CC Sabathia

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CC Sabathia has a case for Cooperstown

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I’m sure it was not how CC Sabathia wanted to go out: injured, in a Yankees loss, with his final “pitch” being a warmup toss that revealed that he was too injured to go on. But bad endings to long, illustrious careers tend to wash out of people’s memories in pretty short order. When a great player’s time in the game is over, we almost always remember the greatness, and that will be the same with CC Sabathia.

As I’ve written in this space in the past, it’s rather reductive to only reflect on such careers through the lens of “is he Hall of Fame-worthy?” There are a number of great players who had great, memorable careers which fell short of Cooperstown for some reason or another and, frankly, a whole lot of guys who are in Cooperstown who weren’t necessarily great. Talking about guys only with reference to their Hall of Fame credentials causes us to spend too much time talking about the already well-remembered and risks us forgetting those who should not be forgotten.

But hey, let’s be reductive! It’s OK in this case because, in my estimation, CC Sabathia does have an actual Hall of Fame case and, if I had to bet on it, I’d say he’s inducted at some point down the road.

It’s not a slam dunk case. He’s not some brainless first-ballot guy. A lot of voters will look at his career ERA of 3.74 and think “man, that’s high for a Hall of Famer.” The smarter ones — and the Hall’s electorate gets smarter with each passing year — will note that his ERA+, which adjusts for the mostly high-offense era and hitter-friendly parks in which he pitched, is a respectable 116. Again, that’s not knock-you-off-your-feet great, but it’s in the neighborhood of a good number of Hall of Fame pitchers including Tom Glavine (118), Bert Blyleven (118), Gaylord Perry (117), Fergie Jenkins (115), Steve Carlton (115), and Jim Bunning (115), and is way better than guys like Jack Morris (105), Herb Pennock (106), Pud Galvin (107), Burleigh Grimes (108) and a decent handful of others. Yes, some of those guys were very different pitchers with other things going for them that Sabathia may not have. I’m just saying that Sabathia’s worst Big Stat selling point, his ERA, would not be crazily out-of-whack with Hall of Fame standards.

Beyond that, this past season Sabathia hit a couple of big milestones, becoming one of only 14 pitchers with both 250 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, and finishes with 251 wins and 3,093 Ks. We all know that wins are not a great stat by which to judge a starting pitcher, but it’s also the case that, historically, a lot of guys got into the Hall of Fame because of win totals. So yeah, it’s a tad awkward to cite Sabathia’s 251 wins, but it’s also the case that winning 250+ games now, in an era in which starters simply don’t have the chances to rack up wins like they used to, is kinda like winning 300+ back in the day. There are a number of pitchers in the Hall who got there, mostly, by racking up 300 wins, and I’d bet more than a few of them might not have gotten 250 if they played in this era.

More analytically: Sabathia has a career bWAR of 62.5. That’s less than the Hall of Fame average of 73.4 for pitchers. But again, like ERA and ERA+, it’s higher than a decent number of Hall of Fame pitchers who either had more dominant but shorter careers or who hung on a bit too long and provided negative value late in their careers. He’s not far behind Bob Feller (65.1). He’s tied with Dazzy Vance. He’s ahead of Don Drysdale (61.3) and Juan Marichal (61.8). No I’m not suggesting I’d choose peak Sabathia to start a game over peak Marichal or Feller or anything. And yes, there are some “complier” critiques to put in there too. I’m just, again, noting that Sabathia would not be an outlier if inducted. More on the “complier” critique below.

Other stuff: he was a six-time All-Star. He was the 2007 American League Cy Young Award winner. He was traded from the AL to the NL in the middle of the 2008 season so he didn’t get a chance to rank as highly in either league as he might’ve if he had stayed in one (he probably finishes behind Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum in either case) but it was another Cy Young-level year. , Awards aside, do you remember 2008? Man, that was a hell of a season for him. After a terrible start that had people writing “what’s wrong with CC?” articles, he went on an absolute tear, then the Indians flipped him to the Brewers, he put the Brewers on his back and willed them to the postseason. It was one of the more impressive stretches a starter has had in recent memory.

The Brewers fell short of the pennant that year — CC needed more help than he got if Milwaukee was to pass the Phillies — but he signed with the Yankees the next season and was the ace of New York’s last World Series champion. He was the ALCS MVP that year too.

Sabathia led his league in wins twice, games started twice, batters faced twice, innings once, complete games and shutouts once, and strikeout-to-walk ratio twice. He retires as the active leader in wins, games started, complete games, innings, strikeouts, and batters faced. As for those strikeouts, the 3000-strikeout club is smaller than the 3,000-hit club, the 500-homer club and the 300-win club. But yes, just as wins are harder to come by now strikeouts are easier, so let’s not lean too hard on that.

Hall of Fame conversations often focus on the balance of peak value to career value. At first glance it’s easy to look at Sabathia’s line — which also has him as the active leader in losses and walks and other less-than-great things — and say “eh, he was a complier.” Two responses to that:

  • Sabathia actually had an excellent peak, posting a 140 ERA+ and going 122-57 between 2006-12, and there were several years in there in which a reasonable person might say that he was the best starter in the game; and
  • (2) Calling a starting pitcher a “complier” is not the insult people think it is because, if you haven’t noticed, it’s hard for starters to stay healthy and strong enough to take the ball every fifth day. Sabathia was, until near the very end of his career, an absolute horse, the kind of guy who would’ve been winning 25 games and pitching 300 innings a year back in the 1970s, and that provided a huge value to his teams.

Some other, softer factors that you can take or leave depending on how you think about such things: Sabathia signed a nine-figure contract in 2009, opted out, and signed a nine-figure extension in 2012. In an age in which the conventional wisdom has gravitated toward the idea that such deals are always terrible, it’s worth noting that Sabathia was worth both the first deal and the extension.

It’s also worth nothing that EVERYBODY loves CC Sabathia. His teammates. His opponents. Fans. The media. When he went through adversity — be it injury or his battle with alcoholism — he had the overwhelming number of people out there on his side and that’s not always the case with big league ballplayers. There are probably too many guys in the Hall of Fame because they were good friends with Frankie Frisch or the writers or whatever, but if there are still points to be given for being a good guy, Sabathia gets those points. No matter what you think of that I do think it’ll, practically speaking, help Sabathia when it comes to the voting.

About the voting: I dunno if he makes it. I think it’ll be pretty close, but I think he probably gets over the line and into the Hall eventually. I think voters will remember that time when Sabathia was one of the best pitchers in the game. I think voters also have a greater appreciation of what a durable, reliable pitcher means for a team now than they used to and that, as time goes on, they’ll appreciate it even more. And yeah, Sabathia is a good egg and people tend to resolve close calls in the favor of the good eggs.

The upshot: see you in Cooperstown, CC. Probably.