October 31, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
A Weighty Matter
The stroke of midnight on Monday is the deadline for Yankees ace CC Sabathia to opt out of the final four years of the seven-year, $161 million deal he signed in December 2008, and the word on the street, via SI.com's Jon Heyman, is that he will do so. While a thrilling World Series played out in Texas and St. Louis, the New York City tabloids were been busy picturing Sabathia in a Red Sox uniform, particularly on the heels of the news that John Lackey will miss the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery. The Yankees are said to have prepared a pre-emptive pitch; according to the New York Post's George King III, "The Yankees are believed to be OK with a five- or six-year deal for an obvious raise over his current $23 million a year. Yet seven or eight years is something they want to avoid because of age, workload, and Sabathia gaining weight across the second half of last season."
Sabathia has the Yankees over a barrel, because neither the open market nor their own ranks offer an acceptable front-of-the-rotation substitute. There's no free-agent equivalent to Cliff Lee available this winter. Ivan Nova isn't going to suddenly start striking out eight men per nine innings. Phil Hughes isn’t going to grow up to be the ace the Yankees thought he could be, and while Manny Banuelos may get there eventually, he’s got just seven starts in Triple-A under his belt. A.J. Burnett is more likely to grow wings and a tail than to start pitching like the ace that his stuff once suggested he could be.
Sabathia's size and workload—both exceptionally heavy—are of significant concern going forward, and one of the problems of weighing the risks and rewards is that he's such an outlier that finding comparable players is difficult. Nonetheless, we can try. The physical data at Baseball-Reference.com and elsewhere is often outdated; player heights and weights are subject to fudging early in a career, and the latter typically doesn't get updated as a player ages. By the looks of things, it appears B-Ref might have found some means, because Sabathia is now listed at 290 pounds, compared to the 250 at which he was listed as of 2009 and is still listed in our own files. That heftier weight is now presented as constant over the course of his career, which in all likelihood it has not been, but we can use it as a starting point.
B-Ref lists 65 pitchers weighing at least 250 pounds, with 300-pound Dodger closer Jonathan Broxton at the top end, followed by Sabathia and Jon Rauch at 290. Just six of those heavyweights debuted prior to 1995, four of them prior to World War II, and the other two of whom pitched fewer than eight innings apiece in the majors; effectively, we can consider 1995 our cutoff. Our man CC has thrown more innings than any of those players; coincidentally or not, the second- and third-ranked pitchers on the list were Sabathia's rotation-mates this season: Bartolo Colon (listed at 265 pounds, up from an earlier 250), and Freddy Garcia (250 pounds, up from an earlier 235). Here's the top 15; note how far ahead of the field Sabathia is in terms of ERA+ and strikeout rate:
Both Colon and Garcia have come back from major shoulder injuries; despite being several years older, they've thrown fewer major-league innings in their longer careers. They enjoyed surprisingly strong seasons in 2011, but only after years of wandering in the wilderness.
Nobody within the top 10 in innings pitched has a lower ERA (actual or adjusted) or a higher strikeout rate—a key indicator of longevity and success—than Sabathia; for the latter, you have to go down to the 11-13 range to find pitchers who top him there. Reyes is a lefty reliever, while Young and Johnson are starters. That trio's combined innings total is less than Sabathia's, in large part because the two starters have been incredibly injury prone. Johnson, at 6-foot-7—the same height as Sabathia, has qualified for the ERA title (162 innings) just twice since debuting in 2005, and has just one 200-inning season. He battled elbow nerve problems in 2007, underwent Tommy John surgery late that summer, and in 2010 and 2011, battled shoulder inflammation, with back pain another problem as well this past season; he finished with just 60
Given their lack of durability, it's difficult to say that either is truly comparable to Sabathia, who has served just two DL stints in his career, both for oblique strains (2005 and 2006). He would have gone on the DL with a hamstring strain in 2004, but the injury occurred in mid-September, when rosters were expanded; teams don't generally use the DL then. He has undergone off-season surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee twice (2006 and 2010), neither of which cost him any regular-season time. That rates as something of a concern—it's his plant leg, which is subject to more force than his post leg—but it beats having known shoulder or elbow problems by a country mile.
