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December 10, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

CC... Chooose Me!

by Jay Jaffe

NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

On Tuesday the Mets made the headlines at the Las Vegas Winter Meetings by signing closer Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year deal. On Wednesday, the Yanks went bigger, handing out a seven-year, $160 million deal-the largest contract ever for a pitcher-to CC Sabathia. But where Mets GM Omar Minaya got a bargain and minimized their exposure to risk, Yankees GM Brian Cashman is betting a whole lot of money on a very big pitcher's ability to stay healthy for a long time.

Sabathia is coming off of a monster season, one in which his final line-17-10 with a career-best 2.70 ERA in a career-high 253 innings-tells only a fraction of the story. The 28-year-old began the year with the Indians, the team that made him a first-round draft pick way back in 1998, and the one he'd led to within one win of a World Series berth in 2007 while winning the AL Cy Young Award. The Indians were expected to contend in 2008, but their quick fade led them to trade the pending free agent to the Brewers for four players, including Milwaukee's 2007 first-round pick, Matt LaPorta, on July 7. Sabathia had contributed to the Indians slow start, being rocked for a 13.50 ERA over his first four appearances, and was just 6-8 with a 3.83 ERA at the time of the deal.

He caught fire with the Brewers, who were expected to contend after a near-miss 2007 but whose rotation had been decimated by injuries to Chris Capuano and ace-in-waiting Yovani Gallardo. The big man won his first nine decisions as a Brewer, putting up a 1.43 ERA and averaging eight innings per start through the end of August. He shouldered an even bigger burden in September; with the Brewers in a dogfight for the NL's Wild Card spot, he made his final three starts of the year on three days' rest, winning the last two and going the distance on the final day of the season to clinch the team's first playoff berth in 26 years. Though the Brewers didn't make it out of the Division Series, the Milwaukee portion of Sabathia's performance was so impressive-11-2, with a 1.65 ERA and a league-high seven complete games and three shutouts-that he garnered support in both the MVP and Cy Young balloting, finishing sixth and fifth, respectively. In all, Sabathia led the majors in games started, innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts, and was fourth in ERA, second in strikeouts, fifth in strikeout rate, and eighth in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Those last numbers are very important. Strikeout rate is the key indicator of a pitcher's future success because it provides the window into his ability to fool hitters with his offerings; a pitcher's strikeout rate generally declines as he ages, but a high strikeout rate gives him more headroom before he does so. Furthermore, the more strikeouts a pitcher can notch, the less reliant he is upon his defense, which can vary in its ability to convert balls in play into outs. On that note, the Yankees were one of the majors' least efficient teams in the field, ranking 25th out of 30 teams in both raw Defensive Efficiency (.682) and Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (2.42 percent below average). According to PADE, that's about 30 runs-three net wins-below average, thanks in large part to poor up-the-middle defense by indifferent second baseman Robinson Cano, aging shortstop Derek Jeter (who's always been overrated by the media for his abilities in the field but near the bottom of the pile in any advanced statistical system), and rag-armed center fielder Johnny Damon. Cano and Jeter are still in place, and while Damon may move back to left field, the Yanks still need to upgrade in center field.

Back to Sabathia's numbers, his strikeout-to-walk ratio doesn't just indicate excellent control (a pitcher's ability to throw strikes) but excellent command-his ability to throw good strikes, to put the ball where he wants to with consistency. It's generally an indicator of sound mechanics, because without those, a pitcher won't be able to hit his spots with that level of consistency. That's important when it comes to gauging the risk of a pitcher of Sabathia's stature. He may be 6-foot-7 and pushing 300 pounds, but he's very athletic, and his ability to repeat his motion ranks with anyone. Baseball history is full of oversized pitchers who have been able to succeed despite their girth, with names like Mickey Lolich, Rick Reuschel, Bartolo Colon, and David Wells coming to mind. All had excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios.

That said, seven years and $160 million is a ton to bet on Sabathia's continued health through his age-34 season. The list of nine-figure contracts given to pitchers is a short and not-so-pretty one:

  • Kevin Brown was healthy for only four full years of his seven-year, $105 million deal from the Dodgers, though he was already going on 34 when he signed it in December 1998. At least when he was healthy, he was lights out, with ERAs of 3.00 or below in those four seasons.

