Baseball...Then and Now: "Cy" Sabathia

In sizing up the series between the Phillies and Brewers, the biggest note in Philly is that they won't have to face CC Sabathia. With that said, let's size up Sabathia's shot at winning the NL Cy Young Award.

What are we to make of Carsten Charles Sabathia? AKA, CC.

If your first name was Carsten, would you want that on your baseball card?

Is he any relation to J.C. Martin, J.C. Romero, J.D. "Nancy" Drew or J.D. Durbin?

Did he throw a no-hitter against the Pirates? (And, if he did, should that be included in the listing of major league no-hitters?)

Is he the first 300-pound major league baseball player? (Even if he isn't, is it true a pizza franchise chain is named in his honor?)

Is he really that good?

Should he win the National League Cy Young Award?

Is his remarkable run through the 2008 season unique?

Taking these questions in order, the answers are; no, no, no, no, no, no and no. Hmmm, looks like the nays have it.

That's not to say that Sabathia isn't having quite a half season for the Milwaukee Brewers, nor that he isn't a fine pitcher. However, a little historical perspective might be helpful here, starting with his controversial one-hitter against just about the sorriest bunch of players to represent a supposedly major league franchise in 2008.

First, understand that it's not easy to throw a no-hitter against even a minor league team. Witness the number of major league pitchers who make rehab starts, often in the low minors, without throwing even partial no-hitters. The odds of a squib or a bloop falling in are just too great, as long as there's someone on the other team who can get the bat on the ball. And while the gifts of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady to the American League may have cost the Buccos the two players most likely to get their bats on CC's stuff, at least one of the nonentities they got in return put enough wood on the ball to hit a dribbler, a swinging bunt, up the third base line. Now maybe CC should have fielded the ball cleanly and thrown him out, maybe he shouldn't. The point is, there's no sure way to tell, which renders the scoring as strictly a judgment call. And you don't overrule judgment calls days after the game is over. In fact, you don't even ask to have them overruled either. The official scorer's calls are sacrosanct, and have been for decades. They may not be accurate, and they may not be impartial (that's a problem for another day), but to ask that such a call be overturned after the game is one of the cheesiest actions ever taken in the State of Wisconsin. It is, to use a baseball term (that, oddly enough, has nothing to do with the sitting President), bush. It's embarrassing. It goes against the very concept of an official scorer, one that dates back to at least the era when Fred Lieb was an official scorer…

Go back to 1923, to a decision that Lieb said was the saddest decision he ever had to make as an official scorer. A decision that had a lot more riding on it than a no-hitter, because Fred Lieb made an official scorer's call, as was his right and prerogative, that cost Howard Ehmke immortality, it cost Ehmke back-to-back no hitters. The game after Ehmke's first no-hitter, Lieb was the official scorer when the Yankees' Whitey Witt hit a chopper down the third base line leading off the game. Howard Shanks, an outfielder playing third for the Red Sox, couldn't handle the odd hop the ball took, and the speedy Witt beat the play without a throw. That was the only hit for the Yankees, despite Lieb's fellow denizens of the press box pressuring him as early as the sixth inning to change it to an error. He didn't, and later he recalled a talk he'd had back in 1912 with National League President (and former umpire) Tom Lynch, who told him to be like an umpire in official scoring – not to be influenced in a judgment call.

(Ultimately, Sabathia's one-hitter is as minor a story as his weight, and, for the record, the pizza chain is Ci-Ci's, not CC's, although it looks like Sabathia has eaten a few pizzas in his day. But then, so does his teammate, the six-foot, 300-pound Prince Fielder, and Fielder's father, the monumental Cecil, of whose weight Bill James once pondered in terms of what he'd weigh -- his official weight was 260 -- if he put both feet on the scale. And that's without even going into what Dimitri Young must weigh.)

More importantly than a faux no-no is the issue of how good is Sabathia, and how his 2008 season fits into history. Although he has dominated National League hitters since the Indians made a present of him to the Brewers, no starting pitcher posts an Adjusted ERA of over 300 (i.e., an ERA 200 percent better than the league norm after adjusting for park factors) for an entire year. In his first five seasons, Sabathia's ERA+ only topped 106 once. And while he posted marks of 140, 143 and 157 in 2005, 2006 and 2007, he wasn't anywhere near as dominant in those seasons as he's been for the Brewers.

G W-L ERA IP H BB K ERA+
12 9-0 1.42 95 74 20 94 305

Even Bob Gibson's historic 1968 season produced an ERA+ of "only" 258, while Pedro Martinez holds the modern day record of 291 in 2000. So, ultimately the hitters will, to some extent, catch up with CC. Still, to switch leagues in mid-season and already be the leader in complete games (6) and shutouts (3), and have an ERA more than a run lower than any other starter is a pretty good definition of dominance. But, is it dominant enough to win him the NL Cy Young Award? This subject has already been debated in great detail by one of baseball's deep thinkers, ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, who concluded, probably rightly, that the D'Backs' Brandon Webb and the Giants' Tim Lincecum are, and should be, ahead of Sabathia in the Cy Young race. Without going into a complete recap of The Stark Truth (a little book plug there for Jayson), barring any sudden reversals, or Webb continuing to stub his toe in his pursuit of his 20th win, these two aces who have been with their respective teams all year, and thus have piled up a lot more NL wins than Sabathia, have to be considered the favorites, especially since the Cy Young voters still have a fascination with Ws.

