The Big Man Hits the Big Town

Less than 24 hours after filing the K-Rod signing story for, I awoke to an email from their editor asking me to prep a similar article on CC Sabathia given the reports that he was poised to sign with the Yankees — which was news to me at that early hour. By lunchtime I’d filed a piece for SI and Baseball Prospectus. Much of what I had to say centered on what his numbers said about his unique physique:

In all, Sabathia led the majors in games started, innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts, and was fourth in ERA, second in strikeouts, fifth in strikeout rate, and eighth in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Those last numbers are very important. Strikeout rate is the key indicator of a pitcher’s future success because it provides the window into his ability to fool hitters with his offerings; a pitcher’s strikeout rate generally declines as he ages, but a high strikeout rate gives him more headroom before he does so. Furthermore, the more strikeouts a pitcher can notch, the less reliant he is upon his defense, which can vary in its ability to convert balls in play into outs. On that note, the Yankees were one of the majors’ least efficient teams in the field, ranking 25th out of 30 teams in both raw Defensive Efficiency (.682) and Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (2.42 percent below average). According to PADE, that’s about 30 runs—three net wins—below average, thanks in large part to poor up-the-middle defense by indifferent second baseman Robinson Cano, aging shortstop Derek Jeter (who’s always been overrated by the media for his abilities in the field but near the bottom of the pile in any advanced statistical system), and rag-armed center fielder Johnny Damon. Cano and Jeter are still in place, and while Damon may move back to left field, the Yanks still need to upgrade in center field.

Back to Sabathia’s numbers, his strikeout-to-walk ratio doesn’t just indicate excellent control (a pitcher’s ability to throw strikes) but excellent command—his ability to throw good strikes, to put the ball where he wants to with consistency. It’s generally an indicator of sound mechanics, because without those, a pitcher won’t be able to hit his spots with that level of consistency. That’s important when it comes to gauging the risk of a pitcher of Sabathia’s stature. He may be 6-foot-7 and pushing 300 pounds, but he’s very athletic, and his ability to repeat his motion ranks with anyone. Baseball history is full of oversized pitchers who have been able to succeed despite their girth, with names like Mickey Lolich, Rick Reuschel, Bartolo Colon, and David Wells coming to mind. All had excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios.

…Sabathia has managed to avoid arm troubles in his career, and over the last three years he’s become extremely efficient; his 15.1 pitches per inning last year ranked 75th-highest among ERA qualifiers. On the other hand, he’s coming off by far the two heaviest workloads of his career, and his only two years above 200 innings. His early 2008 problems were believed to be linked to his combined 256-inning 2007 workload extending deep into October, where he exhibited the rare struggle with his command. His combined 256 2/3 innings with an early exit in his only post-season start this year was more of the same, though at least he’ll have a couple of extra weeks’ rest this time around.

A spirited dicussion of Sabathia’s injury risk took place on BP’s internal mailing list last week, and apparently I convinced Joe Sheehan of something, which is no small task. As he writes of the deal:

Concern about Sabathia’s fitness for this kind of contract have nothing to do with whether his established level is good enough, but rather with how much longer he’ll be able to pitch this well. Above and beyond the standard concerns that come with any pitcher — his arm, his performance, the inscrutability of player performance more than a few years out — there’s the issue of Sabathia’s physique. I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t think a pitcher with Sabathia’s size is a good investment. We had a great discussion about this on the BP internal list, with Jay Jaffe getting in the final word:
You’ve already decided that Sabathia won’t be a good investment due to his size (as you just wrote and as you’ve written before) and look to be reaching for something to support that beyond your gut instinct about his gut.

On the face of it, no pitcher is a good investment due to the injury risk, so you’re at least half right, but it’s important to separate skittishness about giving a long-term contract to any pitcher from the specifics of Sabathia’s case. All we really know is that Sabathia is very good now, with a strong track record of successful performance — including an impressive uptick over the past three years—and a negligible history of injuries, particularly arm injuries. Despite his immense size, he’s a very good athlete, and unless I’m wrong he doesn’t have any red flags regarding his delivery.

