Two nights ago, CC Sabathia entered storied company, to say the least. In his last start against the Twins he struck out his 2,833rd batter, the third-most among left-handed pitchers in major league history. He passed Mickey Lolich, and the only two pitchers above him now are Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson. That also puts him at 18th most all-time among all starters, just a shade below Jim Bunning.
Bunning is a Hall of Famer, as are Carlton and Johnson (Lolich is not). These are different eras, though; Sabathia was one of the best pitchers of an era where starters were easily striking out at least one batter per inning, and now the best pitchers in the game average above that. It was only natural that a starter with over 3000 innings in the modern era would have a similar amount of punchouts.
I think it’s nearly time, as Sabathia sets such a high counting stat total and with his Yankees career coming to a close, to assess what his case looks like for the Hall of Fame. It’s certainly a tenuous one, and it would require a shift in the voters’ view of the institution itself. Impossible it is not, though, and I don’t think the notion should be dismissed out of hand.
CC Sabathia has been a starting pitcher my entire baseball-viewing life, so he has longevity on his side. The first thing any candidate requires is length, and while 300 wins used to be a standard, I would say the better one is at the bare minimum one must have 15 years played and/or at least 2500 innings. Sabathia has both of those.
The other qualification is playing better than those of your time. Comparing across eras is incredibly tricky, but my argument forthcoming is essentially that pitchers in the post-steroids, post-bullpen specialization era are not going to rack up counting stats anymore, and their longevity isn’t going to be the same. If anything, Sabathia might be the swan song of that era.
Sabathia, for the most part, was a horse: he averaged 32 starts and 213 innings a year from 2001 to 2013; and, he was unsurprisingly better than most of his peers. Here is where he ranked for starters from 2001 to the present:
- Innings pitched: 1st
- fWAR: 1st
- RA9-WAR: 2nd
- ERA-: 28th
- FIP-: 26th
This may seem almost underwhelming, and I guess it seems that way when we’re piggy-backed against an era where Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens all existed. There aren’t many inner circle players in our midst, other than Clayton Kershaw.
JAWS generally agrees with this, as Roy Halladay is the highest of those who retired after 2010, up at 42nd. Kershaw is 60th, and Zack Greinke is one place behind. Sabathia himself is the next closest at 70th, then followed by Justin Verlander, Tim Hudson, Johan Santana, and Mark Buehrle—all in the ~60 win territory.
It is very possible that no one of this era hits 100 WAR, and that means that our goalpost might shift. Yet if we live in a time where Mike Mussina has trouble getting in, someone who is actually inner circle, I’m still skeptical that Sabathia gets the look he deserves.
He does have the things voters do like that Mussina never had—the World Series win, the Cy Young award, and a 20-win season. We are going to get to a point, I believe, where starting pitchers’ standing vis-à-vis the Hall of Fame will change in a non-trivial way, where about 60-75 wins is the “new normal,” at risk of entering the world where nearly no starting pitchers get in the Hall as bullpens and increasing stress of starting eats away at the possibility of any of them hitting the necessary thresholds.
Even if attitudes change, Sabathia’s bid could still be sputtered by his now-reclaimed-but-still-mediocre tail-end of his career, about a 95 ERA+ from 2013 to today. He has obviously redeemed himself—a 115 ERA+ in the past two seasons is nothing to scoff at—but I doubt he truly gets the innings to boost his counting stats enough to make a true difference.
This is a debate a decade away. Attitudes on starters in the Hall might be completely different, and he could look rather favorably against other pitchers of his time. He could also be a Hall of Nearly Great type, just casually perched on the outside. Worse pitchers have gotten the honor, though, and I truly hope he does get it. Watching Sabathia has been something very special over the past nine years in the Bronx, and you can’t take that away. Whatever his status ends up as, that strikeout leaderboard merely puts in perspective how prolific he has been in our time.