C.C. Sabathia — future Hall of Famer?

So, I was perusing my normal list of baseball related links, and found this article on Beyond the Box Score. The actual point of the article is to disparage the value of the win in evaluating pitchers — with which I wholeheartedly agree — but I can’t help but notice the #2 active pitcher in wins: former Cleveland Indian C. C. Sabathia.

Sabathia was one of the very first prospects I was aware of. Sabathia debuted for Cleveland in 2001, also known as the year I graduated from high school. While I’ve always liked the Indians, my interest in the game at the minor league level is more recent. It took CC some time to find his way, but in his last season with the Tribe, he won the Cy Young Award — which, strangely, is his only one.

Sabathia is just 33 years old, but he’s suffered a serious injury in the past year and there’s no guarantees he’ll ever be the same. Still, his peripherals suggest he’s actually closer to league average than miserably bad. It’s not hugely unrealistic to expect a bounceback season or two. If he sticks to his career averages (17 wins a season), he could hit 300 wins in six years. He’s really the only pitcher still pitching with a legitimate shot at 300 wins; Felix Hernandez has youth but a mediocre team around him.

The question becomes more tricky if he falls short of 300 wins. Much of Sabathia’s value comes from wins. He’s only had three seasons with a WAR over 6. Clayton Kershaw has four, and he’s only pitched for seven seasons. Sabathia has been relatively durable over his career until recently, with a good K/BB ratio. He’s the active leader in strikeouts — good for 38th on the career list. He’s averaged just under 200 Ks a year — give him just one more year at his career average and he’ll jump to 22nd, surpassing David Cone. If he pitches five more seasons at his career average, he’ll bump Greg Maddux out of the top ten.

So, let’s answer our question — is he a future Hall of Famer? As of this post, no. He’s only nine wins shy of Pedro Martinez but isn’t anywhere near as good. He’s been very good but not elite. However, he’s also in some rare company — his career, up to age 33, has been very good, comparable to a handful of Hall of Famers. His comparables (according to Baseball Reference) are:

  1. Tom Glavine (913) *
  2. Roger Clemens (913)
  3. Dwight Gooden (908)
  4. Greg Maddux (892) *
  5. Don Sutton (882) *
  6. Steve Carlton (881) *
  7. Jack Morris (879)
  8. Tom Seaver (877) *
  9. Mike Mussina (876)
  10. Frank Viola (874)

Now, that’s some rarified company. Of his top ten, five are Hall of Famers, and two more should be (Clemens and Mike Mussina). All but two of them pitched very well into their thirties — Doc Gooden was already a #5 starter at best at 33, his last good year coming in 1993, and Frank Viola only pitched parts of three seasons after his age 33 year.

While that bodes well for Sabathia’s longevity, the next five seasons will be crucial. He won’t get into the Hall based on a dizzying peak. He’s better than Don Sutton, who just cranked out average to good seasons for years and years. He’s probably closer to a Tom Glavine in terms of overall talent, but with strikeouts instead of voodoo. If Sabathia’s decline phase is league average, it’ll be enough to get him the counting stats to get him into the Hall in five years, probably. He’s not an inner circle Hall guy, even in that scenario, or even a first balloter. But he is a Hall of Famer, and I think he’ll be a welcome part.

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