The CC Sabathia farewell tour is bearing full steam ahead, and after his start Tuesday, has reached another milestone.
Sabathia is breathing some rare air after becoming the 17th major league pitcher – but just the third lefty – with at least 3,000 strikeouts. The first 1,265 came in an Indians uniform, still good for sixth all-time on the team’s career list.
Like so many other talented players (and unfortunately, probably more to come), Sabathia outpriced himself with the Indians, who traded him to Milwaukee during the 2008 season – the year after he’d won the Cy Young Award, the first Tribe pitcher to do so since Gaylord Perry. Sabathia essentially pitched the Brewers to the wild card (and by making the postseason, ensuring that the throw-in in that deal was a young outfield prospect named Michael Brantley), and after getting rocked in his lone postseason appearance against the Phillies (I was there!), followed the money to the Bronx.
His first two years in the Bronx were dominant, and in 2009, he got the World Series appearance – and win – that had eluded him in Cleveland and Milwaukee. But his time in pinstripes was a relatively fallow one for the Yankees (absent a World Series appearance this season, the 2010s will be the first decade in a century that the Yankees haven’t appeared in the Fall Classic), and his career seemed over five years ago, derailed by knee problems and alcoholism (Sabathia sought help for his problem following the 2015 season, and appears to have remained on the straight and narrow since).
Sabathia’s one of five pitchers to reach the milestone that spent any time in an Indians uniform, although two of them, Steve Carlton (another lefty) and Phil Niekro were both well past their primes when they pitched for the Tribe. In fact, both were teammates on that 1987 “Indian Uprising” team that had high expectations and ended up with 101 losses.
The other pitchers? Bert Blyleven and Gaylord Perry, who each spent several productive years mid-career with the Indians. Walter Johnson, the first pitcher to reach the milestone, did so against the Indians at League Park (his victim was another Hall of Fame pitcher, Stan Coveleski) and later managed the Tribe.
Johnson’s milestone barely registered, but two days later, in an interview with Hall of Fame umpire and sometime sportswriter Billy Evans, Johnson said, “Just so long as the ball continues lively, I don’t believe many pitchers are going to hang up a better than 3,000 strikeout mark for their major league careers. Naturally, I’m proud of my record and hope it stands.”
And it did for more than 60 years. In fact, the only pitcher over the following half-century to strike out at least 3,000 batters was Bob Gibson, whose career coincided with an era of pitching that was so dominant that the mound was lowered in response.
That ensuing half-century included some terrific Indians pitchers. Bob Feller remains atop the team list with 2,581 strikeouts, and he missed three entire years and a significant portion of a fourth – in his prime – because of service in World War II. Sam McDowell is second on the list with 2,159 Ks. McDowell, who went to San Francisco in the deal that brought Perry to Cleveland, had his career undone by alcoholism. Corey Kluber is third all-time with 1,458 whiffs heading into his start on Wednesday night. Even with the game being more strikeout-heavy than ever before, it’s hard to see him doubling his total in his career.
It’s worth noting that all but two of the other 16 are currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame – and the two that aren’t are Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling. Clemens would be a slam-dunk candidate were it not for allegations of performance-enhancing drug use. And Schilling? Well, his candidacy continues to be up for debate and certainly isn’t helped by his public pronouncements on a variety of topics.
With his 3,000th strikeout coming in his final season, there will be (and honestly should be) talk of a Hall of Fame candidacy for Sabathia. But how much of that talk is based on longevity over dominance?
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