Embed from Getty Images
Welcome to CC Sabathia Week. We are using this week–the last home stand of the 2019 season, if you can believe that–to honor CC Sabathia. Each day, beginning today, we will have a story/essay/argument about everyone’s favorite big man. (If you love CC as much as we do, consider bidding on items in an auction supporting CC’s charitable foundation, PitCCh In. You can see the items here, which ends tonight at 9:30 pm.)
Arguments about the Hall of Fame tend to be exhausting and repetitive. I generally do my best to avoid them. However, every now and then, there is a discussion that breaks out of the tedium and gives us a chance to argue about something new and interesting. I don’t think there’s any question that we are at one of those inflection points with the baseline qualifications for a starting pitcher to be enshrined in Cooperstown. CC Sabathia is the perfect case study here.
For generations, 300 wins was considered the ultimate standard: reach that threshold and immortality was a given. The only pitcher to reach that plateau and not be enshrined is Roger Clemens (the absurdity of that is another post for another day). That standard worked for a long time, but there is no doubt that it is a relic of the past now. No active pitcher will reach it. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which another pitcher ever will again. In other words, it is time for a re-evaluation. New standards for a new era.
Once we do so, one thing becomes immediately clear: CC Sabathia pitched a Hall of Fame career. He belongs in Cooperstown. Let’s get right into it.
A Dominant 7-Year Peak
CC Sabathia debuted at age 20 with Cleveland, throwing 180 innings in his rookie year. That itself is the first sign of a Hall of Fame career: very few pitchers at that age can make their mark on the league. But the true Hall of Fame standard, the one which Jay Jaffe’s JAWS method aims to capture, is a dominant peak. And there is no doubt that Sabathia had a dominant peak.
CC became a true force in 2006, during his age 25 season. It lasted through 2012, his age 31 season, and spanned three teams and both leagues. In those 7 seasons, Sabathia finished in the Top 5 of the Cy Young voting 5 times, winning the award in 2007.
Here is his cumulative line across those 7 seasons: 122-57 (.682), 3.14 ERA (3.20 FIP), 1591.2 IP (7 inning per start average), 8.3 hits per 9, 8.2 K/9 (22% K rate), 2.2 BB/9 (6.3%), 29 complete games (10 of which were shutouts), fewer than 1 HR/9, a 140 ERA+, and 38.1 bWAR. CC Sabathia, a flame-throwing lefty pitcher, was clearly a force with which to be reckoned.
It is difficult to be better than he was. In fact, few pitchers, if any, were. Here is where CC ranks among the 51 pitchers across those 7 seasons with more than 1,000 innings pitched:
- ERA+: 1st
- Strikeouts: 1st
- Innings Pitched: 1st
- bWAR: 2nd
- Wins: 2nd
- ERA: 4th
- FIP: 4th
- Strikeout rate: 8th
- Walk rate: 9th
In case it already wasn’t clear, CC Sabathia was, without question, one of the best pitchers in the league for an extended period. 7 years is a long time. In fact, I think you could reasonably argue that he was the single best pitcher in the league across that span. There were few pitchers you’d want on the mound from 2006-2012 more than Sabathia, and you could argue that there wasn’t one.
Just ask the Milwaukee Brewers, who acquired Sabathia at the 2008 deadline in what is arguably the best trade deadline move in MLB history. As the Brewers pushed for the playoffs, they lacked an ace–so they traded for Sabathia, who was in a contract year with Cleveland. His performance was simply legendary.
He threw an astounding 130.1 innings in the second half with the Brewers, making 17 starts (averaging close to 8 IP per start) with a 1.64 ERA. (That’s a 255 ERA+.) He made starts on three days rest despite it being a contract year, nearly threw a perfect game, and led the Brew Crew to the playoffs for the first time in 26 seasons.
A big part of the Hall of Fame is a certain mythology–a player needs to have moments that are truly memorable, that stand the test of time. The 2008 second half half, which was so dominant that Sabathia finished 3rd in NL Cy Young voting despite pitching only half a season in the NL, is no doubt that stretch for Sabathia.
The next season was also an extension of that mythos. In his first season with the Yankees, CC led the Bronx Bombers to their 27th World Series victory. Alongside Alex Rodriguez, CC was the guiding star of that championship season, winning ALCS MVP by pitching to a 1.13 ERA in 16 IP in 2 starts and providing the Yankees with an ace they so desperately needed. He did not log a World Series win, though that was more the fault of Cliff Lee than it was the fault of his performance.
To wrap this part up, let’s summarize: CC was clearly one of the league’s most dominant pitchers for a 7-year period. He won a Cy Young Award. He had a truly legendary second half with Milwaukee, which made him, in my opinion at least, the best trade deadline acquisition in history. And he led a team to a World Series. He checked every box.
CC Sabathia Reborn
As we all know, though, a dominant peak alone is not enough to earn Hall of Fame enshrinement–longevity, especially for a starting pitcher, is critical. There’s no doubt CC has that. He debuted in 2001 and is concluding his career in 2019. But the story of CC’s career isn’t straightforward. There are several phases, and one of them was not like the others.