  • Mike Hampton's eight-year, $121 million deal signed with the Rockies in 2001 turned out much worse; though only 28 when he signed, he was healthy for only the first half of the deal, then made just 25 starts over the final four years. When healthy he was rarely effective, besting the park-adjusted league-average ERA only twice. His middling strikeout rate and low K/BB ratio should have warded the Rockies off.

  • Barry Zito's seven-year, $126 million deal with the Giants, signed just two years ago, already looks like a disaster after a 10-17, 5.15 ERA showing this past year. A shrewd team could have read the signs of his diminished stuff in his strikeout and walk rates; his fastball can barely break a soft-boiled egg these days, and if he can't get his offspeed stuff over, his "heater" gets creamed.

  • Johan Santana's six-year, $137.5 million extension from the Mets, signed upon his acquisition from the Twins back in February, appears to be the best-case scenario. The two-time AL Cy Young winner put up a Cy-caliber season in his first year in New York, going 16-7 with a 2.53 ERA. Even so, his diminished strikeout rate leaves cause for concern, and there's a long way yet to go on that deal.

Sabathia's initial offer from the Yanks was a six-year, $140 million deal designed to top Santana's pact, but even so, he didn't rush to accept it. He had received a surprisingly competitive, five-year, $100 million offer from the Brewers during the exclusive negotiating period just after the World Series ended, but the California native was said to want to pitch closer to home. Depending upon whom you believe on the Hot Stove rumor circuit, he drew some level of interest from the Angels, Dodgers and Giants. Furthermore, ESPN's Peter Gammons reported yesterday that the Red Sox made Sabathia an offer as well.

The Red Sox, of course, are one of the teams this deal is aimed at, because the Yankees finished six games behind them in the AL East, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Cashman's 2008 blueprint to bypass a potential trade for Santana and center his rotation on three hurlers who had never pitched full seasons in the majors, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy, backfired completely. Chamberlain suffered a season-ending injury in early August, while the latter two dealt with injuries and so much ineffectiveness that they didn't win a single game between them as they combined for a 7.45 ERA in just 17 starts. Staff ace Chien-Ming Wang's season-ending injury didn't help either, and as the Yanks plotted for 2009, neither did the retirement of 20-game winner Mike Mussina.

As such, Cashman made fixing the rotation his top priority, despite the fact that the Yankee system still has not only that heralded trio of youngsters but more pitchers on the horizon. On the other hand, their offense in 2008 was mediocre (seventh in the AL in scoring after leading the majors in 2007), and aging, with the only two regulars under 32 (Cano and Melky Cabrera) having miserable seasons. I've argued elsewhere that the Yankees should have instead pursued Mark Teixeira, the free-agent market's top hitter for a few reasons: the switch-hitting first baseman would have given the offense a new centerpiece under the age of 30 while upgrading the porous defense as well; the Yankees have a dearth of near-ready hitters in their system; and the market contained at least one low-risk frontline pitcher in Derek Lowe. But given the Yanks' desire to net more than one free-agent pitcher, the pickings after Lowe quickly devolve into injury risks like A.J. Burnett and Ben Sheets, both very effective when healthy, but who have combined to reach 30 starts just three times in the past four seasons. Sabathia has reached that mark seven times in his eight big-league seasons, failing to do so only in 2006 when he suffered a groin strain.

Sabathia has managed to avoid arm troubles in his career, and over the last three years he's become extremely efficient; his 15.1 pitches per inning last year ranked 75th-highest among ERA qualifiers. On the other hand, he's coming off by far the two heaviest workloads of his career, and his only two years above 200 innings. His early 2008 problems were believed to be linked to his combined 256-inning 2007 workload extending deep into October, where he exhibited the rare struggle with his command. His combined 256 2/3 innings with an early exit in his only post-season start this year was more of the same, though at least he'll have a couple of extra weeks' rest this time around.

