of the strikeout leaderboard, with nine top-10 finishes in the AL. He placed second with 230 in 2011, and fifth with 209 in 2007; three times he cracked the top 10 while totaling exactly 197 strikeouts, most recently in 2012. He also ranked second in the majors with a career high 251 in 2008, the year that he helped the Brewers secure their first playoff berth in 26 years after being traded from the Indians on July 7.

The 2012 season was not only Sabathia’s last time on the strikeout leaderboard, it was also the last of his six All-Star appearances, and more or less marked the end of his tenure as an ace. From 2006-2012, nobody threw more innings than his 1,591.2, only Roy Halladay had a higher WAR than his 40.0, and only Halladay and Brandon Webb had lower ERA- than his 72, or lower FIP- than his 74. Sabathia was just 32 years old at that point, but he already had 2,564.1 innings under his belt, an average of 214 per year. His time since then has been spent battling injuries, alcoholism, and the aging process, with varying — but often inspiring — degrees of success.

Sabathia ended his 2018 season 14 strikeouts shy of 3,000, and between a pair of offseason surgeries (one to clean up his chronically cranky right knee and the other to clear a blocked artery in his heart), he didn’t make his 2019 season debut until April 13. In three starts totaling 15 innings, he’d allowed just 10 hits and six runs (four earned) while striking out 11 and walking four. Going into last Wednesday’s start against the Angels, he needed six strikeouts to get to 3,000, a single-game total he hadn’t reached in any of his previous seven starts dating back to last August 29. He got just three while surrendering three home runs, two of them to Andrelton Simmons. Not his night.

Despite the milestone, strikeouts haven’t been Sabathia’s priority lately. With his mid-90s four-seamer a distant memory, and a cut fastball/slider combo his bread and butter, his focus has been on economy and preventing hard contact. Via Statcast, last year’s 26.6% hard hit rate (batted balls with exit velocities of 95.0 mph or higher) placed him in the 97th percentile, his 84.4 mph average exit velocity in the 98th. His 21.1% strikeout rate, by contrast, ranked in just the 37th percentile among AL starters with at least 150 innings.

Modest as it is now, that 21.1% is very close to Sabathia’s rate in some of his big seasons, such as the aforementioned 2007 campaign, when he won the AL Cy Young award on the basis of a 19-7 record and a 3.21 ERA in 241 innings; that year, he struck out 21.4%. League-wide strikeout rates have been on the rise for virtually his entire career, climbing from 16.5% in 2001, his rookie season, to 17.0% in 2007, to 19.4% in 2012, and to 22.1% last year. The rates have actually been rising, albeit with less consistency, for nearly a century; they’ve nearly tripled since 1916, which is far back as our per plate appearance-based version of strikeout rate (as opposed to strikeouts per nine) goes. Here’s a graph of them as compared to walk rates, which have fluctuated within a much narrower range during that timespan:

That backdrop adds something when considering the 3,000 strikeout club, which numbered exactly one pitcher — Walter Johnson, who reached the mark on July 22, 1923 — until July 17, 1974, when Bob Gibson joined him. A flurry of eight pitchers, members of That Seventies Group who showed incredible durability and pitched their way into Cooperstown, reached 3,000 during the 1978-86 timespan. They did so despite pitching primarily when strikeout rates were in the decline phase shown above, which was brought about by a combination of factors, including the lowering of the mound and the shrinking of the strike zone after 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, and the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973. Benefitting from more consistently climbing strikeout rates, another wave of six pitchers joined from 1998-2008. Here’s the group:

