It’s no secret that Gerrit Cole is off to an incredible start in 2021. Through 10 starts, he is doing exactly what the Yankees acquired him to do and more – he’s currently 6-2 with a 1.81 ERA, 92 strikeouts in only 64.2 innings, and an incredible 226 ERA+. Even his bad starts are merely average. Although the true Gerrit Cole experience in New York may have been delayed, fans are finally hoping to see what a full season of ace pitching will look like from the team’s marquee 2019 signing, and so far we have not been disappointed.
If we were to project Cole’s early-season stats to an entire year, assuming he pitches approximately 200 innings, the results would be pretty mind-blowing; you would see something in the range of an 18-win season with over 270 strikeouts and 8+ WAR. Although the year is young, I couldn’t help but wonder – that would be the Yankees’ best starting pitching season in a really long time, right? Where could Gerrit Cole rank in the pantheon of recent Yankees’ aces when the book is closed on 2021?
Throughout their vaunted history, the Yankees have employed many great pitchers who have done many great things. However, most lists of the “greatest Yankees starting pitchers of all time” and “greatest single-season Yankees starting pitching performances” feature predominantly, if not exclusively, performances from before 1980. 1980 was a long time ago – Gerrit Cole, in fact, was not born until September 8, 1990. Cole is clearly poised to become the standard-bearer for a new era of Yankees pitching, but he may also be on his way to the best season the Yankees have seen since before his own birth. To contextualize, I bring you a few excellent seasons by Yankees starting pitching, post-1990 edition.
It’s January 5th and the Yankees have yet to do anything of significance to improve the current roster. Perhaps now that the holiday season has come and gone, things can get moving again so bloggers like us can resume publishing currently relevant content. Instead, today we offer something different that stems from a Twitter discussion yesterday.
Thought exercise: You can pick one former Yankee (must be retired, not just on another team) and one year of his career (must be a year on the Yankees) and assign it to the 2021 team. Based on NEED, not just who had the best year, who do you pick and why? Post-integration, pls.
The four of us (Randy, Matt, Bobby, and Derek) are doing a quick draft based on this question with a couple of additional stipulations. One, we’re whittling in down to players in our lifetimes. Additionally, it’s a one year assignment, so whoever we pick has no bearing on the Yankees in 2022 and beyond. With that, let’s get to the draft.
That fact is inconvenient, but it’s true. I was tempted to write ‘Major League Baseball” and “professional” sports, but that falls way short. Even youth and amateur sports are rife with politics in ways both metaphorical and literal.
How many times as a kid did you hear a parent say “Oh, it’s so political!” when talking about which youth players made which teams? That may not be politics in the way we know it as adults, but it’s politics nonetheless.
Amateur sports, particularly the NCAA, are also tied up in legal battles, discussions of (lack of) pay for athletes, likeness rights, etc., not to mention the Olympics, a thinly veiled celebration of nationalism. Is it even veiled at all?
American professional sports and politics intersect at every possible, uh, intersection. MLB has an antitrust exemption. Just about every team in every sport tries to get some form of public money/assistance in building stadiums. Labor issues abound. Billions of dollars are at stake.
And when things happen, like the murder of George Floyd, players and teams are going to speak out…or should. They will do so to varying degrees of success and open themselves to criticism because of it. If that makes you uncomfortable…good. As Edwin Jackson said in this week’s (typically excellent) episode of R2C2, people need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
For too long, we’ve used sports as an apolitical refuge when it is absolutely, positively not that at all. The issues I listed above may have been swept under the rug, but they were there and festering. Ignoring issues, ignoring problems…that doesn’t make them go away; it makes them worse.
Many will say that they don’t tune into sports or follow athletes to hear their political opinions, but so damn what? Athletes are people just like us. We express our political opinions in a wide variety of ways and athletes should feel free to do the same.
CC Sabathia was easily one of my favorite players to root for during his time with the Yankees. Seeing him be vocal about race issues, attending protests, posting “Black Lives Matter,” all of that only makes me like him more. I wish he had felt comfortable enough to advocate more during his playing days, but I understand why he didn’t, considering the (political) atmosphere of baseball. That atmosphere told Torii Hunter not to make a big deal of being held at gunpoint by police in his own home. How many other players have kept or are keeping in similar stories?
That Hunter incident and the many things that the players in the R2C2 video remind us that these players are human. All of those men, to an extent, have the privilege of being supremely talented at baseball and much richer than any of us have ever been. Yet they still experience things many of us don’t have to because of the color of their skin. Their lives can and do mirror the lives of the people they’re protesting with and for, the people they’re supporting.
