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cc-just-say-no-no | August | 2008 Articles

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C.C.? Just Say No, No

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Many people -- including our own Will Schaffer, below -- are advocating signing C.C. Sabathia to a long-term deal. He's one of the top pitchers in baseball, the reigning AL Cy Young laureate, and has probably been the best pitcher in the NL since he came to Milwaukee. He's clearly one of the best pitchers in baseball now. But is he likely to justify the long-term deal he's sure to command, as a number-one pitcher in his prime? In all likelihood, no. 7 of his top 10 most comparable pitchers on baseball-reference.com were done by age 31, by which I mean they never pitched another full season in their career. Alex Fernandez was basically done after age 27; Tony Cloninger was done after his age 29 season, as was Larry Dierker; Ken Holtzman was pretty much done after age 30, as was Lefty Gomez; Dan Petry was done after his age 31 season, as was Dave McNally. Of the other three, Dennis Eckersley became a reliever after his age 31 season, Mark Buehrle (only a year older than C.C.) appears to be still going strong, and Greg Maddux is of course in his own category. C.C. has pitched 1552 2/3 innings before his 28th birthday, which is a very high number. There have been 7 other pitchers who have debuted since 1988 and done that: Pedro Martinez, Javier Vasquez, Jim Abbott, and Jon Garland, and, repeating from the last list, Maddux, Fernandez, and Buehrle. Pedro, of course, has been constantly injured since he turned 33. Other than a resurgent 2007, Vasquez basically went from a potential ace to a league-average innings eater after he was 27. Fernandez was pretty much done after age 27, and so was Abbott. Garland is pretty much the definition of a league-average innings eater. Buehrle appears still to be in his prime, and Maddux remained one of the league's best pitchers through his age 36 season. Maddux and Buehrle are really the only recent precedents for a pitcher with his innings total remaining effective long enough to justify the contract Sabathia will command -- and Buehrle, only a year older than Sabathia, is another prime candidate to break down in the near future. To reiterate: 7 of his top 10 comparables, and 4 of the 7 with his number of innings, were either league-average or destroyed by injury by age 31. Pedro Martinez only hung on for two more years after that. Greg Maddux is double-counted, and since he's basically the most durable pitcher in baseball history, he's not a good yardstick to measure by. There's no one comparable to him. Of course, it's always possible that C.C. will stay healthy and effective for many more years to come. But I wouldn't bet on it. Not with his body type, and definitely not with that many miles on that arm. Update: in response to a comment by Coach from the comments thread, "Sabathia is only 27, he has an eight year average of 34 starts, 221 innings, 15 wins and has been nothing but durable and dependable." That's the 162 game average. His actual numbers in slightly less than 8 years are 246 starts, 1601 2/3 IP, and 114 wins. There are only 5 other pitchers debuting in the last 30 years to accomplish that in the first 8 years of their careers. 2 of them are Freddy Garcia, who went from elite to average some time in his late twenties, and Tim Hudson, who has continued to pitch well into his early 30's but just had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Both are still active, so we don't know their full career arcs. The other three are Mark Langston, Frank Viola, and Rick Reuschel. Langston was a very good pitcher in his prime, but he was pretty much finished as an elite pitcher after his career-best age 32 year in 1993, two years after his 8th season. He turned in 2 more league-average seasons, then became a pitcher who was frequently injured and mediocre when healthy. Frank Viola pitched very well through his age 33 year in 1993, 4 years after his 8th season, but he was almost perpetually injured after that, and only made 15 more starts in three seasons before hanging up his spikes. Rick Reuschel pitched about 6 and a half full seasons after his 8th season in 1979, but after a full year in 1980 and the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, he missed all of the 1982 season, almost all of the 1983 season, and most of the 1984 season. From then on, he was very erratic: a brilliant 1985 was followed by a mediocre 1986, then a terrific 1987, then an average 1988, then a solid 1989, his last full season. The odds are, Sabathia will not be able to keep up this workload at the level of success he's previously been used to.

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