After his 2012 season, which concluded his peak above, Sabathia’s performance fell off. Here is Sabathia’s adjusted ERA, relative to the league, in the following three seasons:
- 2013: 84 ERA+
- 2014: 73 ERA+
- 2015: 86 ERA+
- Cumulative: 83 ERA+
Those seasons were riddled with injuries and were associated with a decline in velocity. It was fair to wonder, when Sabathia checked himself into rehab for alcohol abuse before the 2015 AL Wild Card Game, if his days as a serviceable MLB arm were behind him. Well, it’s safe to say that seems foolish in hindsight. (It also may have been foolish at the time, as there were signs in the end of 2015 that he was righting the ship.)
CC truly turned his career around after 2015 and effectively revitalized his Hall of Fame candidacy. He added a cutter thanks to Andy Pettitte, compensated for lower velocity, and became a soft contact extraordinaire. He went from being borderline unusable to perhaps the best 5th starter in baseball. Remember those ugly ERA+ figures from above? Here are those same figures for the next three seasons:
- 2016: 110 ERA+
- 2017: 122 ERA+
- 2018: 115 ERA+
- Cumulative: 115 ERA+
Those were his age 36, 37, and 38 seasons, respectively. Now, he averaged about 150 IP each season, which is a far cry from the dominance of his early career, but those are damn impressive numbers. Sabathia’s career was so long because it deserved to be so long. He rebuilt himself into an entirely new pitcher in his twilight and found success–that’s true regardless of a disappointing 2019 campaign.
He also did it in the context of a contending team that was relying on him to give effective innings. CC’s best year came during the rebirth of the Yankees themselves (the symbolism is there again, another part of that Cooperstown mythos) and he was the starting pitcher in Game 5 of the 2017 ALDS. He wasn’t rebuilding himself on a team in the cellar, but instead under the brightest lights in the brightest city.
That is not easy to do. How many pitchers can you name who experienced a late-career renaissance like Sabathia’s? How many are even afforded the opportunity? His rebuild was remarkable and serves as a complement to his mid-career dominance. Without it, this post would not have been possible. With it, Sabathia’s place among baseball’s legends is all but ensured.
Contextualizing His Career
Embed from Getty Images
Sabathia reached two key milestones this year. He earned 250 wins and passed 3,000 career strikeouts. Those are notable achievements in and of themselves, but even more when placed into the relevant context. Only 14 pitchers in baseball history have survived in this brutal game long enough to achieve those two specific milestones, and only 3 of them have been left-handed. Sabathia was the first pitcher to reach them in a decade, since Randy Johnson did so in 2009. (The next player with a shot is Justin Verlander, who still needs 28 wins.)
These achievements speak to a longevity in the game and also to the changing standards of the Hall of Fame. Is 250 the next 300? I’m not sure, but it does feel like it. It is very difficult to win baseball games in the current era of pitch counts, innings limits, and super-bullpens. That same phenomenon also reduces a pitcher’s WAR (Sabathia’s is quite a bit lower than others on this list) and hurts their overall case in a vacuum. That’s why, if you poke around on Sabathia’s Baseball-Reference page, you’ll see that he falls a bit short of most traditional Hall of Fame signifiers toward the bottom.
But those are externalities outside of Sabathia’s control. He did not choose to be born when he was; he did not choose the league in which he pitched. All he could do is control his pitching. If it’s not clear by now, Sabathia did that quite well. To make the case that a recalibration of pitching qualifiers is required, I am going to position Sabathia’s career within the context of the league.
Now, this next exercise is slightly unfair, but bear with me. I set the search terms to be exactly Sabathia’s career (2001-2019), which favors some of his counting stats. However, when we consider a Hall of Fame candidacy, there is inherent value in comparing that player to the peers with whom he directly competed. Here is Sabathia’s rankings in some key areas during that period:
- Wins: 251 (1st, next closest is Verlander with 222)
- Innings Pitched: 3573.2 (1st, next closest is Mark Buerhle with 3232)
- Strikeouts: 3,087 (1st)
- Complete Games: 38 (2nd)
- Complete Game Shutouts: 12 (3rd)
- WAR: 62.5 (5th)
Very few pitchers have been as durable, effective, and reliable as CC Sabathia has been. He ranks in the top 5 in many key areas. Those in which he does not (which include, to be fair, both ERA and ERA+) can largely be explained away by those 3 bad seasons from 2013-2015.
Sabathia will retire without 300 wins. So will, I think, every single pitcher who retires after him. But, when you look at his performance against his own peers, you can see that he was a truly elite pitcher in his environment–and that’s all he could control.
Summarizing his Case
To summarize, you can see four distinct phases to Sabathia’s career.
First, there was his above-average start to his career, which lasted from 2001-2005 (107 ERA+). Then came his dominant peak from 2006-2012 (140 ERA+). Then came his struggles in 2013-2015 (83 ERA+) and his late career resurgence (115 ERA+). This year, his last, is more like the struggle phase but is the final year of his career. I’m fine with writing that one off, especially given the fact that our man has literally no cartilage in his knee.
Add that all up and you get a pitcher who thrived in the steroid era, the post-steroid era, struggled as he aged, and rose again from the ashes of personal and professional struggles, all while maintaining his trademark smile.
I suspect this is an argument we’ll be revisiting a few years from now, but I think the ultimate resolution is clear: CC Sabathia is a pitcher worthy of the Hall of Fame. See you in Cooperstown, CC.