The 3,000 Strikeout Club, with Adjusted Rates
Pitcher Seasons SO IP Date K% K%+ ERA- FIP-
Nolan Ryan 1966, ’68–93 5714 5386.0 7/4/1980 25.3% 183 90 83
Randy Johnson 1988–2009 4875 ​4135.1 9/10/2000 28.6% 176 75 73
Roger Clemens 1984–2007 4672 ​4916.2 7/5/1998 23.1% 150 70 71
Steve Carlton 1965–1988 4136 ​5217.1 4/29/1981 19.1% 135 87 87
Bert Blyleven 1970–1992 3701 4970.0 8/1/1986 18.1% 133 85 82
Tom Seaver 1967–1986 3640 ​4782.2 4/18/1981 18.8% 133 79 85
Don Sutton 1966–1988 3574 ​5282.1 6/24/1983 16.5% 117 92 91
Gaylord Perry 1962–1983 3534 ​5350.1 10/1/1978 16.1% 115 85 85
Walter Johnson 1907–1927 3508 ​5914.2 7/22/1923 15.0% 152 68 76
Greg Maddux 1986–2008 3371 ​5008.1 7/26/2005 16.5% 100 76 78
Phil Niekro 1964–1987 3342 ​5404.1 7/4/1984 14.7% 105 86 95
Ferguson Jenkins 1965–1983 3192 ​4500.2 5/25/1982 17.4% 125 87 88
Pedro Martínez 1992–2009 3154 ​2827.1 9/3/2007 27.7% 168 66 68
Bob Gibson 1959–1975 3117 ​3884.1 7/17/1974 19.4% 130 78 81
Curt Schilling 1988–2007 3116 3261.0 8/30/2006 23.5% 139 80 76
John Smoltz 1988–99, 2001–09 3084 3473.0 4/22/2008 21.6% 130 81 78
CC Sabathia 2001-2019 3002 3490.1 4/30/2019 20.6% 114 86 86
Date = date of 3,000th strikeout. K%+ = league-adjusted strikeout rate, based on strikeouts per plate appearance for all pitchers except Walter Johnson, whose rate is based on strikeouts per nine innings.

That third column from the right, K%+, is a stat that’s been on my personal wish list since the time when I was writing The Cooperstown Casebook, one that I’ve used a couple of times since, first in a homebrewed version for a September 2017 SI.com piece on Chris Sale as he reached 300 strikeouts, and then, with the help of David Appelman, for an article on Max Scherzer, which teased the arrival of a user-accessible version for FanGraphs. Last month, Appelman unveiled our new suite of “Plus Stats,” going beyond just an adjusted strikeout rate. Like the familiar wRC+, K%+ indexes a player or team performance to that of the league, with 100 being average, 120 being 20% above average, and 80 being 20% below average. The catch here is that these stats currently aren’t park-adjusted, just league-adjusted (the additional adjustment may come in time). For the application that I’ve most desired — this ability to compare pitcher strikeout rates across era, with the aforementioned ups and downs in mind — I don’t think this is too big a deal. I’m actually not the first person to suggest K%+, either; Bill Petti introduced a version of K+% for a Stephen Strasburg piece in 2012, albeit using MLB-wide rates rather than league-specific ones, which become particularly important during the DH era. One other caveat: since our batters faced totals only go back to 1916 (Baseball-Reference’s go further), I’ve substituted K/9+ for Walter Johnson’s figure above; for the 1916-27 period, his K%+ is 160.

With that out of the way, what you can see above is that by this methodology, Sabathia’s 114 K%+ is the third-lowest adjusted strikeout rate of the group, ahead of only Maddux — who basically maintained a league-average rate across over 5,000 innings, no small accomplishment given that four of the 12 other pitchers to reach that threshold did so during careers based partly or wholly in the 19th century — and Niekro. Meanwhile, his raw strikeout rate (20.6%) ranks seventh in this group, ahead of five pitchers from That Seventies Group who surpassed Johnson’s career total, but it underscores the extent to which this particular achievement stems from a combination of longevity and timing.

Fair enough. Within this group, Sabathia is in somewhat better standing when it comes to ERA- and FIP-, which are both park-adjusted — ahead of four pitchers in both categories, and even with one in the former — but due to his combination of run prevention and relative shortage of innings, he’s got the lowest WAR, both by our version (66.4) and by that of Baseball Reference (63.2). His 39.3 peak score (best seven seasons via bWAR) surpasses Smoltz (38.8) and Sutton (33.9), while his 51.3 JAWS surpasses only the latter (50.3).

That’s hardly the final word on Sabathia’s Hall of Fame case, but let’s put it aside for now. What to make of the fact that he’s only the third lefty to reach 3,000 strikeouts after Carlton and Randy Johnson, both of whom struck out batters with far more frequency relative to their leagues?

It turns out that researching strikeout rates by pitcher handedness is a damn chore, at least if you don’t have database skillz. Our splits tool is perfect for the task, but only back to 2002, as far back as our splits data goes. Baseball-Reference’s splits, which are built upwards from the individual player game logs, tracks yearly sums by batter handedness, but not by pitcher handedness. B-Ref’s Sean Forman provided a pointer to this page, but cleaning up that mess (matching “”vs RHB as LHP” and “vs LHB as LHP” and their right-handed versions for every season) was on me. Long story short, given the gaps in play-by-play data, I’ve been able to create a reasonably complete accounting of strikeout splits by pitcher handedness that goes back to 1958. Within that span, only in 1968 did the data coverage dip below 99.5%, and I was able to get back to 100% by summing the individual pitchers by handedness via Play Index exports. Given a greater appetite for tedium, I’ll do the same for earlier seasons at some point.

That moment of kvetching aside, here’s a graph showing the breakdown:

While in any given year the gap between lefty and righty strikeout rates has ranged from 1.8% in favor of lefties (1959) to 0.9% in favor of righties (1989), for the entire 62-year period the two rates are nearly equal, 16.07% for lefties versus 16.1% for righties. For the span of Sabathia’s career, the tilt is slightly towards lefties (18.85% versus 18.73%); applying those averages to his total of 14,603 batters faced yields a difference of 18 strikeouts between lefties and righties. Given that information, Sabathia’s handedness doesn’t appear to have put him at a substantial disadvantage in pursuing the milestone.

That said, the fluctuating percentages of batters faced by lefties over the 1958-2019 timespan — from a low of 23.2% (1959) to a high of 33.9% (1990) — suggests a relative scarcity of southpaws at times, whether due to a talent shortage or more tactical concerns. Sabathia’s entire career has taken place during a long stretch of comparative scarcity:

I’ve included both the percentages of plate appearances by lefty pitchers and by lefty hitters in a given season. While the latter have become more prevalent during Sabathia’s career, they have not been countered by a similar increase in lefty pitchers. Taken together, I think this suggests it’s a bit harder for a left-handed pitcher to get traction towards 3,000.

A look at the K%+ leaderboard for lefties serves to remind that there are some hard-luck stories that have limited the club’s growth, too. Here are the 25 southpaws with at least 2,000 strikeouts (by contrast, there are 57 such righties), ranked by K+%:

Left-Handed Pitchers With 2,000 Strikeouts
Pitcher Years IP TBF SO K% K%+ ERA- FIP-
Randy Johnson 1988-2009 4135.1 17067 4875 28.6% 176 75 73
Steve Carlton 1965-1988 5217.1 21683 4136 19.1% 135 87 87
CC Sabathia 2001-2019 3490.1 14558 3002 20.6% 114 86 86
Mickey Lolich 1963-76, ’78-79 3638.1 15140 2832 18.7% 128 96 87
Frank Tanana 1973-1993 4188.1 17641 2773 15.7% 118 94 96
Chuck Finley 1986-2002 3197.2 13638 2610 19.1% 124 87 88
Tom Glavine 1987-2008 4413.1 18604 2607 14.0% 84 86 94
Warren Spahn 1942, ’46-65 5243.2 21547 2583 12.0% 102 84 94
Jerry Koosman 1967-1985 3839.1 15996 2556 16.0% 117 91 90
Mark Langston 1984-1999 2963.0 12562 2464 19.6% 133 93 91
Jim Kaat 1959-1983 4530.1 19023 2461 12.9% 90 93 91
Sam McDowell 1961-1975 2492.1 10587 2453 23.2% 153 90 83
Cole Hamels 2006-2019 2589.2 10585 2452 14.1% 118 81 87
Andy Pettitte 1995-2013 3316.0 14074 2448 23.1% 104 86 83
Jamie Moyer 1986-91, ’93-2010, ’12 4074.0 17356 2441 17.4% 87 97 102
Sandy Koufax 1955-1966 2324.1 9497 2396 25.2% 173 75 75
Rube Waddell 1897, ’99-1910 2961.1 11717 2316 19.8% 197 75 72
Clayton Kershaw 2008-2019 2116.1 8300 2296 27.6% 137 62 67
Lefty Grove 1925-1941 3940.2 16633 2266 13.6% 170 68 76
Eddie Plank 1901-1917 4495.2 17803 2246 12.6% 119 81 86
Tommy John 1963-74, ’76-89 4710.1 19692 2245 11.4% 81 90 89
Jon Lester 2006-2019 2385.0 9890 2209 22.3% 115 82 89
David Wells 1987-2007 3439.0 14413 2201 15.3% 97 93 90
Vida Blue 1969-83, ’85-86 3343.1 13837 2175 15.7% 117 92 94
Fernando Valenzuela 1980-1997 2930.0 12398 2074 16.7% 112 96 96
Adjusted strikeout rates of Waddell and Plank are based upon strikeouts per nine innings.