It’s not possible, of course, for players to speak out on every single issue, every single day. I also don’t mean to imply that an athlete’s opinion is any better than yours or mine just because it comes from an athlete. But athletes have a large platform and are capable of reaching a lot more people, generally speaking, than we are. When they feel the need to speak up, they should speak up.
When politics and sports collide–in ways beyond their already conjoined nature–athletes should feel free to speak up just as fans do. They should not shut up and play.
Official announcement of Derek Jeter’s induction to the Hall of Fame will occur later today. It’ll be the second straight year featuring a Yankee, with Mariano Rivera entering Cooperstown last summer. But after these two prominent Yankees, who’s next?
Returning to the ballot for 2021
There are a number of ex-Yankees already on the ballot that will return for the next round of voting. Some are more notable than others.
On numbers alone, Roger Clemens belongs in the Hall. The Rocket spent six of his 24 seasons with the Yankees, though his best seasons were elsewhere. But more important than performance, his case is marred by allegations of statutory rape of a minor and PED usage.
Andy Pettitte will return to the ballot for a third time, but will likely fall short again. He received a respectable 9.9 percent of the votes last year; we’ll see how that shifts this season. Pettitte was a great Yankee, but falls short of Hall-worthiness statistically speaking. His link to PEDs won’t help his case anyway.
Gary Sheffield spent three seasons in pinstripes but absolutely raked while doing so (135 OPS+). He hasn’t received any higher than 13.6 percent of the vote and next year will be his seventh try. Again, PED allegations hinder his electability in spite of 509 career homer runs.
As long as they get 5 percent of the vote, Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu will return to the ballot for a second time next year. Giambi won’t make it, but he was fun to watch hit in the Bronx from 2002 through 2008. Similarly, Abreu is going to fall short.
Here are some notable names coming to the ballot in future years:
AJ Burnett, Nick Swisher
Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira
This is a pretty interesting group upcoming. Burnett, Swisher, and Teixeira all fall short by the numbers, though of that trio, Teix seemed to be on the track at one point. The switch-hitting first baseman really fell off after 2011, his age-31 season. Through that point, he had 314 homers, a 132 OPS+, and 44.1 bWAR. But he only rebounded for one more big season — 2015 — before he retired after his age-36 season a year later. Teixeira finished with 409 homers and just under 52 WAR. A very good career, no doubt, but he just didn’t have the longevity.
Things get much more intriguing when you consider A-Rod and Beltrán. The former’s lifetime numbers are historically great: he swatted 696 homers, recorded 3,115 hits, and accumulated 117.8 WAR. However, and this is a big one: he served a season-long PED suspension in 2014. And that wasn’t the first time he used PEDs, either. In 2009, he admitted to using back when he was with the Rangers. So, even though the numbers would make him a slam dunk, the drug usage almost assuredly will keep him out of Cooperstown.
Then there’s Beltrán. Before the recent news that has dominated the baseball world, I figured Beltrán would enter the Hall eventually. He’s got the sabermetric case with just under 70 WAR, though I’m not certain people thought of him as a shoe-in. Anyway, the decision to elect him may not be so difficult after all. His transgressions in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal will undoubtedly adversely affect his candidacy. He was explicitly called out in the Commissioner’s report which will do quite a bit of damage.
The next inductee: CC Sabathia
Bobby already wrote about why Sabathia belongs in Cooperstown, so no need to rehash here. We just have to play the waiting game now. Sabathia will be eligible in five years and hopefully will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. After Jeter, he’s clearly the next individual in line to don a Yankees cap in the Hall of Fame.
Down the road
Looking forward to being 50 years-old in 2040 when Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, and Gerrit Cole (among others) go into the Hall as Yankees, you guys. Anyway, for fun, allow me to power rank the top five current Yankees most likely to get a plaque:
Time for some rapid-fire thoughts on this. I feel like picking Gleyber is bold given some of the accomplishments others on this list have, but I’ll do it no less. Stanton already has 309 homers and is just 31 years-old. Cole has a chance to cement himself as the best pitcher of his generation. Judge has Hall of Fame talent but will need a strong late career considering he didn’t start until he was 25 and has missed time because of injuries. Lastly, Chapman could end his career with the highest strikeout rate of all-time and very high up on the all-time saves list. That said, his domestic violence suspension should give voters pause.
