Contracts Can Kill: CC Sabathia

CC Sabathia’s performance against the Orioles last Tuesday night was awful.  Not Kid-Rock-ripping-off-“Sweet-Home-Alabama”-awful, but awful by Sabathia standards.  He walked four and gave up four runs in six innings.  On the other hand, Robinson Cano should have been charged with one of those runs on his error that put Robert Andino on second and allowed the game’s second run to score.  In that case, Sabathia’s awful performance was really a quality start and only his second loss of the season.

Actually, it should be his only loss of the season.  His opening day loss versus James Shields and the Rays was all Girardi.  With runners on second and third in the second inning, Girardi mysteriously ordered a pitch-out to Sean Rodriguez, loading the bases, and brining up grand-slam specialist and noted Yankee-killer Carlos Pena.  To his credit, Pena wasn’t noticeably salivating as he walked to the plate, but his ensuing grand slam put the Rays up 4-1.  The Yankees re- took the lead a second time, only to lose it in the ninth on a rare Mariano Rivera blown save.  You can pin that one on Sabathia.

With Hiroki Kuroda doing his best Sybil impression, Michael Pineda out for the year, and Andy Pettitte being 40 years old and all, the Yankees will need Sabathia’s ample girth to carry their pitching load this year more than ever.  Last season, the baseball punditariat was shocked for some reason that Sabathia didn’t opt out of his contract with Yankees.  But why should he have?  The Yankees agreed to make him the highest paid pitcher in 2014 and provided that he doesn’t break his arm in a UFC fight, the Yankees will be paying him similarly through 2017. By all estimations, he’s an ace – one of the three or four best pitchers in baseball.  He’s a lefty, he pitches late into games thereby saving the bullpen, or in the case of the Yankees, what’s left of our bullpen, and he doesn’t mind pitching on three-days’ rest.

But his contract is troubling, especially in light of Hal Steinbrenner’s new-found, European Central Bank-style austerity program.  The specifics of Sabathia’s extension are as follows:  At 31, he’s being guaranteed $122 million through 2016, with a vesting option for $25 million in 2017.  He’s entitled to a $5 million buy-out if the option doesn’t become vested in 2017.  Another way of looking at this contract is that the Yankees see Sabathia as a starting pitcher beyond his 36th birthday and that, my friends, speaks volumes about their pitching prospects.

Baseball is half sport, half business, and half nirvana.  As such, my baseball-business philosophy follows a basic dictum that I call “Panuthos Doctrine 1”(PD1):  fans come to their respective stadiums and purchase their respective satellite television packages to see players, not owners.  I am therefore ALWAYS on the side of the players in labor disputes and I fully endorse that every player should secure the maximum paycheck possible.  Team owners and GMs should not ask “can we afford to sign player X” but rather “can we afford NOT to sign player X?”  All else being equal, ownership needs to pony up when they decide the latter question in the negative, and field a team that fans will actually want to pay money, endure traffic, and tolerate drunks, to go out and see.

The corollary to PD1 is that it is better to control a player on his ascendancy than on his decline.  Free agency was supposed to be a side-dish, in which teams could purchase the services of an established veteran or two to supplement an organically-grown team.  The Yankees, especially of late, have seen it rather as the main course, at an all-you-can-eat buffet, in the middle of a desert, after you haven’t eaten in like three days.  To make a stark point, the ENTIRE Tampa Bay Rays’ starting rotation costs less than Sabathia costs the Yankees per year and he’s not significantly better than their one and two.  James Shields had 16 complete games last year and finished second in AL Cy Young balloting in 2010.  David Price finished second last year in AL Cy Young balloting, and head to head, he is 5-1 versus Sabathia.  Price and Shields pitch under greater pressure as well – they NEVER get the offense that Sabathia gets.  This is precisely because the Rays, largely out of necessity, hoard high-round draft picks, develop them, and control them in the early parts of their careers.

Currently, Sabathia is at 6-2 on the season.  Over 57.1 innings, he has given up six homeruns and 24 runs on 53 hits.  His FIP is a strong 3.11, his strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) is an amazing 9.26 and his walk rate is an equally amazing 2.20.   Two starts ago, versus Tampa Bay, he struck out a season-high ten batters en route to his first victory versus David Price.  No doubt, he is off to a strong start.  But he’s doing it alone.

If you’ve ever read any feature on CC, you know it’s required by law to refer to him at least once in your piece as a “workhorse”.  He has pitched more innings over the past four years than any other pitcher in the majors.  His 1,140 innings is greater even than Roy Halliday’s 1,004 over the same period.  He routinely pitches well beyond the 6th inning, preserving the bullpen and in fact contributing to the bullpen’s success.  He has been the most reliable of the Yankees starting rotation remaining relatively injury free, except for post-season knee surgery after the 2010 season.  He has proven furthermore not only willing but able to pitch on short rest, even in the playoffs, and he posts a 7-4 post season record.

His record versus the class of the AL East however, is a disappointing 16-16 over his career.  He is 9-7 in 25 starts against the Rays for his career.  In pinstripes, he is a mere2-6 with a 3.92 ERA.  Versus Boston, Sabathia is even worse.  He went 1-4 against the Sox last year, not winning his first game against them until August 30th.  Even then, he gave up 10 hits over 6 innings.  His career versus Boston is his third worst against any MLB opponent – 7-9 in 20 starts.

