CC Sabathia made his spring debut for the New York Yankees yesterday, allowing two runs in five innings against the Miami Marlins. This seems like the perfect time to finish the Prospect Retrospective for Sabathia that I've had on the "write this" docket for two months.
Carsten Charles Sabathia was a famed high school athlete in Vallejo, California, being an impressive basketball player, as well as an excellent football player (a tight end) with Division I options. He was also an outstanding baseball player (obviously) and a product of the MLB's RBI (Rebuilding Baseball in Inner Cities) program. He was a strong prospect as both a hitter and pitcher, drawing comparisons to Dave Parker with the bat and Vida Blue on the mound. The Cleveland Indians drafted him in the first round in 1998, 20th overall, as a pitcher of course.
Sabathia made his pro debut with 18 innings for Burlington in the Appalachian League, posting a 4.50 ERA with a 35/8 K/BB ratio and 20 hits allowed. The strikeouts were excellent, and scouting reports indicated a 94-98 MPH fastball with a promising, if erratic, curveball. He was also one of the youngest players in the draft class, just 17 on draft day. I didn't give grades to new draftees back then, but I would have gone with a high-ceiling Grade B or a B+, given his draft pedigree, arm strength, and strong debut.
1999 got off to a bad start. Sabathia was out for the first part of the season with an elbow injury, a bone bruise. He came back in the second half with 20 innings for Mahoning Valley in the New York-Penn League (1.83 ERA, 27/12 K/BB), then 17 innings at Low-A Columbus (1.08 ERA, 20/5 K/BB), then 32 innings for High-A Kinston (5.34 ERA, 29/19 K/BB). He still threw very hard and the curveball seemed fine when he came back, though his control was troublesome at Kinston.
I was worried about the elbow and gave him a Grade B- entering 2000, although I did note that "he has a great future if he doesn't blow his arm out." In retrospect, I was being too cautious.
Sabathia held up just fine in 2000, posting a 3.54 ERA with a 69/24 K/BB in 56 innings for Kinston, then a 3.59 ERA with a 90/48 K/BB in 90 innings for Double-A Akron. I remember thinking that the Indians were pushing his workload pretty hard, but he had no ill effects, throwing 94-98 MPH, with the nasty breaking ball and a rapidly improving changeup, giving him three plus pitches. His control was wobbly at times, but his K/IP and H/IP marks were quite strong and scouting reports were very enthusiastic.
There were rumors entering spring training 2001 that Sabathia would open the season in the rotation. I felt that was rushing things and that he could use a full year of Triple-A to refine his command, but wrote that "on his own merits, Sabathia is outstanding" and gave him a Grade A-. He ranked sixth on my top pitching prospect list, behind the ill-fated Ryan Anderson, Ben Sheets, Josh Beckett, Jon Rauch, and Roy Oswalt.
Indeed, Sabathia made the Indians rotation in 2001, going 17-5, 4.39 in 180 innings with a 171/95 K/BB, ERA+102. He stabilized as a slightly above-average pitcher for a few years, throwing about 190 innings a season and gradually sharpening his command. The big step forward came in 2006 at age 25 (3.22 ERA, 139 ERA+, 172/44 K/BB in 193 innings, 5.5 WAR), followed by his 2007 Cy Young season (19-7, 3.21, 209/37 K/BB in 241 innings, 7.1 WAR). His 2008 season that saw the trade to the Milwaukee Brewers was also remarkable, with a 2.70 ERA, 156 ERA+, 253 innings, and a career-best 7.6 WAR.
And he's just kept right on rolling, eventually signing a huge free agent contract with the Yankees, of course.
Overall, Sabathia has made 383 starts (never appearing in relief), throwing 2564 career innings, going 191-102 (.652) with a 3.50 ERA, 125 ERA+. He's averaging 228 innings per 162-game season now, taking a large step forward with his workload beginning at age 26. He doesn't throw as hard as he used to, but his arsenal is more diverse now. He's also not a bad hitter as pitchers go, batting .238/245/.352 in 109 career plate appearances, with three homers, three doubles, and 14 RBI.
Through age 31, Sabathia's Bill James Sim Score comps are Dwight Gooden, Dave McNally, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Mickey Lolich, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Tom Glavine, Lefty Gomez, and (interestingly enough) Vida Blue. If Sabathia's career ended today, his 61.6 WAR is 58th all-time and puts him in company with Lolich (62.9), Hal Newhouser (62.9), and Bret Saberhagen (61.5).
However, looking at it another way, among pitchers with fewer than 3,000 career innings, Sabathia's WAR ranks sixth all-time, behind Pedro Martinez (89.4 in 2827 IP), Roy Halladay (72.2 in 2687 IP), Rube Waddell (71.5 in 2961 IP), Dazzy Vance (63.7 in 2967 IP), and Newhouser (62.9 in 2993).
Among pitchers with fewer than 2600 innings, Sabathia's career WAR is the highest in history.
There is more to life than WAR of course, which is just one metric among many. The point remains that Sabathia has been an extraordinarily valuable pitcher, both dominant and durable.
As a prospect, Sabathia showed outstanding arm strength with erratic command and one injury season. In the major leagues, he maintained his stuff, improved his command, and erased any early doubts about his durability. It's been a remarkable run, and at age 32 there is more to come.