Just because I think the Yankees need Mark Teixeira more than they need CC Sabathia doesn’t mean I’m not thrilled that the Yankees have landed the big lefty. CC Sabathia is, in my opinion, the best pitcher in baseball. He’s 28 years old, left-handed, a work horse who can give you 240 innings a year, and he’s only gotten better throughout his career. I’m not concerned about his weight. I’m not concerned about his workloads. And I’m not concerned about the length of the seven-year, $161 million contract the Yankees just gave him. He’s an ace, a horse, and the thought of having him and Joba Chamberlain as a pair of opposite-armed aces atop the Yankee rotation well into the next decade give me goosebumps.
Here are a few things to like about Sabathia.
- Though he was just 17 when taken by the Indians with the 20th overall pick in the 1998 amateur draft and started 33 games in the major leagues as a 20-year-old rookie, the Indians were careful about his workloads through his age 25 season, extending him past 200 innings just once in his first six major league seasons and rarely allowing him to throw more than 120 pitches in a start (and never as many as 130).
- Though scouts have always griped about his weight, Sabathia’s only DL stay resulted from a groin strain early in the 2006 season. He missed a month, threw eight shutout innings in his second start after returning, and didn’t have any reoccurrences.
- Sabathia’s walk rate declined every year from 2004 to 2007. The only reason it didn’t go down again in 2008 was that he set an impossibly low standard in 2007 by walking a mere 1.38 men per nine innings.
- Sabathia’s strikeout rate increased every year from 2002 to 2006 and he set a new career high by striking out 8.93 men per nine innings in 2008.
- Something of a fly ball pitcher in his early twenties, Sabathia has a 1.41 GB/FB rate over the past four seasons.
The Indians unleashed Sabathia in 2005, allowing him to throw 241 innings during the regular season (averaging more than seven innings per start), and he responded by winning the AL Cy Young award with a 3.21 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and a staggering 5.65 K/BB ratio.
Because he struggled in the postseason that year, pushing his innings total up to 256 1/3 in the process, then struggled in his first four starts of the 2008 season, many red flags were raised about his workload. I don’t doubt that fatigue played a part in those struggles–he threw 65 2/3 more innings in 2007 than in 2006, a 33 percent increase, and wildness was one of the symptoms of his ineffectiveness–but after getting over the hump of those first four starts in 2008, Sabatha was better than ever. Over his final 31 regular season starts this year, totalling 235 innings, Sabathia posted a 1.88 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and a 5.27 K/BB ratio. His postseason struggles and wildness returned in the NLDS, but that was just one bad start, and his his aggregate innings total for 2008 was an almost exact match of his 2007 workload at 256 2/3.
Having thrown 256 innings in each of the last two seasons, Sabathia should now be conditioned for such a workload. At age 28, he’s out of the injury nexus. There’s no reason not to expect the best pitcher in baseball to throw roughly 250 innings. Johan Santana threw 241 2/3 innings in 2006, the last time one of his teams made the postseason, and he’s a pitcher who rarely completes his own games. Sabathia, by comparision, completed ten games in 2008 (including five shutouts) and ten more over the previous two seasons combined. Only once in three seasons did he throw 130 pitches.
Sabathia’s workloads don’t worry me. In fact, I’m encouraged by them. No Yankee threw more than Andy Pettitte’s 204 innings in 2008, or Andy’s 215 1/3 in 2007. In fact, Pettitte was the last Yankee to throw as many as 230 innings, that coming all the way back in 1997 when he threw 240 1/3. It’s unlikely that Sabathia will throw 250-plus innings again in 2009 unless the Yankees make an extended post-season run. That he’s been stretched out enough to handle whatever workload the Yankees are likely to give him bodes well for his endurance.
I’m not worried about Sabathia’s weight either. When I think of fat pitchers, I think of David Wells and Mickey Lolich. Sabathia’s new contract will take him through his age-34 season. Wells had numerous back problems late in his career, but they didn’t really become an issue until his age-36 season, and he still threw 231 2/3 innings for the Blue Jays that year. Wells’ back didn’t have a significant impact on his performance until he had back surgery at age 38 while with the White Sox. Of course, Wells didn’t reach the majors until age 24 and spent his first three seasons pitching in relief. Lolich, on the other hand, was in the majors at 22, made 33 starts and 11 relief appearances at age 23, pitched over 300 innings a year from ages 30 to 33, and was still an above average pitcher at ages 34 and 35. A less apt comparison is CC’s former Indians teammate Bob Wickman, who was a closer, but still pitched effectively through age 38 despite his massive girth, or David Letterman’s favorite “fat tub of goo” Terry Forster, who was an above-average reliever through age 34.
