Baseball is about to see a player enter one of its most exclusive clubs, and it could happen in CC Sabathia's next start.
With three more K's, Sabathia, who has announced that 2019 is his final season, would become just the 17th pitcher to reach the 3,000 mark, joining this list (date of 3,000th strikeout in parentheses):
Walter Johnson (July 22, 1923)
Bob Gibson (July 17, 1974)
Gaylord Perry (Oct. 1, 1978)
Nolan Ryan (July 4, 1980)
Tom Seaver (April 18, 1981)
Steve Carlton (April 29, 1981)
Fergie Jenkins (May 25, 1982)
Don Sutton (June 24, 1983)
Phil Niekro (July 4, 1984)
Bert Blyleven (Aug. 1, 1986)
Roger Clemens (July 5, 1998)
Randy Johnson (Sept. 10, 2000)
Greg Maddux (July 26, 2005)
Curt Schilling (Aug. 30, 2006)
Pedro Martinez (Sept. 3, 2007)
John Smoltz (April 22, 2008)
Three thousand strikeouts is a mark that requires excellence and longevity, which means there's a good number of legendary aces (e.g. Tom Glavine, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts, Dwight Gooden, Jim Palmer, etc.) who aren't listed above. In fact, the 3,000-K fraternity is markedly smaller than baseball's other marquee clubs; 39 position players have stolen 500 bases, 32 have knocked 3,000 hits, 27 have clubbed 500 home runs and 24 pitchers have won 300 games.
So while Sabathia might not end up as the most famous or celebrated pitcher of his generation, it's still worth acknowledging the Hall of Fame credentials he's compiling -- beginning with that strikeout total. Here's a little more context for just how hard it is for a pitcher to cross that 3,000-K threshold:
• Walter Johnson was the first to notch 3,000 strikeouts when he punched out fellow pitcher Stan Coveleski on July 22, 1923. Baseball then had to wait nearly 51 years to the day until the next pitcher, Gibson, reached the mark on July 17, 1974. In comparison, only 11 years passed until Jimmie Foxx joined Babe Ruth as the second member of the 500-homer club in 1940. It took 17 years for Honus Wagner to join Cap Anson in the 3,000-hit club, and just two years for Tim Keefe to join Pud Galvin as the second 300-win pitcher.
• Sabathia would be the first pitcher since Smoltz in 2008 to cross 3,000 strikeouts, and that 11-year gap would be the third-longest in the club's history behind Johnson to Gibson, and the 12 years between Blyleven (1986) and Clemens (1998).
The 300-win club had one gap of nearly 13 years between Ryan (1990) and Clemens (2003), but has not seen another void of at least 10 years since the 20-year span from Lefty Grove in 1941 to Warren Spahn in '61. Meanwhile, the 500-homer club's longest wait between members over the last half century was the nine-year wait from Mike Schmidt (1987) to Eddie Murray (1996). The longest gap between 3,000-hit members in that span was seven years between Rod Carew (1985) and Robin Yount (1992).
• More pitchers have twirled a perfect game (23) in modern history than compiled 3,000 strikeouts. Nearly as many pitchers (12) have recorded an immaculate inning over the past two seasons alone.
• There were 31 other pitchers who debuted alongside Sabathia in 2001, compiled at least 1,000 strikeouts and have since retired or not signed with a team for 2019. Among that group, John Lackey came the closest to Sabathia in that span, finishing with 2,294 K's.
• While it's true that Sabathia is currently pitching in a strikeout-rich era, he didn't necessarily start in one. The Major League strikeout rate was 17.3 percent in the year that Sabathia debuted, and it would not eclipse that level until 2008, when strikeout rates begin rising every season until the most recent record of 22.3 percent last year. Sabathia's current career strikeout rate of 20.6 percent would trail six other 3,000-K members (Randy Johnson, Martinez, Ryan, Schilling, Clemens and Smoltz) who debuted before him.
• Justin Verlander (2,752 strikeouts) figures to be next in line after Sabathia, and there's an outside chance he also reaches the milestone this year if he improves just slightly on his career-high 290-K total from 2018. As Bartolo Colon (2,535) and Félix Hernández (2,488) wind down their careers, Max Scherzer (2,493) seems like the next logical candidate. Scherzer could get there as soon as 2020 if he maintains his average strikeout rate (33.4 percent) and batters faced totals (849) from the least three seasons.
But there could be another long wait after Mad Max. Zack Greinke (2,467) and Cole Hamels (2,438) are both in their age-35 seasons, and while Clayton Kershaw (2,288) turned 31 in March, he just posted his lowest strikeout rate since his rookie campaign. The next closest pitcher to 3,000 who's currently 30 or younger is Chris Sale, who's sitting on 1,813 punchouts. That leaves Sale with 1,187 more strikeouts to go, and 57 pitchers in modern history have racked up that many after their age-29 seasons. Only 10 of those pitchers, however, compiled those 1,187 strikeouts by the end of their age-35 seasons -- and the last pitcher to do so before Verlander last year was Schilling in 2002.
• The biggest hurdle for aspiring 3,000-K pitchers used to be that hitters simply didn't strike out all that often. Now, it's a question of workload.
Only 13 pitchers reached 200 innings in 2018, a record low point for any non-strike season since 1900. Meanwhile, the members of the 3,000-K club combined for 234 200-inning seasons, for an average of roughly 15 such campaigns per pitcher. In fact, the club contains 11 of the top 21 pitchers in history for most 200-inning seasons compiled, topping out with the all-time leader Sutton at 20.
Sabathia, conversely, has recorded eight 200-inning seasons in his career, and only Martinez (7) recorded fewer among 3,000-strikeout members. He and Verlander represent the merge point between old- and new-school approaches to strikeout stockpiling, but the road to 3,000 continues to be one of the toughest milestone journeys in the sport.