Much has been made this week of CC Sabathia’s contract – signed two years ago with the Yankees, Sabathia owns the right to opt out of the remaining 4 years of the contract (years in which Sabathia will earn $23M each season). Given the state of the Yankee’s starting staff, the general reaction amongst the Bronx faithful is somewhere between panic and despair. Though the Yankees budget often appears limitless, I think Sabathia’s opt out could be a blessing for the Yanks.
CC Sabathia turns 31 this season, and to date he has proven worthy of his reputation as a front of the rotation workhorse. Barring an injury, CC will surpass 2300 innings pitched in his career (excluding postseason), which would put him in elite company. Only 13 pitchers since the advent of divisional play have thrown so many innings through their age 31 season:
Player IP ERA ERA+ Roger Clemens 2393.1 2.93 148 Greg Maddux 2598.1 2.81 143 Jim Palmer 2474.1 2.53 139 Bert Blyleven 3021 2.96 126 Dave Stieb 2458 3.37 125 Dwight Gooden 2340.1 3.24 115 Frank Tanana 2571.2 3.34 113 Vida Blue 2789.1 3.09 113 Nolan Ryan 2331.2 3.11 112 Catfish Hunter 2423 3.08 112 Frank Viola 2339 3.72 111 Dennis Eckersley 2496 3.67 111 Fernando Valenzuela 2355.1 3.34 107
Not a bad list – 5 Hall of Famers, one soon to be hall of famer (Maddux) and one player with hall of fame numbers (Clemens) and 19 Cy Young Awards.
Now let’s take a look at those careers after age 31:
Player IP ERA ERA+ Roger Clemens 2523.1 3.31 139 Greg Maddux 2410 3.53 122 Jim Palmer 1124.1 3.39 113 Bert Blyleven 1949 3.86 108 Dave Stieb 437.1 3.81 110 Dwight Gooden 460.1 4.87 99 Frank Tanana 1616.2 4.18 97 Vida Blue 554 4.14 91 Nolan Ryan 2917.1 3.25 112 Catfish Hunter 223 4.4 87 Frank Viola 497.1 3.75 120 Dennis Eckersley 789.2 2.96 137 Fernando Valenzuela 574.2 4.4 95
Of course, to point out that pitchers don’t necessarily age well into their late 30s is hardly news; however, our lens for this view is CC Sabathia’s contract, and the 4 years and $92M remaining after the 2011 season.
Of the 13 pitchers that had similar mileage to Sabathia’s at his age, 6 were basically finished by 31. Catfish Hunter pitched only two more seasons, and Vida Blue, Fernando Valenzuela, Frank Viola, Dave Stieb and Dwight Gooden all threw around 500 innings before hanging up their spikes. All but Viola and Stieb posted below average ERAs before retiring. Frank Tanana re-invented himself as a finesse pitcher and managed to post over 1600 innings, but at a below average rate. At age 32, Eck converted into one of the great closers of all-time. And Clemens – well, it would appear much of Clemens history has yet to be written.
Ryan (112), Maddux (122), Palmer (113) and Blyleven (108) appear to present the best case scenario for Sabathia’s career arc – all of them remained above average starters and exhibited durability well into their 30s. In 2010, 9 pitchers posted ERA+ between 108 and 113, a list that includes Jeremy Guthrie, Ian Kennedy and (Yankee fans, please sit down) Carl Pavano.
History, then informs us that there is great chance that Sabathia will breakdown and pitch only a few seasons more. Beyond the issue of quantity, there stands a good chance that those innings Sabathia does deliver will be below average to significantly below average. Realistically, there is little to no chance Sabathia will approach $92M in value through 2015, and in every likelihood the only analysis will be how far short he falls.
Where does that leave the Yankees? It would appear that by crossing their fingers and hoping, Yankees management can hope that Sabathia’s contract only overpays him by 50% over the course of his career, rather than being the total loss that befalls over half the pitchers with as much mileage on their arms as CC has. Sabathia is probably making a smart decision by opting out – the free agent pitcher class of 2012 is exceptionally weak. However, if he offers the Yankees an out on the $92M remaining on his contract, the Yankees should celebrate the opportunity to discuss a new contract with Sabathia – at a significantly reduced rate.