Of course, what CC’s waistline tends to overshadow is his height. Wickman was 6-foot-1, Lolich was six-feet even, Forster was 6-foot-3, Wells was 6-foot-4. Sabathia is 6-foot-7. He’s massive in every way. He’s almost like baseball’s answer to Shaquille O’Neill. Baseball has had fat players and tall players, but no one has been quite as large in both directions at once as Sabathia. Shaq is still going at age 36 in a game that’s harder on a big man’s knees and back. Thinking of CC and Shaq brings to mind former Yankee and college hoops star Dave Winfield, who was a solid 6-foot-6 (as opposed to Daryl Strawberry’s wiry 6-foot-6) and developed a gut in his waining years. Winfield missed a year due to back surgery late in his career, but that came at age 37. Similarly another baseball freak and ex-Yankee, 6-foot-10 beanpole Randy Johnson, didn’t miss significant time until his age 39 season, and that was due to a knee injury, not his back. Johnson then threw 430 2/3 innings over two seasons for the Yankees at ages 41 and 42. Given these examples, it seems likely that Sabathia’s weight will eventually lead to back problems, but also very likely that those problems won’t occur until his late 30s, well past the end of his new deal with the Yankees. In the meantime, Sabathia has no history of arm problems whatsoever.
As for the contract itself, even if Sabathia was an averaged sized man who had thrown an average number of innings over the last two seasons, giving a pitcher a seven-year deal would raise red flags simply because of the fragility of pitchers over the long term. In fact, Sabathia is about to become just the sixth pitcher in major league history to ink a contract of six or more years. Here’s the full list:
|Pitcher||Years||Total $*||Avg. $*||Ages||Avg. IP||ERA|
*in millions; statistics in italics are for portions of contracts still in effect
Sabathia’s contract is the most expensive ever given to a pitcher in terms of both total value and average annual salary, breaking the records set in January by Johan Santana. The extra one-million on CC’s deal pushes his average annual value past Santana’s.
I have to say, seeing the above contracts listed together, they don’t seem quite as bad as I’d expected. Mussina’s was a success even though it extended into his late-30s decline. Santana is only a year into his six-year deal, so that’s to early to tell, though he was his usual dominant self in Year One. Everyone but Giants General Manager Brian Sabean knew Zito’s deal was a mistake the day he signed it, so in an odd way, that contract doesn’t even count, as no other team would have given him a similar deal.
The red flags on the above list are Kevin Brown and Mike Hampton. Brown missed significant parts of four out of the seven years of his contract due to injury, but one of those injuries was his self-inflicted broken hand in 2004, and in each of his three healthy seasons, he was among the best pitchers in baseball. Brown did not have a problematic injury history heading into his record-breaking contract, but he was already 34 years old, the age Sabathia will be a the end of his Yankee contract. So the red flag on Brown, his age, doesn’t exist for CC.
Mike Hampton was something of a Zito case, an overrated 20-game winner with poor peripherals who was given a ludicrous contract relative to what the market was likely to yield. His poor performance was unsurprising. His string of injuries, however, was unexpected. Hampton, like Brown, had no significant injury history heading into this Rockies contract and stayed healthy through the first four years of his deal before managing just 25 starts over the final four years as his back acted up, his elbow blew out requiring Tommy John surgery, and he tore a flexor tendon, a hamstring, and a pectoral muscle during various rehab attempts. In Hampton’s case, it is informative that his injury problems didn’t start until his age-32 season.
Which brings us to an interesting quirk in Sabathia’s deal. You have to hand it to Sabathia and his agents. The Yankees tried to blow everyone else out of the water with a six-year deal worth $140 million, and Sabathia got them to add an extra year, keep the average annual value above Santana’s, and include an opt-out clause following the third year. The opt-out clause is one that, on its surface, benefits the player and the player only. If Sabathia gets hurt or underperforms, he won’t opt out of making $23 million a year. If he pitches anywhere close to expectations, he’s almost sure to opt out just as A.J. Burnett did this fall and Alex Rodriguez did a year ago. In the latter, more likely scenario, he’ll hit the free agent market again prior to his age-31 season having given the Yankees his age 28 to 30 seasons at a premium.
Then again, is that so bad? If the Yankees knew they could get Sabathia for three years at roughly $23 million annually, wouldn’t they have lept at the chance? And isn’t that essentially what they’ve done? The odds are much better that Sabathia will stay healthy for the first three years of his contract than for the final four. Doesn’t it benefit the Yankees to be able to reevaluate things after the 2011 season? We don’t yet know all of the details on the contract. If it’s backloaded, as most contracts are (Santana’s, for example, increases steadily from $19 million in 2008 to $25.5 million in 2013), then the Yankees are actually getting Sabathia’s peak seasons for less than the average annual value of Santana’s contract with an option to move on after three years provided Sabathia pitches well in those three seasons. Yes, the Yankees will be stuck with the contract if Sabathia gets hurt or underperforms, but that would have been true without the opt-out. With the opt out they can take three of Sabathia’s best years and say “thanks and good luck” when he opts out at age 31. As Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello sang, there are much worse things.