Collectively, here is the breakdown of the what the 14 pitchers besides Sabathia did through their age-30 seasons, and thereafter:
This data has two problems. First, as noted above, Sabathia is significantly better than any of the others in the group, both more productive and with a heavier workload. Second, most of those pitchers are still active; 11 saw major-league action in 2011, and Silva pitched in the minors. Five of those pitchers haven't even been around long enough to contribute any innings to the post-30 bin (Contreras, on the other hand, contributed none to the pre-30 bin). As such, this isn't a very effective comparison, for it gives us almost no idea what to expect from Sabathia going forward.
If we set aside height and weight for the moment and simply look at workloads through age-30 seasons, again it's difficult to find comparables. Just two other pitchers in our 1995-2011 timeframe totaled 2,000 or more innings through age 30, Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland. Both are big men by most standards; Buehrle is listed at 230 pounds, while Garland is listed as 6-foot-6. While effective (a 3.51 ERA and 125 ERA+ for the former, 4.32 and 104 for the latter), both are low-strikeout pitchers who aren’t all that similar to Sabathia; the former has averaged 5.1 per nine for his career, the latter 4.9.
If we expand our time horizon back to 1979—doubling the number of years available to us, and making sure not to cut anyone off mid-career—we find 12 pitchers who totaled at least 2,000 innings through age 30. Unfortunately, the weight data we have on those pitchers is much less reliable; chubby Fernando Valenzuela is listed at 180 pounds, burly Roger Clemens at 205; both were at least 230 by the time their careers were done. Furthermore, Buehrle is the only pitcher besides Sabathia who is listed as being above 210 pounds; clearly, the updated weight data that B-Ref possesses pertains only to active players.
Nonetheless, mileage on the arm is a valid consideration when it comes to Sabathia, and it puts him in some very distinguished company:
Including Sabathia, seven of those 12 pitchers won at least one Cy Young award; Clemens won seven, Maddux four, Saberhagen two. With the exception of the Rocket's four Cys from age 34 onward—allegedly fueled by performance-enhancing drugs—all of that hardware was won before age 30. Collectively, the group combined for a 3.43 ERA, a 120 ERA+, and 6.5 strikeouts per nine (remember, strikeout rates have been climbing steadily for decades).
How did those pitchers fare in their 30s? Performance-wise, there was almost no dropoff; they combined for a 3.60 ERA, a 122 ERA+, and 6.7 strikeouts per nine. They averaged 938 innings per pitcher—Buehrle and Garland are still active, so that figure will go up—but that average is skewed considerably. Clemens and Maddux both totaled over 2,600 more innings, Smoltz over 1,400… and then the next closest total is Viola's 728
Most of the pitchers involved faced arm injuries in their 30s, because arm injuries are almost an inevitable part of a pitcher's career, which isn't to say that pitchers don't come back from them. Valenzuela, Saberhagen, Witt, and Smoltz all missed at least a full season due to arm injuries and surgeries; Saberhagen was for a long time the record holder for days on the DL (though I vaguely recall Orlando Hernandez passing him, I can't find a reference to that). Gooden battled both injuries and drug problems, losing the entire 1995 season to a suspension. Clemens underwent shoulder surgery before his latter-day resurgence. Viola underwent Tommy John surgery and had just 15 starts spread over his final three seasons from 1994-1996. Garland went on the DL twice this year with shoulder woes, his first two stints ever. Stieb's problem was lingering back woes; he retired after his age-35 season, then came back for an abbreviated season at 40. Buehrle, amazingly, is the only one who has never been on the disabled list—not even for a fluke injury—but then again, his career isn't done yet.
