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Young Pitcher Symposium: C. C. Sabathia

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Young Pitcher Symposium: C.C. Sabathia

Everyone (well, at least his fantasy owners) expects C. C. Sabathia to put it together one of these years and emerge as a bonifide Cy Young candidate. He's flashed the ability certainly. He now has five seasons as a regular starting pitcher under his belt, with an ERA better than league average every year. He has a career record of 69-45 (.605), and is just 25 years old. His elbow hasn't blown out yet; his shoulder is still attached. He doesn't consistently dominate yet, but I don't think anyone would be surprised if started to do so soon, cutting a few more runs off his ERA and getting to 20 wins. On the other hand, it's also possible that he'll remain right were he is: very good certainly, but not quite in the elite. He ranked 45th among Major League starting pitchers in total Win Shares last year, for example.

Sabathia was drafted by the Indians in the first round in 1998, out of high school in Vallejo, California, 20th overall. He was a good hitter in high school, drawing comparisons to Dave Parker, but the Indians (and most other clubs) preferred him on the mound due to his 93-96 MPH fastball. He also had a big-breaking curve, but was considered rather raw, needing better command. There were also worries about his weight. He was certainly promising, but it was felt he would take some time to develop.
He went to Burlington in the Appy League to begin his career, pitching just 18 innings and allowing 14 runs, but fanning 35. I didn't give grades to most new draftees back then, but nowadays a player with a similar profile (high draft pick, great arm, uncertain command, somewhat raw) would probably get a Grade B.

Sabathia's first full season got off to a scary start in 1999: he had a bone bruise on his elbow in spring training. He rehabbed successfully, then began his season in June for Mahoning Valley in the New York-Penn League, fanning 27 in 20 innings but walking 12. He then made three starts for Columbus in the Sally League, allowing just 8 hits and 2 runs in 17 innings while posting a 20/5 K/BB ratio. An aggressive promotion to Kinston in the Carolina League was too much too soon: he walked 19 in 32 innings and posted a 5.34 ERA. But by the end of the season, it was evident that the Indians had a special talent on their hands. Despite missing time with the elbow problem, Sabathia showed more polish and better command than the Tribe expected. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2000 book, mostly due to the elbow problem, noting that "he has a great future if he doesn't blow out his arm."

Sabathia returned to Kinston to begin 2000 and pitched well, posting a 3.54 ERA and fanning 69 in 56 innings. Promoted to Double-A Akron at mid-season, his numbers didn't suffer much, with a 3.59 ERA and 90 strikeout in 90 innings. His command was still erratic and he gave up too many walks, but he was tough to hit. His fastball was hitting 98 MPH at times, his curve was excellent, and he developed a good changeup to go with it. I gave him a Grade A- in the 2001 book and rated him the 10th-best prospect in all of baseball.

Sabathia unexpectedly earned a spot in the Cleveland rotation in 2001, going 17-5. He did this with just a half-season of Double-A and no Triple-A under his belt. As noted, he's been an above average pitcher every year of his major league career thus far. What does the future hold?

Comparable Pitchers to Sabathia through age 25, based on PECOTA, Sim Score, and general research

Jerry Reuss
Jim Abbott
Dick Ellsworth
Jim Kaat
Bill Hoeft
Steve Carlton
Ray Sadecki
Ken Holtzman
Steve Avery
Curt Simmons
Mike McCormick

That's a nice list. Let's do what we did with Prior and see how all this pans out using a basic and not-especially-sabermetric back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Jerry Reuss: 3670 innings, 220-191 record, career over at 41, ERA+ of 100.
Jim Abbott: 1674 innings, 87-108 record, career over at 31, ERA+ of 100.
Dick Ellsworth: 2156 innings, 115-137 record, career over at 31, ERA+ of 100.
Jim Kaat: 4530 innings, 283-237 record, career over at 44, ERA+ of 107.
Bill Hoeft: 1847 innings, 97-101 record, career over at 34, ERA+ of 98.
Steve Carlton: 5217 innings, 329-244 record, career over at 43, ERA+ of 115.
Ray Sadecki: 2501 innings, 135-131 record, career over at 36, ERA+ of 97.
Ken Holtzman: 2867 innings, 174-150 record, career over at 33, ERA+ 105.
Steve Avery: 1555 innings, 96-83 record, career over at 33, ERA+ of 99.
Curt Simmons: 3348 innings, 193-183 record, career over at 38, ERA+ of 111.
Mike McCormick: 2380 innings, 134-128 record, career over at 32, ERA+ of 95.

Taking the simple average of this

C.C. Sabathia Projection: 2886 career innings, 169-154 record, career over at age 36, ERA+ of 102.

That might look disappointing, but note that this is the average of the comparable outcomes. You have early fadeouts like Abbott, Avery, and McCormick. If Sabathia doesn't fade out early, he could have a long run of decent pitching like Reuss or Simmons, or he could end up being spectacular like Carlton.

My personal guess is that Sabathia beats that average outcome in the ERA and winning percentage departments, but not in the durability.