Alex Rodriguez‘s latest controversy, if nothing else, has served as a reminder that most mega contracts in baseball are bad ideas. The logical extension of this thought process is to list all the mega contracts the Yankees have, aside from A-Rod’s. Mark Teixeira‘s deal isn’t working out so well. Robinson Cano may never get one. So far CC Sabathia‘s contract, though, has worked out well. Will it last?
The impression is that the two large deals the Yankees most regret are Alex’s (obviously) and Tex’s, to a lesser extent. Sabathia’s massive deal doesn’t get mentioned as often. Part of that is because in four seasons with the Yankees Sabathia has averaged a 1.17 WHIP and a 135 ERA+. Both of those are better than his career averages. A.J. Burnett is gone. Tex has gotten progressively worse over the life of his deal, but CC has been a rock … until 2012.
Last season CC’s production suffered. He saw his innings total drop by nearly forty. He had DL stints. His ERA and FIP both suffered compared to 2011. It would be easy to extrapolate from this performance that Sabathia is starting to get older, and his 2012 may be the new normal. Digging a little deeper, however, that seems less likely that one might think.
The biggest difference between 2011 (possibly CC’s best season) and 2012 was his injury history. Sabathia has been injured almost never in his career. Last year nagging injuries started to pile up. Other than that, 2012 was stronger than most realize. The clearest evidence of that was Sabathia’s 3.20 xFIP, which was the third lowest of his career. Moving beyond that, in 2012 he struck out more batters per nine than any season since 2008 and walked fewer batters per nine than any season since 2007, his Cy Young season. If you were to tack an additional 30 innings onto CC’s total (if you were to remove his injury, essentially) then his 2012 WAR probably jumps up from an already impressive 4.8 to something closer to six, or above. That’s great performance.
There was one other issue in 2012, that harmed CC’s overall numbers. He gave up 0.99 HR per nine innings, up from 0.64 in 2011, mostly because Sabathia struggled with his fastball. That’s certainly a concern, but it is one that a pitcher such as Sabathia can overcome. His slider and changeup were arguably the strongest together that they’ve ever been in his career in terms of runs above average in 2012. Pitchers with that kind of secondary stuff can learn to get batters out, even without a dominant fastball (think Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina).
Adding it up, it suggests that CC should be solid for at least the next few seasons. Sure, he slowed a bit in 2012, but he was still the 12th best pitcher in the game, according to Fangraphs, in limited service. The real question then becomes whether or not Sabathia’s injury struggles last season were a one-off event, or evidence of a new normal? It is easy to fear the new normal because Sabathia has logged at least 200 innings every season since 2007 and at least 230 innings each year during that stretch except for last year. That’s a lot of mileage. However, it isn’t unprecedented. Baseball Reference says that the four pitchers most similar to CC at his current age, in order, are Dwight Gooden, Dave McNally, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. The first two pitchers didn’t have much left for their mid-thirties, while the last two were dominant for years to come. I’ll spare everyone the full list, but it reads similar to the top four: there are pitchers who burnt out, but there are also names such as Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer who kept going. Given that CC didn’t start to accumulate extra mileage until after he’d been in the Big Leagues for a while, where as Gooden and McNally had their work front loaded, it may be safer to compare Sabathia to the pitchers with endurance, not the ones that burnt out.
2013 will be an informative season for Sabathia. If he stays healthy, he figures to have another 5.5 or greater win season. Beyond that, if he bounces back in terms of length and gives the Yankees 220 or more innings, it also suggests that he’s going to have some staying power deeper into his mega deal. At the moment the odds of that still look better than 50%.