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10 Degrees: Among today's aces, CC Sabathia has best shot at exclusive 300-win club

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

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CC Sabathia's velocity is down but he says he's relying on location to stay effective. (USA Today Sports)

The pitching victory has taken a beating in recent years, and rightfully so. It often makes bad pitchers look good, weakly correlates with actual performance and somehow still remains relevant. The win is like a Buckingham Palace guard: bathed in glory for showing nothing.

A single victory for a pitcher means nothing in the larger context. Same for a year's worth. Or, for that matter, five years'. When they start to add up, something funny happens: They start to become significant. And indicative. And a damn good arbiter for excellence. Because more and more, in an era after steroids and amphetamines were the peanut butter and jelly of clubhouses everywhere, excellence has been redefined not just as superior performance but performance plus longevity.

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Randy Johnson was the last pitcher to win 300 career games, doing it as a Giant in 2009. (Y! Sports)

Especially among starting pitchers. One whose arm lasts 20 years without significant injury, or even after a major surgery, is a miracle. It's why even as the single-season home run record was obliterated into a punch line and the 500-home run club was bastardized by juiceheads and the 3,000-hit party looks primed to swell, the group of 300-game winners became the most distinguished and difficult to join in baseball.

While it was not immune to alleged steroid users – Roger Clemens is one of the 24 members – the 300 club's most recent inductees have combined greatness with longevity. If a decent offensive player hangs around for almost two decades, he can approach 3,000 hits. (See: Damon, Johnny or Vizquel, Omar.) Simply decent pitchers don't hang around for 20 years, and with the advent of the five-man rotation, even the great ones who do may not hit 300.

The likeliest today is CC Sabathia. He ranks fourth among active pitchers with 195 wins and is by far the youngest of the group (he turns 33 in July). He has never missed more than five starts in a season, plays for a New York Yankees team that perennially wins and carries the size (6-foot-7, 300 pounds) and stamina that portends longevity, even if his declining velocity may say otherwise.

"It's a long way away for me," Sabathia said. "It's a big number for a pitcher, yeah, of course, but you've got to be lucky, you've got to play for good teams and you've got to … "

He turned around and knocked on his wooden locker. Being the standard bearer for 300 when not even two-thirds of the way there yet is indeed daunting. Though we must remember …

1. CC Sabathia, after spending the first eight years of his career in the comforts of Cleveland and Milwaukee, went to the Bronx and became arguably the best free-agent signing ever for the Yankees. Over his first four seasons in New York, he went 74-29 with a 3.22 ERA. Only Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander threw more innings. Among regular starters, his adjusted ERA was sixth.

The only reason Sabathia won't reach 300 is if his arm declines to cooperate, and already it has shown signs of orneriness. After spending his entire career around 94 mph, Sabathia's fastball has leveled off at 90. Almost never does that velocity return.

"Coming to terms with it is the biggest thing," Sabathia said. "It's something everybody does. You're going to lose velocity. You've just got to know how to pitch. You get a better idea of how you want to get guys out. At the end of the day, velocity doesn't determine that. It's location."

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It's easy to say that when location is what he's got left. More than anything, it's health, at least if 300 wins is a realistic goal. In 2004, Sabathia said he missed a pair of starts because of shoulder soreness and developed a new training regimen. On the advice of Dr. James Andrews, he started manual-resistance exercises to strengthen his shoulder. He hasn't stopped and hasn't had a whit of shoulder trouble since. A good arm is why …

2. Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the next-best candidate to get 300, would need to average upward of 18 victories a year for the next seven seasons to keep pace with Sabathia. At 25 years old, Kershaw has 64 wins – barely 20 percent of the way there, with more than a decade of potential injury landmines awaiting, which goes to show how difficult 300 truly is.

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Clayton Kershaw (Getty Images)

The 24 members of the club break into four distinct groups. There were 11 pitchers who hit the mark before 1925. Over the next 56 years, only three joined them: Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn and Early Wynn. From 1982-90 came a barrage: Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan. And somehow the five-man-rotation era spit out four more between 2003 and 2009: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson.

Kershaw shares some qualities with them. Like Carlton, he's a left-hander who debuted at 20. Like Johnson, his strikeout-to-walk ratio keeps growing and should land at higher than 3-to-1. With another dozen victories this season, he would be sandwiched among a group of Maddux, Clemens and Sabathia who were all between 75 and 81 wins after their age-25 season.

