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Can You Dig It, CC?

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
Mike Hampton 8 121 15.125 28-35 111.1 4.81
CC Sabathia 7 161 23 28-34 n/a n/a
Barry Zito 7 126 18 29-35 188.1 4.83
Kevin Brown 7 105 15 34-40 154 3.23
Johan Santana 6 137.5 22.917 29-34 234.1 2.53
Mike Mussina 6 88.5 14.75 32-37 200 3.80

*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.

Tags:  CC Sabathia  Transactions

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1 tommyl   ~  Dec 10, 2008 3:17 pm

Just as long as he doesn't opt out during a Red Sox run to a World Championship.

2 tberg   ~  Dec 10, 2008 3:21 pm

Richard Pryor... secretary of education.

3 Mattpat11   ~  Dec 10, 2008 3:31 pm

Sabathia's weight worries me somewhat, because I think there's only so much his knees can take.

But its not a big enough concern to scare me off him

4 SteveAmerica   ~  Dec 10, 2008 3:34 pm

I believed that the Yankees needed offense more than pitching until a few days ago. I ran correllations between wins and runs scored above league average and wins and runs saved above league average, the correllations for saving runs were much stronger.

However, the strongest correlation to wins was the TRA or total run advantage, the number you get when you ad RSAA + RSaAA.

So basically I'm confused. Bettering the pitching should help us win, especially because I think some of the pitching goodness from last season was fluky.

At the same time, I still am not convinced that we're gonna score enough runs to be competitive.

5 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Dec 10, 2008 3:37 pm

Here's one take I left out of the above because I wanted to focus on CC alone for one post: CC vs. Tex is, to me, Mussina vs. Manny all over again. I agreed with the Yankees' decision to sign Mussina then, but Manny wound up with the rings. As Steve says, you need runs on both sides of the ball. Getting CC is a great thing, but it's only half the battle.

6 JL25and3   ~  Dec 10, 2008 3:37 pm

[4] They're not mutually exclusive. I think CC was a must-sign, because he greatly improves their entire pitching staff. Pitchers who can do that don't become available very often.

Now that they've signed him, I think the offense is a more pressing need than the pitching. they may have enough offense for this year - barely - but a year from now they're facing some serious problems.


7 Diane Firstman   ~  Dec 10, 2008 3:45 pm

I'm slightly amused that C.C.'s Baseball Reference.com page is sponsored by

"EdgarEyes, LLC Edgarizing and SEC reporting .... Your complete public company SEC filing solution!"


8 SteveAmerica   ~  Dec 10, 2008 3:57 pm

[6] Agree. I think they are betting the offense on Posada's shoulder, and I think that's a crazily risky bet.

9 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Dec 10, 2008 3:59 pm

Per Jay Jaffe, more fat pitchers:

Bartolo Colon: another former Sabathia teammate, was good through age 32, then his arm fell off.

Rich Reuschel: briefly a Yankee in 1981, he was an All-Star at age 40 and had just one injury hiccup prior to that, that coming in his age 34 and 35 seasons.

10 Shaun P.   ~  Dec 10, 2008 4:13 pm

Agreed with all you folks on still needing more offense.

Slightly off topic: BP's John Perrotto says: "The Braves have stepped up their offer to free-agent pitcher A.J. Burnett, guaranteeing a fifth year on a contract that would be worth at least $80 million." Hey, you don't say. Burnett's agent says, "The Yanks REALLY want AJ Burnett", and then Atlanta guarantees the 5th year.

I hope he goes to Atlanta, and I hope the Yanks somehow end up with Tex.

11 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Dec 10, 2008 4:19 pm

Couldn't agree more, Shaun. I've been rooting for AJ to Atlanta ever since they joined in.

12 Raf   ~  Dec 10, 2008 4:21 pm


I agreed with the Yankees’ decision to sign Mussina then, but Manny wound up with the rings.

True, but it was hardly the fault of Mussina that they didn't win in 01, 03 & 04.

13 ny2ca2dc   ~  Dec 10, 2008 4:22 pm

Wow, 80 mil for AJ, no thank you. I really wish Pettitte would just take that $10MM, it's a reasonable deal, and we love him.

Now, who's the opening day starter? CC has the talent, but Wang has earned it lately, and Andy has the history (as long as he's back, that is). Though with the opener being on the road (right? way to go MLB, closing the final season of the old stadium on the road, opening the new on on the road...) maybe one guy can open the season, and another open the stadium.

14 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Dec 10, 2008 4:25 pm

Gotta give CC the Opening Day start. It's a no brainer really.

Raf, I'm not blaming Mussina at all. I'm just saying that the team that went with the big bat wound up winning instead of the team that made what seemed like the smarter choice by going for the ace pitcher.