Boston excepted, Sabathia had a great first half of 2011, though in the latter part, he pitched a .406 ERA, giving up 11 of his 17 total homeruns for the year.  His opponents slash line during that time period was .316/.356/.502.  This might have been because he aggravated his knee following a long rain delay against Seattle.  He pitched poorly in the ALDS to conclude the season.

To those who would argue that the Yankees need Sabathia because of a dearth of “internal” pitching options, I rebut that the Yankees have a dearth of “internal” pitching options because of the Sabathias out there.  The Yankees would probably be awesome with Sabathia and Cliff Lee in the rotation, but Lee didn’t want to pitch in New York for whatever reason.  And, if you recall, neither did CC at first – he’s a west coast guy and wanted to pitch closer to his California home.  Since Andy Pettitte’s minor league days, the Yankees have gone an appallingly long time without developing top pitching prospects.  Since 1995, we’ve got Pettitte,  Phil Huges,  Joba Chamberlain, and David Robertson. In other words, that’s four (assuming Chamberlain ever returns) “internally-grown” pitchers in 17 years.

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6 Responses to Contracts Can Kill: CC Sabathia

  1. Chas says:

    Great work Mark! Of course the great greek god Panuthos would have his name added to a Doctrine! To bad you are writing about the Yankees, but a great article anyway!

  2. TorontoBoy says:

    Good Job Mark. My guess the Yankees still think its the 1920's and there is no need to cultivate a minor league system. I was wondering how many home grown pitchers they have developed in the last decade and you answered the question. Even more dire is the fact that neither Hughes or Chamberlain are All Stars. Meanwhile if you look at what is coming down the road (Blue Jays) you have to be a little worried. Baseball America has the Jays farm system ranked 3rd this year and are already rumbling that they will be Number One next year. Best of all, their top prospects are mostly pitchers, and unlike the Rays the Jays will have the resources to keep all of their top talent. The money is there. This year is just a tease to the AL East of what life will be like moving forward. All they need now is to install the grass field and it will be on….

  3. cmclark says:

    Great work Mark. This is what bothers me about us in general. All our big money contracts are back loaded. I mean we are giving A-Rod less each year but it levels off at $25 mil/yr. $25 million for a guy who will play 120 games max. It's so bad. It's not our fault and we can absorb the hit more than anyone but it's ridiculous nonetheless. What bothers me about its not only CC but Tex, Arod. It's so much money on the back end. But great read

    • Mark Panuthos says:

      Thanks – I appreciate the compliments. We can absorb the hit, and I am absolutely guilt-free as far as that goes, as long as the A-Rods and CC's of the world don't mean we give up on player development in the minors, which I'm afraid, seems to be the case.

  4. Joe says:

    Can't disagree more with this article, makes absolutely no sense. The Tampa comparison is just terrible. The reason why they have such a cost efficient roster is because they STUNK for like 10 years straight and had top 3 picks for basically all those years and FWIW the Yankees only have three everyday position players that were acquired through free agency and they are Russel Martin, Raul Ibanez, and Mark Teixeira with the former two being low risk, high reward signings. Everyone else was acquired via trade or brought up through the system. For pitchers, I believe you got only Kuroda & Soriano who came here via FA.

    Tell me how smart Tampa is when it's time to sign Price/Upton/Pena/Farnsworth/Neimann/Howell/Joyce who all become free agents after this season. People don't realize that Tampa isn't this brilliant franchise they are just taking advantage of the benefits that come with stinking for 10 years and in the process had no choice but to stack their farm system. Well now all these players are becoming all-stars but pretty soon they will start taking major hits EVERY YEAR so don't expect them to consistently win 90+ games.

    Now the Yankees ??

    what is it something like 16 playoff appearances in 17 seasons and 14-15 division titles in that span ?

    They have been the model of consistency for going on almost 20 years now……….tell em when Tampa reaches that feat. In 3-4 years Tampa will be depleted and in last place from their inability to fill their ballpark which will lead to all their homegrown talent eventually walking away…..only they won't be able to grab a FA in these cases like the Yankees do.

    That CC signing was a smart move, he's a horse, no problem paying that guy up until his 36th birthday(how is Jeter, Alex, and Andy?)

    • Mark Panuthos says:

      I appreciate the comments Joe, but you are wrong about the Tampa comparison. The Royals and Pirates, for instance, stunk before the Rays were even conceived of – what happened to all of their draft picks? The Orioles and Indians as well – and until this year, what happened to all of their draft picks? The Rays have a great farm system and great scouts as well.

      What happens to Price, Neiman, and Shields? Price is arbitration eligible after this year, he's contract doesn't expire until 2016. I think you mean James Shields and he will get resigned – he's 30 years old and I'm told that scouts are concerned about his longevity (He routinely pitches in excess of 225 innings per year). I'd love to see the Yankees get him. If he leaves, he'll be replaced – the Rays will bring up either Alex Cobb and/or Chris Archer. Matt Moore is struggling right now, but you can't argue with 4 great pitches and a 96+ mph fastball. He's going to be a star. BJ Upton is a great defensive centerfielder but his bat is inconsistent. I think the Rays are happy to let him go, and collect the supplemental draft pick. Matt Joyce is barely above replacement level.