Of course, should he keep up his torrid early pace …

3. Madison Bumgarner may wind up on an even better pace after his age-23 season. Consider:

 GSIPHBBKHRERACGW-L
Kershaw116716.1562278745462.88647-28
Bumgarner92587.2549137532523.112 40-31

More than three-quarters of this year remains for Bumgarner to add to those numbers, and his start – 4-1 with a 2.18 ERA, more than a strikeout an inning and better command than anyone has seen – is quite reminiscent of Kershaw's Cy Young season at the same age.

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Madison Bumgarner (AP)

Bumgarner already is in a tiny group: pitchers who debut in their age-19 season. The similar group of hitters over the last 25 years is incredibly distinguished. Ken Griffey Jr., Pudge Rodriguez, Adrian Beltre, Andruw Jones, the Upton brothers, Juan Gonzalez, Edgar Renteria and, as an 18-year-old, Alex Rodriguez. The only busts in the group are Eugene Kingsale, Karim Garcia and Wilson Betemit, and they get more than counterbalanced by the latest four: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Jurickson Profar.

The pitching list is bustier than Morganna: Todd Van Poppel, Rosario Rodriguez, Matt Riley, Rich Garces, Rick Ankiel. Baltimore farmhand Dylan Bundy remains a question mark, while Wilson Alvarez and Edwin Jackson grew into serviceable innings eaters, Bumgarner a borderline ace and …

4. Felix Hernandez by far the greatest success story. If not Kershaw, he may run second behind Sabathia in likeliest to 300. At 27 years old, Hernandez has 103 victories, and if he played for a franchise that had been worth a damn over the last decade, he might have 30 or 40 more. Behind Hernandez on the active list are Zack Greinke (92), Cole Hamels (92) and Jon Lester (90), all of whom are 29, the latter two of whom have benefited from their great teams.

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Worth noting: The ones who start out fast don't always finish that way. The dirty secret of 300 is that the dirty work is done in your 30s. At 25, Johnson had 10 victories and at 30 just 81. He didn't reach 100 until his 32nd birthday. He is a freak, yes, and nobody could dream of pitching until 45, but Johnson showed a good finish beats a good start in the run to 300.

BETTER WITH AGE?
A look at total victories for pitchers by the time they hit a certain age:

 202530354045
Roger Clemens078163233310354
Greg Maddux275165257333355
Randy Johnson01081160246303
Tom Glavine053139224290305
CC Sabathia1781176------

It's what makes Roy Halladay and Johan Santana's injuries so devastating. At 201 victories, tied for second most among active players, Halladay, even at 35, seemed an outside candidate. Then his arm blew up, shoulder surgery beckoned and, barring a rare sort of recovery, he'll stay in the low 200s. Santana may well be done after his second shoulder surgery, leaving the 300-win pedestal among Mets pitchers to …

5. Matt Harvey and his 24-year-old arm. It's not exactly impossible. Granted, among the post-1941 crew, only Perry (a spitballer), Niekro (a knuckleballer) and Johnson (a freakish anomaly) debuted at 23 or later.

He's now at seven victories for his career – 2.3 percent of the way to 300 – after a no-decision on Sunday left his ERA at 1.44. It's worth mentioning Harvey not just because he's baseball's soup du jour but as a reminder: Getting to 300 entails far more than just greatness.

Say Harvey's arm lasts another 14 years. Over that time, if he happened to win 20 games every single season, he still wouldn't be a 300-game winner. As great as Harvey can look spinning one-hit, 12-strikeout shutouts, and as easily as …

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Shelby Miller (AP)

6. Shelby Miller can twirl a one-hit, 13-strikeout shutout as a 22-year-old rookie and shrug like one of the 20 best games pitched in modern baseball history is just another day at the ballpark, neither of those outings is, for the purpose of this particular statistic, any better than going five innings and giving up six runs while teammates drop a 10 spot. Both are worth exactly one pitcher's victory.

Just as he is in season ERA, Miller is one spot behind Harvey in career wins: seven to six. Miller's 1.58 ERA looks fancy enough not to be bothered by victories, and yet every starting pitcher admits the allure of two things: 200 innings and 20 victories.

