New York Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia is expected to announce on Saturday that the upcoming season will be his last, but he still has plenty on the line in 2019.
Not only are the Yankees odds-on favorite to win the World Series, but on the cusp of 3,000 career strikeouts, Sabathia has a chance to pad his resume for a chance at induction into the Hall of Fame.
Baseball is a game of numbers, and boy do people love round numbers. While he won’t have a chance at 300 wins – unless he somehow wins 54 games in relief or reverses course and plays several more years – 3,000 strikeouts is a notable milestone. At 2,986 career punch-outs, he should reach that mark in two to three starts and could pass several legends by season’s end.
Only 16 pitchers have reached that mark (Sabathia already has the third-most among lefties) and every one of them has either been inducted into the Hall of Fame or is currently still on the ballot. The two retired pitchers in limbo are Roger Clemens, who would’ve been a first-ballot inductee if not for his connections to PEDs, and Curt Schilling, who appears on path to induction in spite of his objectionable post-career personality.
How strong is Sabathia’s Hall of Fame case?
A good way to get a rough estimate of a player’s chance of getting enshrined in Cooperstown is to look at their JAWS score or Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor. The two systems essentially boil down the chances of a player making the Hall of Fame by comparing their WAR (JAWS) or stats and hardware (Hall of Fame Monitor) to previously elected players.
For JAWS, Sabathia’s score comes in at 51.0. While crossing the 50-point threshold is nice, that figure still falls below the average for starting pitchers of 61.7, and he has a higher JAWS score than just 19 of the 65 enshrined starters. James’ system is much more optimistic, giving him a score of 113, with 100 giving the player a “good possibility” and 130 being a “virtual cinch.”
Sabathia certainly has a puncher’s chance already, although he has some factors working for and against him. For one, voters have historically been loathe to vote in starters who did not win 300 games, despite the sport moving away from valuing wins as a stat and starters being pulled earlier in games. Since 1992, only three such starters have been elected, and one of them, John Smoltz, spent enough time as a reliever to rack up 154 saves.
In Sabathia’s favor is his postseason record. The big southpaw is tied for eighth all-time with 10 postseason wins, and that number could push even higher with a deep postseason run by the Yankees. His playoff stats are, of course, buoyed by the expanded playoffs his predecessors never experienced, but big performances on big stages can easily re-write narratives, especially if Sabathia comes through in his final starts.
How much does Sabathia have left in the tank?
The Yankees brought back Sabathia on a one-year, $8 million deal in November with the hopes of shoring up their rotation. He’s no longer the ace, but he doesn’t have to be with Luis Severino, newly acquired James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka leading the rotation.
Sabathia is slated to be the Yankees’ fourth starter, and Steamer projects him to make 21 starts. While a 4.55 ERA with 99 strikeouts and 40 walks over 117 innings won’t blow anyone away, that would easily push him past 250 career wins and 3,000 career strikeouts. Sabathia only needs a 2.2 WAR to reach 70 career WAR (using FanGraphs’ figure), and although Steamer only sees 1.3 for his 2019 season, reaching that mark is not out of the question as well.
Steamer’s projections are also fairly pessimistic, since Sabathia has kept his ERA under 4.00 in each of the past three seasons. He should be a steadying figure in the Yankees rotation and will remain a hero in the Bronx regardless of whether he finishes his career upstate in Cooperstown.
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