CC Sabathia announced his retirement this week. What his career tells us about contemporary starting pitchers and the Hall of Fame.
People are drawn to patterns; it’s instinctual, it’s evolutionary. We like round numbers, are attracted to symmetry, and generally remember and appreciate statistics that end in zero, specifically those numbers which we have become accustomed to over time.
For baseball fans, especially fans who have been around to appreciate the game for decades, some numbers stick with them when discussing top-talent starting pitchers: 20 (wins in a season), 300 (wins in a career), 2,000 (strikeouts), 3,000 / 3,500 (innings pitched), et cetera.
CC Sabathia announced this week that 2019 will be his last, and looking at his career sheds light on the new era of top-tier starting pitchers. Understandably, the bar has been set really high for starting pitchers to earn enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, but those round numbers and career milestones that clinched a Hall vote in the past will inevitably have to change.
By all accounts, Sabathia has put together an excellent career over the past 18 years, during which time he’s made his mark in a several different cities in different roles. He came into the league as a hard-throwing Cleveland ‘ace’, before being traded to be a playoff stud in a short-stint in Milwaukee. Then he had to reinvent himself in the Bronx, as his velocity diminished with age. For two decades he’s been a staple in baseball, a reliable starter who can give you 200ish innings year-in-and-year-out. His career trajectory however, does not mirror that of players who are easily identifiable with one team.
CC paved his way in three different cities in three different ways, so his numbers will have to outshine his narrative…and after all, isn’t that the fairest way to evaluate a player?
It’s not only the narrative that makes CC different than other Hall of Fame pitchers. It’s the fact that he doesn’t necessarily fit the statistical framework of what a classicist may consider a ‘no-doubter’.
Not too long ago, we could have manufactured a stat-line that was Hall of Fame worthy. 300 wins, several 20-win seasons, a few Cy Youngs, and 4,000 innings would have certainly done it. But the fact of the matter is, the game, and the way we evaluate the game, has changed too much for that to be the benchmark.
Jamie Moyer is likely to be the last of the 4,000 inning pitchers, and he’s probably all the better for it considering the arm injuries that even teenagers regularly endure due to hurling a ball around a field. Even so, CC is only 500 innings behind Moyer, as he’s going to get over the 3,500 milestone this season provided he tosses 30 frames. Indeed it looks like 3,500, or even 3,000 will be the new 4,000 innings pitched. Move that baseline down, and CC checks the box.
Similarly, the days of the 300-game winners are also behind us. With fewer pitchers going longer into games, and the back-end of close games consequently in the hands of relievers, 300 wins is a far way off from even the best starters among us in today’s game. CC enters 2019 with 246, which is the second-most of any active player, only one win behind Bartolo Colon. He’s likely to overtake Colon this season, even if Bartolo graces us with his presence again in 2019. Not only do pitchers not amass the win totals of starters past, but we also have evolved in our understanding that it’s hardly worth anything in establishing a pitcher’s value anyway, which is evident in looking at Sabathia’s contemporaries.
From a comparison perspective, CC falls short of the 73.4 bWAR and 61.7 JAWS numbers for the average Hall of Fame pitcher, but his 62.7 bWAR and 51.0 JAWS is in line with the best of the bunch from the most recent century. Rather than benchmark him against Dazzy Vance, Lefty Grove, and Warren Spahn, doesn’t it make more sense to benchmark him against Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander?
Fact is, the evaluation model for starting pitchers needs to change just as their profiles, expectations, and workloads have evolved.
Reflecting on a twenty-year career, CC is a good benchmark for the 21st century star starting pitcher, and likely one that is deserving of induction into the Hall of Fame. Although Sabathia falls below the JAWS ranking of the currently enshrined Hall of Fame pitchers, the game has clearly changed, not only in the ways recognized above, but in the very way in which starting pitchers prepare for games, go all-out early-on in games, and how their performance is generally evaluated.
2019 is your last chance to see CC in action, so take advantage.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano