CHICAGO—The Cleveland Indians team flight had just touched down after completing its journey from Minnesota when word began to spread around the cabin.
CC Sabathia, the Indians' star pitcher and free-agent-to-be, had just been traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. With the plane still on the tarmac, Sabathia began saying his goodbyes to his teammates and his manager, still stunned at a reality that would eventually set in. He had gone from an also-ran with the Indians to a playoff contender with the Brewers, a change of scenery that he later called “refreshing.”
“I had a chance to be in the playoffs,” Sabathia said this week, as he looked back at the summer of 2008. “Yeah, it definitely revitalizes you.”
If all goes according to plan, Erik Bedard (Red Sox), Edwin Jackson (Cardinals), Jason Marquis (Diamondbacks), Doug Fister (Tigers), and Ubaldo Jimenez (Indians) will all be saying the same thing come October. At least that's what their new employers expect from the pitchers they acquired before Sunday's non-waiver trade deadline, hoping that their sudden involvement in a pennant race might have the same revitalizing effect.
All of them have a chance to take advantage of a fresh start the way Sabathia famously did in '08.
How well did he respond to the sudden pressure of the pennant race? With the Indians, he was 6-8 with a 3.83 ERA, nothing special when compared to his previous season, when he won the Cy Young Award. But with the Brewers, Sabathia embarked on a run of dominance that still ranks among the greatest performances by a starting pitcher added in midseason.
He went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA, more than two runs better than he pitched before the trade.
“We traded for him thinking he was going to take us to the playoffs,” Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder said. “But to actually do it like that, the way people hoped he would do it, is pretty awesome. Nobody expected him to do that. For him to just take the team on his shoulders basically is pretty awesome to watch.”
Just like Sabathia in '08, none of this year's crop of freshly-traded starting pitchers were in the middle of particularly memorable seasons before they were moved:
But history tells us that things can change quickly.
Rick Sutcliffe's 16-1 run after he was traded from the Indians to the Cubs during the 1984 season might rival Sabathia's dominance in '08. But it's even more impressive considering what Sutcliffe had done before the trade, going just 4-5 with a 5.15 ERA.
Randy Johnson's 10-1 rampage with the Astros in 1998 might be the best performance ever by a pitcher moved in midseason. With the Mariners, Johnson's ERA had soared to 4.33. But with the Astros, he pitched to a 1.28 ERA, an improvement of more than three runs. Like Sabathia, Johnson went on to be rewarded with free agent riches, signing a four-year, $52.4 million deal with the Diamondbacks.
Perhaps the biggest turnaround came from Doyle Alexander, who was traded from the Braves to the Tigers in 1987. At the time of his trade, Alexander had pitched below replacement level, with his 5-10 record and 4.13 ERA translating into a VORP of minus-1.5. But he'll always be remembered more for what he did in his new uniform with the Tigers. Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA, earning himself a place in lore.
Sabathia did the same with the Brewers. He has since moved on to the Yankees, signing a seven-year, $161 million deal after his sterling ’08 second half, though his exploits in Milwaukee still rank among the all-time great runs by a pitcher brought in during the season.
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin still looks back at Sabathia's contributions—which helped Milwaukee win the wild card—with a sense of awe. On the brink of free agency, Sabathia insisted on taking the ball even on short rest.
“He was a stand-up guy,” Melvin said. “He feeds off the pressure. Obviously, we saw that, how he feeds off the pressure.”
Looking back, Sabathia said he was fueled less by any external pressure and more by the sudden opportunity to play in October, a chance he wasn't going to get with the Indians.
“Just a chance to be in the race, it was actually fun,” he said. “I didn't really feel any pressure. I just felt I was lucky to be in that situation.”
Here's a look at some pitchers who fared well after midseason trades and how they pitched before being dealt. Sabathia compares favorably when it comes to improvement after a trade, though a few on this list have him beat:
Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.