The innings part is self-explanatory. The more innings a starter pitches, the greater help he can give. The 20-win club is, to borrow a phrase from Chris Rock, the bailiwick of the low-expectation-having you-know-what. Know who won 20 games? Rick Helling. And Russ Ortiz. And Jon Lieber. And even …

7. Tim Hudson when he was rocking a 4.14 ERA for the 2000 Oakland A's. It's one reason Hudson is tied with Halladay for second with 201 victories. They trail Andy Pettitte and his 249. Pettitte won't move up much. This is expected to be his last year, and because he's not close enough to 300, there's no sense in him hanging around well into his 40s, particularly when pitchers don't do that anymore.

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Tim Hudson is 99 wins away from joining the 300-win club. (AP)

Maybe this is proof that training and nutrition have gotten much better. But the parabola of 40-year-old-plus starting pitchers in the big leagues has reached a mighty nadir over the last five years.

2003: 3
2004: 4
2005: 6
2006: 8
2007: 11
2008: 6
2009: 2
2010: 1
2011: 0
2012: 2
2013: 2

Almost nobody keeps pitching until he's gray anymore. Hudson, a free agent this offseason, turns 38 in July. He stays in spectacular shape. His body has proven mighty resilient and his arm perfectly capable of surviving Tommy John surgery. With his predilection for groundballs, maybe Hudson can be that 300-win sleeper who lets his team do the work for him, as opposed to …

8. Matt Cain, who loves the ability to double-fist World Series rings and can't seem to explain how over an impressive career he has managed to average about 11 victories a season.

Seriously! Matt Cain has been pitching since 2005 and has 87 wins. His most came last year with 16, and in his full seasons before that, it was 14, 13, 13, 12, 8 and 7. Among starters with at least 1,000 innings since 2005, Cain ranks seventh in ERA, eighth in opponents' OPS, ninth in innings pitched and 27th in victories.

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Matt Cain (AP)

Cain is proof that no matter how good you are, victories may not necessarily pile up. It's a lesson for another, Jose Fernandez, like Cain a 20-year-old who debuted on a bad team. Fernandez is the youngest starter in the big leagues now and the youngest since Bumgarner's rookie season. He's got two victories and a long way to go to reach the top of the active leaderboard, which is as much an homage to old-time, throw-it-unless-your-arm-hurts baseball than anything.

Behind Pettitte, Halladay, Hudson and Sabathia: Derek Lowe (176), Mark Buehrle (175), Bartolo Colon (174), Barry Zito (163), Freddy Garcia (152) and A.J. Burnett (140). And a little further down, with 128, is …

9. Justin Verlander and what he hopes is a bionic arm. Because if he wants to do the sort of damage in his 30s that so many in the 300 club did, he'll need to do more of what he's done this year, piling up as many strikeouts as ever, keeping home runs from flying and turning his age-30 season into something he said in spring training he wants to last at least another decade.

"I don't plan on being done at 40," he said. "I guess history says I will, but probably not."

History will not judge whether Verlander is a worthy member of the 300 club. Health more than anything. Because the arm is an unforgiving lout, and the second it shows signs of slippage, one only hopes the rest of his game doesn't follow suit. Verlander is doing fine with a velocity drop, and King Felix is off to one of his best starts, and even …

10. CC Sabathia is maintaining an ERA near his usual level while his peripheral numbers indicate he's due for a mighty fall.

"You know how sometimes in spring training I don't feel it," Sabathia said. "It's just one of those things. I have a better idea of what I need to do to get guys out than when I was 25, 26. And that's what I'm doing now."

So the strikeouts are down even though the swinging strikes remain robust. And the flyball rate has spiked because it's a whole lot easier to drive 88-90 than 92-95. And CC Sabathia, once a power pitcher, has gone soft, or at least soft enough to make the second decade of his career markedly different from the first. And as Glavine or Maddux can attest, so long as the command and health are there, Sabathia will be fine and 300 reachable.

"But look at a guy like Mike Mussina," he said. "Spent his whole career in the AL East and finished with [270] wins. I think that's comparable to 300 anywhere else."

It's impressive, damn impressive, but it's not 300. No need to water down this number, too. The club certainly has looked on life support in the past, and for all we know, it may be again. Better training and nutrition could return us to a time of 40-something ballplayers, or it might be another red herring. The arm is fickle. It does not mold to the whims of milestones.

So whether it's Sabathia with 195 wins or Matt Harvey with seven or neither or both, someone, sometime, will hit 300. And finally we'll be able to appreciate pitching wins that actually mean something.

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