The Sabathia signing won't put the Yankees over the top by itself, particularly given that it now makes Boston the favorite to sign Teixeira to upgrade a more potent offense than the Yanks can muster and that the young and already stocked Rays have frontline starter David Price and even more top prospects still on the way. Sabathia can't be expected to match the dominance he showed in his Milwaukee stint because the American League, and the AL East in particular-statistically the toughest five-team division of the Wild Card Era-is a more difficult place to pitch; at the very least one can expect his strikeout rate to drop, since he'll face designated hitters instead of pitchers. His Cleveland numbers are a better guide to his future performance than his Milwaukee ones.

In all, the move makes a splash in New York by putting most of the Yankees' eggs into one very big basket and by compensating for the type of deal Cashman apparently wishes he'd done last winter. While it may pay off in the short term, it may prevent them from addressing other big needs, and could very well net them bigger headaches down the road.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Deal,  The Who,  Year Of The Injury,  Strikeout

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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nblascak
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Though I'm not surprised, greed triumphs again.

Dec 10, 2008 10:50 AM
rating: -8
 
Ryan V.

Not to be overly antagonistic, but how is this "greed?" I personally would have a very hard time turning down $160M. I don't see how taking the highest bid for your services amounts to greed. Everyone should have that right.

Dec 10, 2008 11:42 AM
rating: 0
 
nblascak

I guess to qualify my statement more clearly, greed on the part of MLBPA. Sabathia obviously wanted to pitch on the West Coast and wanted to pitch in the NL. He is doing neither. And you'd be hard pressed to tell me that the pressure the MLBPA put on him didn't factor in this.

Dec 10, 2008 14:11 PM
rating: 0
 
Patrick

That's the MLBPA's job, to get as much money for their dues-paying members as possible. But it was ultimately up to Sabathia to decide where he wanted to play.

Dec 10, 2008 17:34 PM
rating: 0
 
VAYankee

As a Yankee fan, I'm torn about this deal. 7 yrs and $160 million is a lot for pitcher, but the Yankees clearly needed someone for the rotation with Mussina retiring and Pettitte perhaps looking for too much money ($16 million). I do find it interesting that 12 months ago, the Yanks were willing to give Hughes and Kennedy rotation spots, but now they are persona non grata after one poor season.

I have to agree with Jay, Teixeira would have been the better play. They could have signed two of the three of Burnett, Sheets, and Lowe for much less guaranteed money than they're paying Sabathia. More injury risk, sure, but I think it's foolish to think Sabathia, especially given his workload the last two years, comes with much less than even the combination of Burnett and Sheets.

Dec 10, 2008 11:11 AM
rating: 1
 
misterdelaware

Yankee fan as well, different opinion. As much as I love Teixeira, I'd much rather throw insane money at a legit #1 than a corner. I'll take my chances on finding a good 1B to pair with my ace rather than vice versa.

(Sheets terrifies me. Burnett has shown the ability to pitch full seasons since his injuries, Sheets' career line looks way too much like someone who was pitched out at a young age for my liking. In a rotation that contains a guy coming off an injury and on an innings count (possibly two if Hughes has a slot), Sheets is a risk I don't think can be taken.)

Dec 10, 2008 11:23 AM
rating: 1
 
mikebuetow

JJ, you wrote: "On the other hand, he's coming off by far his two heaviest workloads of his career, and his only two years above 200 innings."

Actually, he pitched 200+ in 2002, and 190+ three other times. At any rate, I'm not so sure the pitches thrown isn't a better indicator of wear and tear than innings pitched.

Dec 10, 2008 11:44 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

My bad on the 2002 total - working to a tight deadline and I simply missed that one, though it's worth noting that it's the exception that proves the rule. Including the postseason, his last two workloads have been bigger by 40+ innings.

Furthermore, Sabathia's wear-and-tear concerns don't decrease when you realize that he led the majors in pitches thrown and batters faced last year, the latter by a couple hundred pitches over Tim Lincecum.

Dec 10, 2008 12:55 PM
 
sbnirish77

Wasn't one of the criticisms of the Yankees when they lost to Cleveland 2 years ago that they didn't really have a true # 1 for the playoffs like other teams did (Beckett)?

