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Could CC Sabathia be a bust in the remaining years of his contract?

11.01.11 at 10:18 am ET
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In the first three years of his contract with the Yankees, CC Sabathia more than lived up to his share of the bargain. Despite his residence in the AL East, he has been the same dominating force that he had been in previous years in the AL and NL Central. He owns a 59-23 record and 3.18 ERA, while averaging 8.0 strikeouts and 2.6 walks per nine innings. In all likelihood, he will finish in the top five in Cy Young balloting for the third time in as many seasons in New York. And, of course, Sabathia has been not only dominant but also a workhorse, making at least 33 starts in all three of his Yankees seasons while averaging 235 innings a year. The list of cautionary tales of free agent pitchers is long (hello, John Lackey!), but Sabathia is not one of them.

At least not yet.

However, the giant left-hander’s deal included an opt-out after three years, and so he had the right to become a free agent this offseason, at a time when he had four years and $92 million left on his deal. However, the pitcher and his team avoided going down that road by reaching an agreement that tacked on a guarantee $30 million and one more year to his deal, with a vesting option for a second addition season. And so, in essence, Sabathia agreed to remain with the Yankees for a five-year, $122 million deal that includes an option that could push the contract’s value to $142 million over six years.

For the Yankees, it was something of a no-brainer to get the deal done, given that Sabathia has been the linchpin of their rotation and, had he opted out, would have represented a peerless option on this winter’s free-agent market. At 31 years old, he is almost a year younger than Cliff Lee when he signed a five-year, $120 million deal that included a vesting option with the Phillies last winter.

Even so, whereas Sabathia was in the middle of his prime during the first three years of his contract with the Yankees, the likelihood is that he will be paid more and suffer a performance decline during his remaining years in New York. And so, the question becomes how much of a decline might the Yankees expect during Sabathia’s coming five years under contract with the Yankees? Or, more plainly: What are the odds that Sabathia is a bust?

To try to discern an answer to that question, it’s worth taking stock of what Sabathia has been, namely, a freakishly consistent and valuable pitcher whose prime years have nearly secured his place in Cooperstown. In each of the last five years (spanning Sabathia’s age 26-30 seasons), he has logged at least 230 innings while producing ERAs of 3.37 or lower and an ERA+ (earned run average relative to the league) of 136 or better every year — meaning that his ERA has been at least 36 percent lower than the average pitcher for five straight years.

Who else has been in that company? Almost no one. Sabathia joins Hall of Famers Lefty Grove (1926-30) and Ed Walsh (1907-11) as the only pitchers in major league history with five straight seasons of at least 230 innings with an ERA+ of 130 or better between the ages of 26 and 30. In other words, the left-hander’s prime has featured one of the most dazzling combinations of dominance, consistency and workload as the game has ever seen. He has cleared a bar that no one else has hurdled since the presidency of Herbert Hoover.

So, he resides in a band so narrow that little can be determined by looking at the other two pitchers whose performances resemble his between ages 26-30. But a slightly broader look at pitchers who were consistently excellent and durable between ages 26-30 is slightly more revealing.

In the last 50 years, there have been 18 pitchers who have had five straight years of at least 200 innings with an ERA+ of 100 or better each season from ages 26-30. Sabathia is joined by Angels starter Dan Haren and Roy Oswalt as the active pitchers to accomplish the feat.

Of the 16 pitchers (not including Sabathia or Haren, who haven’t pitched past age 30 yet), all 16 threw fewer innings from ages 31-35 than they did from ages 26-30. Some pitchers suffered marked dropoffs, such as Dennis Leonard, Joe Horlen, Dave McNally and Dave Goltz suffered massive workload dropoffs of 100 innings per year or more. Others, such as Mike Mussina, Greg Maddux and Bob Gibson had almost imperceptible declines of fewer than 10 innings per season.

Most dauntingly, perhaps, for the Yankees is the fact that the one pitcher with a frame that is reminiscent of Sabathia’s had a huge workload dropoff. Rick Reuschel went from averaging 245 innings between the ages of 26 and 30 to an average of just 105 innings per season between the ages of 31-35.

Moreover, all but one pitcher (Gibson) had a worse ERA between ages 31-35 than he did from ages 26-30. The majority (11 of 16) remained above average pitchers in terms of ERA, but where some had mild dropoffs (Mussina, Jim Kaat, Fergie Jenkins), others had more significant declines.

Overall, here is a before and snapshot of an average season for the pitchers who, like Sabathia, stood out for their consistency and durability between the ages of 26-30:

Ages 26-30 (18 pitchers, 90 combined seasons): 17-11, 252 innings, 2.98 ERA, 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.2 walks per nine innings

Ages 31-35 (16 pitchers, 68 combined seasons): 13-10, 206 innings, 3.39 ERA, 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.2 walks per nine innings

In other words, the pitchers whose performances were the most consistent between the ages of 26-30 suffered an average innings drop of 18 percent, and an average ERA rise of 14 percent. If those numbers hold true for Sabathia, he would go from a pitcher who has averaged 240 innings to one who logs about 196 innings a year, with his ERA rising from 3.09 over the past five years to a bit above 3.50 over the remainder of his deal.

Even if those numbers hold, Sabathia would be far from a bust. That sort of performance would have him continuing to perform at a significantly above-average level, and in the context of terrible free agent contracts for pitchers, those sorts of numbers would represent a triumph. That might not be in line with a $24 million a year pitcher, but if Sabathia remains healthy enough to log about 200 innings per year while delivering above-average ERAs, then it will be hard to say that the Yankees will come to regret their efforts to retain the left-hander.

That said, there is an element of the unknown that looms over even great pitchers as they enter their early-30s, and so as much as Sabathia was worth the giant piles of money that the Yankees paid him during his first three years in New York, the risks associated with his remaining tenure in the Bronx are undoubtedly increasing significantly.

Read More: C.C. Sabathia, ed walsh, Greg Maddux, juan marichal
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