If it hasn’t hit you yet, let this serve as a reminder that 2019 was the final season of CC Sabathia’s brilliant career. To be honest, it hasn’t sunk in for me either. Yes, even after we did a whole week in tribute to him. For one final time, let’s reflect on Sabathia’s last hurrah.
A continued renaissance leads to milestones
Considering how things ended for Sabathia this season, it’s not as easy to remember how good he was to the year. It was a continuation of his success since he reinvented himself in 2016. From that year through 2018, Sabathia had thrown 481 1/3 innings and recorded a 3.76 ERA (115 ERA+). Soft contact was the name of the game, and to start this year, the big lefty kept that going.
In his first seven starts this year, Sabathia had a 2.97 ERA in 36 1/3 frames. It seemed like the same old CC from recent years — plenty of weak contact, and even with a high home run total, he limited the damage. And during that run, Sabathia achieved a pretty big milestone. On April 30th in Arizona, he achieved a milestone that only 17 other hurlers have reached:
Strikeouts are so commonplace in today’s game that this didn’t get an incredible amount of fanfare. Don’t get me wrong, it got a lot of attention, but the mark doesn’t have the cache of 3,000 hits. And yet, 32 players have amassed that many, far more than pitchers with 3,000 punchouts.
There was one other milestone for CC to reach this year: 250 wins. He became the 48th pitcher with that many wins when he beat the Rays at home on June 19nd.
What’s also notable about that outing: it was the start of another run of strong pitching for the then 38 year-old. In this game and his next three starts, Sabathia threw at least six innings and didn’t allow more than three runs. All that was good for a 3.24 ERA in 25 innings.
This four start stretch was a nice bounce back for Sabathia, as he finished May on the injured list and got roughed up in his first three performances in June. Entering his 250th win game against the Rays, Sabathia’s ERA was up to 4.42. But over the next four starts, he brought the mark down to 4.06 as of July 16th. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last we’d see of Sabathia at or near his best. Oh, and it was also the last time we’d see things heat up between Sabathia and the Rays.
The beginning of the end
Even when Sabathia was pitching well in April and late-June into early-July, there were some red flags. Hitters were striking the ball a little harder against him than usual and hitting quite a few homers.
Unfortunately, and more importantly than some underlying statistics, Sabathia’s body finally started to break down for good. He went to the injured list for knee inflammation three separate times in the summer. As we know, Sabathia’s dealt with this for a while. This time, it was practically intolerable for him as the season continued.
Sabathia made just seven more starts from July 22nd through the end of the season, and they weren’t pretty. In 24 1/3 innings, he allowed 23 runs and nine homers. Surely, his knee woes had a lot do with those numbers.
It was tough to see Sabathia crater in such dramatic fashion. Everyone knew about the lingering knee issues. Sabathia’s ability to manage it and succeed even with pain may have been taken for granted. Ultimately, father time always wins.
The bittersweet end
In preparation for the postseason, there was some uncertainty about Sabathia’s role. Given his performance in the rotation to close the season, he surely wouldn’t make any postseason starts. Instead, the Yankees decided to see if a bullpen role could be in the cards. So, for the first time in his lengthy 19-year career, he made one relief appearance just before the season’s end.
Sabathia threw an easy 1-2-3 frame against Tampa Bay. He threw just 13 pitches to Travis D’Arnaud (K), Ji-Man Choi (6-3), and Matt Duffy (K).
Then came the playoffs. Sabathia wasn’t on the roster for the ALDS because the Twins weren’t a great matchup for him. However, he was active for the ALCS against the Astros.
CC got the job done in Game 2. In the bottom of the tenth, he entered as a lefty specialist to retire Michael Brantley, who grounded out. That was it, as Aaron Boone called to the bullpen thereafter. Sabathia and Boone had a little chuckle on the mound after such an easy night’s work. But sadly, that was the last laugh.
In Game 4, Sabathia pitched the final game of his incredible career.
Retirement, of course. Now, that doesn’t mean he won’t be around the team anymore. He’s obviously close with many, if not all, of his teammates. That’s pretty clear from R2C2. Further, Sabathia wants to remain a part of the organization. A gig as a special assistant certainly is in the cards.
Five years from now, the Sabathia will be on the Hall of Fame ballot. He belongs in Cooperstown, everyone. Perhaps we’ll talk about number retirement, too. And even further down the line, Sabathia assuredly will be a staple at Old Timers’ Day.