As to CC's half-year domination for a new team, and its effect on said team's chances of making the postseason, there are at least four other historic examples of half-year pitcher pick-ups helping their teams to pennants that come quickly to mind, including one that dates all the way back to 1889 when Hank O'Day was struggling in deep obscurity with the Washington Nationals (a fate that say, John Lannan or Tim Redding can currently relate to). Having posted a 2-10 record with a 4.33 ERA (Adjusted ERA 91) by July 25, O'Day found himself liberated from the Nationals (yes, they were lousy 120 years ago) and sent to the New York Giants the next day in a straight purchase deal. That's as in, "we don't want you anymore, we'd rather have money." Although it's hard to say why the Giants wanted him, O'Day was a different pitcher at the Polo Grounds, helping the Giants to the National League pennant by ripping off nine straight wins as a part-time starter after losing his first outing 5-1 on July 30 (against the Nationals, yet.)

G W-L ERA IP H BB K ERA+
10 9-1 4.27 78 83 35 28 95

Although O'Day was hardly unhittable – he was actually just a little bit better than he'd been in DC – he was plenty good enough for the Giants.

Somewhat better remembered was the experience of Hank Borowy in 1945. Despite having rung up a 10-5 record with a 3.13 ERA for the Yankees, the Bronx Bombers decided they didn't want him, and sold his contract to the Cubs for the sizable sum of $97,000 on July 27. Borowy upped the ante on his good American League half-season with an even better effort over the last two months of the National League season, going 11-2 with a save and leading the Cubs into what is still, as of this writing, their last World Series appearance.

G W-L ERA IP H BB K ERA+
15 11-2 2.13 122 105 47 47 171

That's pretty good pitching, and Borowy was rewarded by finishing sixth in the MVP voting (there being no Cy Young Award yet.). In fact, it's a wonder Borowy's arm didn't fall off. Do the math. He pitched 61 innings per month for the last two months of the season (and then went 2-2 in the seven-game World Series that the Cubs naturally lost). Extrapolate that out for a six-month season, and it's a workload equivalent to 366 innings. Maybe that's why 1945 was Borowy's only 20-win season, and why he never pitched that well again. Or maybe the billygoat had something to do with it.

The example of a pitcher previously switching teams and dominating that everyone has brought up in this year's CC discussions is Rick Sutcliffe. Traded by the Indians to the Cubs on June 13, 1984, Sutcliffe bodily carried the Cubbies to that year's National League East title, going 16-1 and winning the Cy Young Award and finishing fourth in the MVP voting as well. Does this mean Sabathia has a good shot at this year's Cy Young? Probably not, since Sutcliffe had an extra three weeks in the National League, and picked up enough wins (including 20 in all for the year) to impress the voters. CC appears to have just four more starts, and you have to think he'd have to win them all to really get into the Cy Young race.

Dallas Green, that sly shouter, picked up Sutcliffe, a useable reliever in George Frazier (he won six games and saved three more for the Cubs) and a back-up catcher, Ron Hassey (who went 11 for 33 with two home runs for the Cubs) for two by-definition overrated outfielders, Joe Carter and Mel Hall (they were both "RBI Men," a player type that is always overrated), Don Schulze, and a minor leaguer. Like Sabathia in 2008, Sutcliffe in 1984 was less-than-brilliant in the American League, although he had won 31 games in the previous two seasons. Note Sutcliffe's record with the '84 Indians and Sabathia's '08 record with the same team…

PITCHER G W-L ERA IP H BB K ERA+
Sutcliffe 15 4-5 5.15 94 111 46 58 80
Sabathia 18 6-8 3.83 122 117 34 123 115

Sabathia, though clearly having a better 2008 in the AL than Sutcliffe had in the 1984 AL, was still off his game (as were the Indians.) And both their turnarounds were startling…

Sutcliffe - 1984 G W-L ERA IP H BB K ERA+
Indians 15 4-5 5.15 94 111 46 58 80
Cubs 20 16-1 2.69 150 123 39 155 144
Sabathia - 2008 G W-L ERA IP H BB K ERA+
Indians 18 6-8 3.83 122 117 34 123 115
Brewers 12 9-0 1.42 95 74 20 94 305

They both even hit well in the National League. Sutcliffe went 14 for 56 (.250) with three doubles and six RBIs during the last half of 1984. Sabathia is nine for 37 (.243) with a double, a home run and five RBIs. (Actually, in 40 American League at bats, Sabathia has 12 hits for a .300 average.)

Then there was Randy Johnson in 1998. Following in the tradition of Sutcliffe, he was having a off year for the Mariners when he got himself traded to the Astros at the non-waiver trading deadline on July 31.

G W-L ERA IP H BB K ERA+
23 9-10 4.33 160 146 60 213 106

That's not a horrible year, unless you're Randy Johnson, who had become one of the two or three most dominant pitchers in baseball back in 1993. Once he was traded to Houston, though (for Freddie Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama), he became RANDY JOHNSON again…

G W-L ERA IP H BB K ERA+
11 10-1 1.28 84 57 26 116 321

In other words, he was even better in 1998 than Sabathia has been in 2008, with only a 4-0 loss to the Phillies (a four-hitter by Paul Byrd, of all people) on Aug. 17 spoiling his perfect record. It was good enough to get The Big Unit seventh in the Cy Young voting, and 21st in the MVP voting. CC may do a little better than that, but it's still unlikely that he'll pick up any seasonal hardware, even if he does go 13-0 for the Brewers. Still, it'll be worth a big payday for the big guy.


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