What's interesting about those 12 pitchers is how well Sabathia holds up in that company; only Clemens, Maddux, Saberhagen, and Stieb had higher ERA+ through age 30—only the first two by a significantly wide margin—and only Clemens, Gooden, and Smoltz had higher K rates. Of those six pitchers, three are bound for the Hall of Fame, and two are in the discussion for the greatest modern-day pitcher ever. Here's what happens if we compare the larger group (excluding Sabathia) with the smaller group. That has the additional benefit of bumping off some of the less-dominant pitchers, though it also eliminates all of the lefties (Valenzuela, Viola and Buehrle):
After age 30, the smaller group was slightly more effective than the larger one, the bigger difference being that they threw 51 percent more innings. The larger group, which features the lefties and run prevention more closely aligned to Sabathia's rates, is still probably the more valid one to go by, but it's an interesting bracketing nonetheless.
Taking one last stab at finding a group for comparison, we'll bring weight back into the criteria, lowering cutoff to 230 pounds and focusing on recent workloads at a comparable age. Among those heavyweights, seven pitchers since 1995 have tossed at least 600 innings in their age 28-30 seasons. Since that's not a very big pool, we can add pitchers who meet the criteria in their age 27-29 seasons or 29-31 seasons to beef it up, excluding those already in the 28-30 bin. That brings us to 13 pitchers:
Aside from the fact that they're all righties besides Sabathia and Buehrle, that's not a bad peer group in which to situate the big man; Colon, Webb, Halladay, and Carpenter also won Cy Young awards. Here’s the average performance of those pitchers in those three years, and afterward:
Ouch. That's a significant dropoff. Nine of the 12 pitchers besides Sabathia saw major-league action in 2011; Benes is long retired, while Webb hasn’t made a major-league appearance since Opening Day 2009, and Suppan toiled at Triple-A Omaha waiting for the call that never came. From averaging 219 innings per season over those three-year spans, those pitchers slipped to 161 innings per year, gained more than half a run on their ERAs to the point that they were league average, saw their strikeout rates fall by 10 percent, and likely fell victim to the scourge of male pattern baldness as well. Given the number of pitchers still active, there’s likely to be further decline among this group.
None of these comparisons are conclusive, but they do suggest that like most heavily-used pitchers, Sabathia will have trouble maintaining the same workload in his 30s that he did in his 20s, even if the decline in his performance is relatively gentle. While he’s averaged 5.1 WARP per year over the past three years—about $25 million worth of performance; he has lived up to his end of the deal—any drop in innings or effectiveness will make it much harder for him to live up to his higher salary. Furthermore, we know that the history of pitchers with $100 million contracts is not a pretty one, from Kevin Brown and Mike Hampton to Barry Zito and Johan Santana. The jury is still out on Lee, but the odds are against him, too.
Then again, it’s clear that Sabathia is a true outlier in terms of his combination of size and performance. As I’ve written before, we know that the elite pitchers come in all shapes and sizes, from sprites like Tim Lincecum and Pedro Martinez to storks like Randy Johnson, with pudgy guys like Mickey Lolich, Fernando Valenzuela, Rick Reuschel, and David Wells (listed here at a chuckle-worthy 187 pounds) thrown in as well. In this case, we’re talking about a pitcher whose delivery has no red flags, who has been particularly healthy, who remains an outstanding athlete despite his size.
Ultimately, Brian Cashman and company will have to weigh their appetite for risk against their appetite to undertake more drastic measures to fill the void Sabathia’s departure would leave. Already with a rotation that needs some retouching, they would most likely have to trade at least one blue-chip prospect (Banuelos or Jesus Montero), and perhaps both in a deal for a frontliner; failing that, they would be left with a need to market Curtis Granderson, whose combination of performance (5.3 WARP, second among the team’s hitters) and affordability ($10 million for 2012, with an option for $13 million for 2013) could appeal to some teams. That would leave a hole in their lineup not easily filled, though they do at least possess another capable center fielder in Brett Gardner.
The Yankees have struck out in the three years they’ve had to address this inevitability, whiffing on Lee and watching Burnett shrivel into a replacement-level basket case in the interim. That alone suggests they’re prepared simply to throw money at this problem and hope for the best. With Boston less likely to be a player in this year’s free-agent market after last winter’s outlays, I’d guess that none of the other potential suitors are prepared to match what the Yankees can offer, but Sabathia is the one with the leverage here, and the big man is going to get paid.