That Wang, as good as he was, just wasn't up to the task?

That to win the playoffs you need the horse not 5 non-descript starters?

Adding Lowe might be a better low-risk approach to cover innings for the regular season but would do absolutely nothing for the Yankees need for a true #1 to match up in the playoffs.

And isn't playoff perfromance all that really counts in the Yankee world?

Dec 10, 2008 12:04 PM
rating: 0
 
TADontAsk

Just for the record, Sabathia has had some awfully poor playoff performances of late. With an ERA approaching 8 (!) and a K/BB ratio of 24/22. I don't think it's out of the question for one to wonder how he'll handle the spotlight. This isn't Cleveland or Milwaukee.

Dec 10, 2008 12:20 PM
rating: -1
 
Rick Baumhauer

Only one issue with this - Sabathia hasn't exactly been dominant in the playoffs, legit #1 or not.

The Yankees may have to be careful with his innings and pitchcount in the regular season to try to keep him fresh for October, no matter how much the big man wants the ball.

Dec 10, 2008 12:26 PM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

Yes, the Yankee offense was the bigger problem last year, but it is a lot easier to rationalize an improvement in their offense with comebacks by Cano, Posada, Matsui, even Jeter than to fill the two gaping holes in the rotation.

Yankee fans saw what having two gaping holes (Hughes, Kennedy)in your rotation can do to the bottom line last year and Cash cannot standby and watch the same disaster this year.

Dec 10, 2008 12:13 PM
rating: -2
 
ObviouslyRob

I think it might be a little bit of "rose-colored glasses" hoping for the majority of that list to come back. It's not clear what to expect from Cano year to year, Matsui is obviously now an injury risk and all signs point to Jeter's and Posada's decline. Plus that outfield is a mess, offensively and defensively. Yankees need offense and defense, something they could have done quite easily with a different single-player move.

Dec 10, 2008 15:48 PM
rating: 1
 
johnmeister

Cano can't be worse that what he was last year.

Jeter did decline last year but is still only two years removed from his career high of 10.6 WARP1. So last year's 4.4 WARP1 (career low while healthy) either suggests that Jeter is the next Roberto Alomar or that he will rebound a bit (though no one is expecting another 2006 type performance).

But mostly Posada is back and hopefully stays healthy. The worst that Posada gives is got to be better than what the Yanks saw from the catching position last year.

Dec 11, 2008 15:57 PM
rating: 0
 
foulpole75

As a Red Sox fan, this looks like another Yankee gaffe. Four years ago, I feared the Yankees would do the right thing and land CF Carlos Beltran. Imagine the last four seasons with Beltran roaming center in Yankee Stadium and adding power to the lineup. Shudder. No thanks. Now they add Sabathia, a better free agent for them than usual because he is young. He may just be able to stay healthy and pay off, but if they let the best young hitter go again, as in Teixeira to the Sox, and even if he isn't an up-the-middle guy like Beltran, it could really hurt. The Sox passed the Yankees this year by placing more value on pitching and defense. The Boston O wasn't what it was in 2003 and '04, even though it was 2nd in the AL in runs. The D was 4th in fewest runs allowed. Theo's latest edition is not your 1970s Sox, or even your mid-2000s Sox. If Boston can maintain that defense and pitching and add Teixeira to the mix — and he's a plus glove that only helps run prevention while adding to the team's huge 2008 run differential with his bat — then the Sox will be truly loaded. (BTW, only the Cubs had a better run differential. Is this way Vegas as the Sox and Cubs favored for the 2009 World Series? It sure leaves me wondering why that couldn't have been the case in 2008. Probably makes Joe Buck and FOX Co. feel the same way.)

Dec 10, 2008 12:38 PM
rating: 0
 
gdhailey

You couldn't be wronger.

What does Texeira add to the Red Sox? He doesn't really fill a hole -- just replaces lowell. Assuming Lowell is healthy this year, the net gain isn't that great. And don't be surprised if the Yankees don't sneak up and grab Texeira at the last minute.