Jay is correct. I cannot back up my conservative opinion of Sabathia with data, in part because Sabathia is a rare case in baseball history, an ace pitcher of his size in the prime of his career. Most heavyweight pitchers have been softer and shorter than Sabathia is, with almost no pitchers tipping the scales at Sabathia’s listed 290, or whatever number pops up when he takes his physical in February. He is unique, and in evaluating him, I’m personally weighing what I know about weight’s effect on the back and on joints in deciding that he’s too big a risk. His performance level, durability, and athleticism argue for the signing, though I’ve become fond of noting that you’re never signing a free agent’s past. Put it all together, and what you have is an opinion — Sabathia won’t be durable enough over the length of his deal to make his signing for six years or more a sensible decision — that there aren’t enough facts to support.

As it stands, the deal is for seven years and $161 million, an extra year and $21 million beyond what the Yankees reportedly offered in their initial deal. Later in the day, it also emerged that the contract contains an opt-out clause: after three years and $69 million, Sabathia can choose to re-enter the market if he so desires. That didn’t sit well with ESPN’s Keith Law, who was the first source that I saw reporting the clause:

The problem for the Yankees is the so-called “opt-out clause,” better understood as a player option. The Yankees gave Sabathia a three-year deal, and Sabathia then has a four-year option worth roughly $100 million. Player options are universally awful for the signing clubs: They cede control of a big portion of a team’s payroll to the player, and they represent a pure downside play, since the player will choose to stay only if he isn’t performing well or if he gets injured. There’s never a good reason to give a player an opt-out clause, and giving a player one as long as four years is (I believe) unprecedented and (I know) a terrible idea.

While I understand some of Keith’s reservations, I disagree. So far as I can recall, all of the big-name players with opt-out clauses that come to mind (Alex Rodriguez, J.D. Drew, A.J. Burnett) have exercised that option when it came up because the market for annual salaries has risen faster than the general rate of inflation. It would seem to me that the likelihood of Sabathia going back to market in three years means a more favorable economic climate than the current global crisis, if nothing else.

Furthermore, any guaranteed contract is a sunk cost from the moment it’s signed; whether the player performs to expectation or not, that money is spent unless the guy pulls a Denny Neagle and gets caught with a surly hooker. Having already acknowledged that, the fact that there’s a non-zero chance that some 60 percent of that contract may not come to pass — may not be a sunk cost — increases my esteem for the deal. If Sabathia gets hurt and forces the Yanks to eat the back end of the deal, that’s no different than if he’d gotten hurt within a standard long-term contract. If he takes his ball and goes back to California after three years, the Yankees will get the two draft picks (since offering him arbitration is a no-brainer because he won’t accept) and have an additional $92 million to spend on the next big free agent. Yes, it may be a drag for the Yankees to be faced with renegotiating a deal with him (à la A-Rod) or losing him, but by that point they’ll be able to make a decision informed by their firsthand experience with him as a Yankee, from his performance to his medical reports to the way he handles the move to the big media market. I don’t see the opt-out as a downside.

That said, I have VERY mixed emotions about the deal, first based on my view that it’s the Yankee offense that needs shoring up via Mark Teixeira more than the staff needs Sabathia, and second based on how much fun it was watching the big man’s impact on Milwaukee, because I married into a family of Brewers fans and took a special joy at watching their first run to the playoffs in 26 years. The Brewers made a spirited five-year, $100 million bid to keep Sabathia, and the Dodgers even briefly flirted with him last week. While they’l get the Yankees’ first-round draft pick it’s a rough outcome for Milwaukee, but then they knew this might be the price when they traded for him last July.

Speaking of the Brewers, there’s word this morning that they’re working on a swap with the Yanks, one that would send 36-year-old center fielder Mike Cameron to New York in exchange for 24-year-old Melky Cabrera, who hit only .249/.301/.341, including a pathetic .235/.280/.286 after May 6. The deal isn’t official, and I have to assume there’s a pitcher thrown in to sweeten the deal for Milwaukee. With plenty on my plate at the moment, I’ll withhold judgment here.

Beyond that, yesterday brought one other very big and emotional piece of news, but I’ll have to save that until my next post.

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