Koufax certainly had the talent to reach 3,000, but he was done at age 30 due to arm troubles. Grove spent his age 20-24 seasons dominating the International League from ages 20-24, so he didn’t debut in the majors until age 25; he might have had a shot at 3,000 given that he averaged 167 strikeouts per year over his first five seasons, though he totaled just 116 (against 131 walks) as a rookie. McDowell was done at 32 due to injuries and alcoholism (“The last four years of my career, I was a full-blown, third-stage alcoholic,” he confessed). Tanana arrived as a heat thrower, and posted a 168 K+% from 1973-77, but overuse turned him into a soft-tossing junkballer with a 102 K+% over his final 16 seasons. Langston totaled just 314 innings in four seasons from ages 35-38. Lolich retired after his age 36 season (1977) in order to escape his contract with the Mets, opening a doughnut shop in his downtime; he threw just 84 innings in two seasons after coming back. A cocaine problem derailed Blue, who totaled 373 innings after age 32. Valenzuela threw just 581.1 innings after his age-29 season due to arm woes. With some combination of better luck, better decisions, and more timely innovations in sports medicine and pitcher workload management, maybe a few of the aforementioned lefties, all of whom except Blue struck out batters more frequently relative to their leagues than Sabathia, would have joined the 3,000 club.

I don’t think the hard-luck stories among the righties in the 2,000-2,999 range are as prevalent, though one can find some who might have gotten there as well under different circumstances. Jim Bunning (2,855 strikeouts, 129 K%+) didn’t get a foothold in the majors until age 25 because the Tigers tried to get him to abandon his violent sidearm/three-quarters delivery. Mike Mussina (2,813 strikeouts, 121 K%+) could certainly have come back for another season or two instead of retiring at age 38. Bob Feller (2,581 strikeouts, 168 K%+) lost his age 23-25 seasons to military service. Don Drysdale (2,486, 121 K%+) was done at age 32 due to a torn rotator cuff. All of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame nonetheless, and their absences from the 3,000 strikeout club aren’t as noticeable given the number of other righties there.

That Sabathia got there, even while aided by a high-strikeout era, thus rates as one hell of an impressive accomplishment. Even so, I do think that the five-year waiting period between his retirement and appearance on the 2025 Hall of Fame ballot will provide additional perspective, given that seven active pitchers have at least 2,200 strikeouts, three of them lefties. Not all of them are humming along (sorry, Mariners fans) but by the time Sabathia reaches the ballot, the 3,000 club may well have expanded:

Active Pitchers Approaching 3,000 Strikeouts
Pitcher Age IP TBF SO K% K%+ ERA- FIP-
Justin Verlander 36 2803.0 11519 2759 24.0% 125 79 81
Max Scherzer 34 2157.0 8744 2503 28.6% 142 78 77
Felix Hernandez 33 2689.1 11094 2488 22.5% 120 83 84
Zack Greinke 35 2707.1 11088 2474 22.4% 117 81 83
Cole Hamels+ 35 2589.2 10636 2445 23.1% 118 81 87
Clayton Kershaw+ 31 2116.1 8325 2296 27.6% 137 62 67
Jon Lester+ 35 2385.0 9909 2204 22.3% 115 82 89
+ = left-handed

What those pitchers accomplish, or don’t, over the next few years will help frame the Hall of Fame debates to come concerning starting pitchers of what I’ve called the workload constraint era, and there will be ample time to debate their merits. This moment belongs to Sabathia, and whether or not it’s the capstone of career that ends in Cooperstown, it’s worthy of commemoration.

We hoped you liked reading CC Sabathia Joins the 3,000 Strikeout Club by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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CC AFC
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CC AFC

Put the man in the hall.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I agree, but I suspect you’re not a particularly neutral party in the matter. It would be like if I was advocating for the saddest pitchers to get into the hall.

CC AFC
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CC AFC

So, obviously being a Yankees fan, I’m not entirely objective. I do think the hall voters have set overly restrictive standards for starting pitchers. If a guy this good for this long doesn’t go in, I just don’t know what to do.

For whatever it’s worth, CC should get a boost as well, IMHO, for publicly addressing his alcohol problem. He didn’t have to do that, but I’d like to think it helped a lot of people (or just a few people) to see a prominent person address his issues without shame. I think it’s a good thing for baseball to recognize people who do positive things beyond the playing surface.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I was accusing you of something far more innocent, Carsten Charles AFC (Jr).