Pedroia won't match his 2008 year -- Manny is gone (Bay is no replacement for his bat), Drew is mediocre, catcher is a big hole, and Ortiz is the new Mo Vaughn. Ellsbury looks like nothing very special. Plus Matsuzaka was the luckiest starter in the major leagues last year -- he's living on borrowed time. Lester's secondary numbers don't support his ERA and W-L either, and you're still counting on Wakefield for cryin' out loud.

The Yankees were as unlucky with injuries last year as the Red Sox were lucky. As crazy as Sabathia's deal looks today, it will likely be a bargain. They only had to spend money to get him -- Santana would have cost almost as much , plus Phil Hughes.

Dec 11, 2008 20:12 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Yahoo reports that CC has an opt-out after 2011, having made $69 mil over the first three years:

http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/news?slug=ti-sabathiayankees121008&prov=yhoo&type=lgns&expire=1

Dec 10, 2008 13:01 PM
 
Rob_in_CT

It's an upgrade, that's for sure. The rotation desperately needed both quality and innings. CC provides both.

I agree they need a good young position player too. And their minor league system is really, really thin on those, whereas they have decent pitching talent. I hope for serious rebounds from Cano and Posada (though Po isn't likely to be as good or play as much as in years past), and I think those are fair bets. Others will continue to decline with age. Nady will go back to being the fringy player he is. He needs to be platooned with Swisher. Melky has proven he's a 4th OF. They've got issues, yeah. But they're better with CC, and I can still hope they will sign Tex too (hey, be the Evil Empire or be not the Evil Empire. There is no try).

Dec 10, 2008 14:03 PM
rating: 0
 
gpurcell

Player opt-out after three years makes this a terrible deal for the Yanks.

Dec 10, 2008 14:05 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I'm not so sure I buy that given that the big opt-outs have all opted out: A-Rod, Drew, Burnett (what's with initials and opt outs?). While the economic circumstances today appear to be much more grim than they were during the timeframe of those deals, baseball salaries have exponentially outstripped the rate of inflation in the grander scheme, and in three years time, the market may be that much more favorable for CC - and the Yanks are in no way obliged to re-up him. On the contrary, if he opts out, they can offer him arbitration knowing he won't accept, and claim the draft picks.

Look at it this way: before we knew there was an opt out, this was a sunk cost anyway, and my take above reflects my reading of the deal on that basis: a mixed bag. Now, with the opt-out in there, there's a chance that it won't be a completely sunk cost.

Dec 10, 2008 14:32 PM
 
krissbeth

Think of it this way: if Sabathia doesn't have the injury concerns that make this very long term deal for a pitcher risky, he opts out. If he does get the injury, he doesn't opt out. Lose-lose scenario?

Dec 11, 2008 08:05 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I simply don't see the healthy/opt out as a losing scenario for the Yankees. They would get the next 700 or so innings of Sabathia, two draft picks, and $92 million of previously committed money to spend on something that's perhaps less risky - the next big thing on the FA market. Yes, they have to replace those presumably high-quality innings, but the finite chance of getting out of the back end of the deal seems like upside to me, not downside.

Dec 11, 2008 08:30 AM
 
hmamis

What i find difficult is that the Yankees have just asked the city of New York for an additional 450 million in financing for the new stadium. Now they go out and spend 160 million for a ball player.

Harry

Dec 10, 2008 14:18 PM
rating: 2
 
Rob_in_CT

Actually, IMO it would be far worse if they asked and got the money and then didn't spend it on players in order to compete.

Dec 11, 2008 05:39 AM
rating: 0
 
Randy Brown
(189)

I could not agree more with Harry's sentiment. The taxpayers of New York should in no way be asked to shoulder the burden of cost overruns. Or the original costs, for that matter.

It is shameful that city and state governments around this country have not forced MLB to set aside a portion of their nationwide revenues (TV, MLBAM, etc.) into a central stadium fund in return for any matching government-sponsored funding. Collectively, MLB's ownership has executed a brilliant divide-and-conquer strategy to extort taxpayer funds over the past 15 years.

Dec 11, 2008 11:00 AM
rating: 1
 
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