MLB Analysis: Historical Look at CC Sabathia's Greatness


Recently, Yankee starting pitcher CC Sabathia celebrated his 31st birthday. Shortly afterwards, he won his 172nd career game. That’s not bad, 172 wins less than a week after turning 31.

It brings up the question: How does Sabathia compare with other pitchers prior to their 31st birthdays? Where does he stand historically?

Let’s look it up and see how Sabathia’s 171 wins before turning 31 years old compares historically. It’s best to limit any comparisons to 1920-onward pitchers. If you included deadballers and 19th-century guys, they’d dominate the list. Simply put, the game has changed too much to make them effective comps for anyone more recent.

Below is a list of the 25 winningest liveball pitchers prior to turning 31 years old. I might have missed one or two guys, but I think I got everyone. They’re grouped into fives to make it easier to read. Listed are their wins before their 31st birthday, then in parentheses their full career victories, and then their names:

202 (224) Catfish Hunter
192 (266) Bob Feller
191 (207) Hal Newhouser
190 (193) Wes Ferrell
189 (286) Robin Roberts

185 (209) Don Drysdale
174 (268) Jim Palmer
173 (237) Waite Hoyt
171 (???) CC Sabathia
171 (223) Mel Harder

170 (243) Juan Marichal
168 (311) Tom Seaver
167 (287) Bert Blyleven
167 (355) Greg Maddux
165 (209) Vida Blue

165 (174) Ken Holtzman
165 (189) Lefty Gomez
165 (184) Dave McNally
165 (165) Sandy Koufax
161 (354) Roger Clemens

161 (200) George Uhle
157 (194) Dwight Gooden
156 (209) Milt Pappas
155 (324) Don Sutton
152 (219) Pedro Martinez

There are quite a few very highly talented pitchers listed there. And Milt Pappas.

Anyhow, Sabathia is tied for ninth, which is certainly impressive. It’s the best start anyone has had since Jim Palmer. Also impressive. (Or, if you want to make it sound less impressive, he’s off to as good a start as Mel Harder).

Interesting point: Only four of the 25 won 300 games, including none in the top 11. In part that’s because many here blew their arms out, as you can see by all the guys under or barely over 200 career wins. Also, it’s because winning 300 games depends largely on what you do after your 31st birthday. Palmer didn’t really age that poorly. He just stopped winning 20 games every year and didn’t last as long as someone like Don Sutton.

On a final note, this list gives some new appreciation for Catfish Hunter. Not normally considered to be a great pitcher—especially not in sabermetric circles—he was an all-time great workhorse. Adjust for run support all you want, and he’d still score very highly.

As for Sabathia, if he ages well, he has a very good shot to win 300. Heck, if he stays on hard-hitting teams like the Yankees and ages as well as Maddux and Clemens did, he has at least a chance to become the winningest pitcher since Pete Alexander.

History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail.

Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.


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