It was not the end we were all envisioning for CC Sabathia. I am sure it was not the end he was envisioning for himself, either. The 39-year-old pitcher had announced his intentions to retire after the 2019 season, and after exiting Game Four of the ALCS with a left shoulder subluxation, his season, and his career has come to a close. His injury led to the Yankees having to replace him on the roster, which meant that Sabathia would not be eligible to return had the Yankees made the World Series (a point made moot thanks to a Jose Altuve walkoff ALCS game six clincher
It was the opposite of Derek Jeter’s walk-off hit in his final game, but it was also the definition of “leaving it all out on the field.” Sabathia had stated that his surgically repaired right knee, which is the lefty’s plant leg, was an eight out of ten on a good day in terms of pain. It must have been a ten out of ten every single time the big guy threw a pitch and landed on that leg. It’s not like he needed the money, either. He truly gave everything he had.
At just 17 years-of-age, Sabathia was drafted directly out of high school when the Cleveland Indians selected him with the number 20th overall pick in 1998. He was a multi-sport athlete, and actually drew interest with his bat as well as his arm. Obviously Cleveland decided to make him a pitcher, the rest is history.
The young lefty was a highly touted prospect, and it took him less than three years to make his major league debut at the age of 20. He did quite well in his rookie season, throwing 180 1⁄3 innings over 33 starts. He had a 4.64 RA9 and 2.9 WAR, but he struggled with his control, walking 12.5 percent of batters faced. The funny thing is, looking back, his 22.4 K% does not look that great through a modern lens, but the average strikeout rate back then was barely over 17 percent, compared to 23 percent now. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting behind Ichiro Suzuki, who blew away the rest of the competition.
Thankfully, Sabathia improved his control over the coming seasons, but his strikeout rate dipped over the following four seasons. He averaged a 4.27 RA9 and 3.0 WAR per season over that span. He was good, but not great. He made a jump in performance in 2006, raising his strikeout rate to 21.5 percent and dropping his walk rate to an impressive 5.5 percent. He turned in a 3.88 RA9 and was worth 4.6 WAR.
In 2007, the baseball world got treated to prime CC Sabathia. He had what was at the time a career best 3.51 RA9 and 6.3 WAR. Amazingly, he dropped his walk rate to an outstanding 3.8 percent, which was the third-best in baseball among qualified pitchers.
Sabathia won his first and only Cy Young award in what was a stunningly close race on paper. Nobody really separated themselves from the pack that year. Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Sabathia, and his teammate Roberto Hernández had WARs that ranged from 6.2 to 6.5. Those are basically the same thing. Their RA9s were in a tight range, too. Sabathia won with 119 vote points, and Beckett was not too far behind at 86 points. The only significant way in which he differentiated himself from the other Cy Young contenders is with his league leading 241 IP.
In 2008, Sabathia entered his contract-year pitching just as well as the year before. Unfortunately, Cleveland took a huge step back after their 96-win 2007 season, so seeing as how their season was lost and how the Dolans care more about their wallets than their fans, they traded their soon-to-be free agent to the Brewers in early July. Sabathia then proceeded to go on one of the biggest tears of his career. Over 17 starts, he had an outstanding 2.14 RA9. He was basically performing like a 10 WAR pitcher.
The Brewers’ 90 wins were not enough to take the division from the 97-win Cubs, but it was enough to clinch a Wild Card slot. Unfortunately, they were eliminated in four games in the NLDS by the eventual world champion Phillies. Sabathia got knocked around in his only postseason start, giving up five runs in 3 2⁄3 IP.
Sabathia’s free agency could not have come at a better time. The richest, most successful team in baseball history had missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 (remember that 1994 was the strike year). The Yankees went on a historic spending spree after the 2008 season that included giving Sabathia the biggest contract ever for a pitcher at seven years and $161 million. He rewarded the team by turning in another excellent season. He had a 3.76 RA9 over 230 IP with solid peripherals, and he once again cracked 6.0 WAR. He continued his dominance in the postseason with a 2.24 RA9 over five starts, leading the Yankees to a World Series championship.
The first four years of Sabathia’s contract were excellent, but age started to catch up with him in 2013. He made 32 starts that year, but he was replacement level with a 5.20 RA9. In 2014, his aforementioned right knee started giving him major problems. He had a 6.07 RA9 over only eight starts before missing the rest of the season due to knee surgery.
Sabathia was able to make 29 starts in 2015, but he still was not very effective. He had a 4.95 RA9 and a strikeout rate below 19 percent. He was a decent back of the rotation starter, but far from the ace he used to be. Thankfully he was able to revitalize his career in 2016 by turning into a crafty lefty. From 2016-2018, he had a 4.09 RA9, and averaged 160 IP and 2.8 WAR per season.
I am guessing that Sabathia knew that his body was giving up on him going into this season. He struggled with a 5.37 RA9 over 22 starts. As I mentioned before, it is not the end he was looking for, but it is clearly time for him to hang up his cleats.
Sabathia has a difficult Hall of Fame case for reasons I discussed last offseason that centered around the fact that pitchers do not throw as many innings as they did previously. His 62.5 WAR ranks him fifth among starting pitchers since his rookie season in 2001. Ahead of him are Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Justin Verlander. Halladay is already in, and Kershaw and Verlander are considered locks. Greinke is still going strong, and he has a better peak than Sabathia. Max Scherzer ranks eighth on that list, but he too is also going strong and has three Cy Young awards to Sabathia’s one.
JAWS is a useful starting point for evaluating a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy, but it too is affected by the fact that pitchers throw fewer innings. Still, Sabathia ranks a not-so-nice 69th all time by JAWS. Verlander, Greinke, and Kershaw 35th-37th, respectively, and close to the the average JAWS for Hall of Famers. Halladay ranks at 46th, but his peak was strong and just above the average.
The biggest problem with Sabathia’s Hall case is that his peak, which is defined as his best seven seasons by WAR, is not very strong. He never had a season above 7.0 WAR or below a 3.00 RA9. David Cone had a stronger peak than Sabathia. Rick Reuschel ranks 49th by JAWS, and he got only two votes in his one and only year on the ballot. Sabathia was part of a World Series championship team and was outstanding during that run, but his overall playoff track record is mediocre. He has a 4.63 RA9 in 130 1⁄3 postseason innings.
I would not vote for Sabathia, but I would not throw a fit if he got into Cooperstown. Historical comparisons are tough nowadays. Regardless, he has had a great career, and he deserves to have the Yankees retire his number. I wish him the best as he recovers from all that ails him.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.