15 Raf   ~  Dec 10, 2008 4:32 pm


Looking back, I suppose I could have worded that better; I know that you weren't blaming Moose.

16 ny2ca2dc   ~  Dec 10, 2008 4:36 pm

Then I'd like to see Wang open the stadium - nice little pass of the torch, with Andy closing the old stadium, and Wang opening the new one.

So where does that put the payroll now, with the CC, Swisher, and Marte deals? I can't find Cliff's post that estimated how much money was in play. If we believe PeteAbe that Tex is now off the table, is there still money for 2 of Pettitte, Lowe, Sheets, Manny, Dunn? preferably 1 hitter and 1 pitcher.

And oh by the way, WAAAHOOOO! CC!

17 standuptriple   ~  Dec 10, 2008 4:43 pm

Yo Alex,
As a fellow Vallejoan, I'd like to throw out the idea of busting out a little E-40 when the CC deal gets announced.

18 Bobtaco   ~  Dec 10, 2008 4:57 pm
19 Alex Belth   ~  Dec 10, 2008 5:03 pm

Any particular E-40 cut strike your fancy?

20 ny2ca2dc   ~  Dec 10, 2008 5:11 pm

What about a Too $hort, Oakland is close enough.

21 standuptriple   ~  Dec 10, 2008 5:40 pm

The more I think about it, C may be a Mac Dre (RIP) fan moreso than 40, but good luck finding video. I don't want to taint your judgement and really want to see which way you lean AB. Just please, no Captain Save a Ho.

22 Raf   ~  Dec 10, 2008 6:24 pm


How 'bout a $hort - Puffy collabo?

23 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Dec 10, 2008 6:33 pm

Wow, news!

This is exciting.

Also, my comment box is now unobstructed by the right-hand column thingy!

24 williamnyy23   ~  Dec 10, 2008 7:16 pm

I agree completely about the opt out. The only way it hurts the Yankees is if they extend him and increase the annual amount in doing so. The flip side, however, is the Yankees can decide to pass and wind up only having to pay for what should be Sabathia's three best seasons. That's a decision the Yankees can make in three years.

25 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Dec 10, 2008 7:39 pm

got lots of comments to read, in the meantime, It's a CC day!



26 RIYank   ~  Dec 10, 2008 9:17 pm

I can see a possible downside to the opt-out clause. Sabathia could be peaking (unlikely, but there's precedent) and the price of free agents could be 30% higher than it is today. The Yankees would then either lose a really good pitcher or have to pony up another $20M, or quite possibly more (with an ugly extension into his late 30s).

But I think that combination is unlikely, so I'm not really complaining about the clause.

27 Joseph   ~  Dec 10, 2008 10:58 pm

I can't help but think the Yanks could use an infusion of offense. Say ARod bats 4th. Who's hitting 3rd and 5th? Uh...Matsui? Nady? Er..Posada? Swisher?! Now that we have C.C. in the fold, and have a current top 3 of Sabathia, Wang, and Joba, I really wish Cash would put the pitching vendetta on pause and throw a big offer towards Mark Teixiera. As others have said, we could certainly use him for obvious reasons, and it would also throw a big wrench in Boston's plans. Yet, hardly any mention of Tex by Yankee brass. I don't get it. Cashman could do a double combo value meal of Sheets and Pettitte, sign Tex, and not spend that much more than if he drops a ton of loot on A.J. or Derek. Does Cashman have something else up his sleeve? Will the Yankee offense be OK as it stands? I know their counting on bounce back seasons from some guys, but there's no guarantee in that. Somebody help me out here, please.

28 Bum Rush   ~  Dec 11, 2008 12:40 am

Still don't see how Teixeira, as a good but not great bat, rates over Sabathia in your book. Bats like Teixeira comes on the market every year. A pitcher like Sabathia hasn't been on the open market in many years. Great signing.

@ 27

Manny offers the same level of offense at half the contract of Teixeira. A HOF hitter at three or four years or an All-Star hitter at 8 to 10 years? It's a no-brainer.

29 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Dec 11, 2008 1:46 am

I'll take the All-Star's prime over the tail end of the HOFers career, thanks. Besides, Manny is a bat and nothing more. Teixeira improves the defense, which was among the worst in the majors last year. Say what you want about what position he plays, the Yankees need to upgrade their defense wherever they can.

30 Bum Rush   ~  Dec 11, 2008 9:10 am

@ 29

They'd do significantly more for their defense by signing Furcal for a fraction of the cost and shifting Jeter to 1B. Sign Manny to improve the offense and they've upgraded both at a half the dollars and years.

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