30 December 2008

Let the Yankees Spend Their Own Money

The Yankees have long been the favorite targets of rival fans, rival team owners and media pundits for a very long time. In the early 1970's we were told that free agency would ruin baseball, mostly because it was thought that nobody could afford to pay players what they were actually worth, essentially. Even George Steinbrenner himself said,

"I am dead set against free agency. It can ruin baseball."

As it turned out, though, teams like the Yankees could afford to pay the going price for (presumably) the best available players, while other teams sometimes had to struggle to get by. Free agency was the best thing to happen to the Yankees since Mickey Mantle. King George was smart enough to realize this, so afterwards he kept quiet about the issue, while others lambasted him for spending so much money on free agents like Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, and Rickey Henderson, among others.

Not that it worked. I mean sure, the Yankees used free agency to supplement a pretty decent team in the late 1970's and they won two World Series for their efforts, but then they went 18 years before they won another one, and went 14 years without even making the playoffs, despite the perennially high payrolls.

Efforts to sign big-name, superstar free agents were often unsuccessful and sometimes disastrous. Ed Whitson, Jack Clark, Terry Mulholland, Kenny Rogers and Danny Tartabull come to mind, among others. Even if they performed, it wasn't up to par with the fans' and writers' expectations, and so they were quickly dispatched to the far reaches of the major leagues, usually for pennies on the dollar.

When they did start winning World Series, they did so with teams predominantly composed of home-grown players (Jeter, Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Ramiro Mendoza) and the products of shrewd trades (John Wetteland, David Cone, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Jeff Nelson, Tim Raines, Scott Brosius, Roger Clemens, David Justice). Granted, many of those trades (like the ones for Clemens and Chuck Knoblauch) only happened because the Yankees could most easily afford to meet their salary demands, but still, the Yankees were shrewd to make them.

Not that free agents played no role, but when they did, those players were often complementary (Darryl Strawberry, Orlando Hernandez) rather than stars. For what it's worth, in their four most recent championship seasons, any Yankee MVP or Cy Young votes usually went to either home-grown players or those acquired in trade. Only David Wells, a journeyman southpaw who who had signed as a free agent before the 1998 season, bucked this trend by getting a smattering of votes for each in that year, and the Yankees were as surprised as anyone when he briefly blossomed into a star.

But this new crop of free agents is expected to carry the team.

The recent signings of Mark Teixeira (8 years, $180 million), CC Sabathia (7 years, $161 million) and A.J. Burnett (5 years, $82.5 million) has spurred a lot of bitterness in the baseball writing community, at least amonth those who are not Yankee fans. Phil Sheridan of the Philadelphia Inquirer says that the Yankees' free spending ways, in the midst of poor economy, is
"...the most egregious display of financial irresponsibility in the history of sports."

Which is ridiculous. That title obviously belongs to the $55 million contract the Dodgers gave to Darren Dreifort. Or perhaps the $65 million Chan Ho Park got from the Rangers. No, wait, Russ Ortiz. Or maybe Barry Zito or Mike Hampton. Or whatever we spend to train the Olympic curling team. At least Burnett, Sabathia and Teixeira are actually good players, and stand a decent chance of continuing to be good for a few years.

The San Francisco Examiner's Bob Franz thought the Yankees were ruining baseball, and that was before they signed Teixeira. He too cites the lousy economy, as well as the fact that the Yankees' new ballpark is partially being paid for by taxpayer money. (Well, the infrastructure improvements are, anyway, but let's not be too picky.)

Bill Bradley of the Sacramento Bee thinks these signings show the sport's need for a salary cap, and Brewers' GM Mark Attanasio agrees. This notion comes out every time something like this happens, and there's never been any real progress on the matter. Nor will there be, if the MLB players' union remains as strong as it has been for the last three decades.

Phil Rogers points out that the Yankees have spent about $130 million more on their free agents this winter than the other 29 teams have spent combined, which is interesting. Still, though, it's not as staggering as he would have you believe, since there was nobody anywhere near as good as the Yankees' three signees to whom the other 29 teams might pay that kind of cash. Rogers also correctly notes that if nothing else, these free agent signings make 2009 an all-or-nothing year for the Yankees, and especially field manager Joe Girardi.

Todd Jones of the Sporting News suggests that the Yankees can't buy themselves a championship, and though he mixes metaphors inappropriately and mis-quotes some stats (Burnett won 18 games last year, not 17), his point is taken.

The problem with most of these arguments is that they confuse the lagging economy and government bailouts of big businesses with what the Yankees spend and how they decide to spend it. While baseball may not be "recession proof", the Yankees still find themselves with a lot of advantges going into 2009:
  • They're still the most recognizable brand in sports
  • They still play in the largest market in the country
  • They still have their own cable TV network
  • They have a brand new sadium opening this spring
  • They won 89 games in 2008, enough to have won two of the six divisions in baseball
  • and they had about $70 million coming off the annual payroll.
Add to this the facts that they missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade and a half, and that the talent coming up from the minor leagues is not yet poised for stardom, and the reasons the Yankees should not spend lavishly on free agents become difficult to explain. Why should they wait and hope like other teams when their window is now, and they can take advantage of it with just another piece or two (or three) in the puzzle.

They're not asking Uncle Sam to foot the bill for Sabathia and Teixeira and Burnett and A-Rod and Jeter. They're not laying people off like Ford and GM, and then turning around and asking for more money for themselves. They're not using taxpayer dollars to offset the expenses of golden parachutes offered to their departing executives. They've managed their own business well, and can spend the profits however they please.

The Yankees have their own money. They're not asking for handouts. They're selling a product, and their fans don't show any signs of reluctance to buy it. They've made lots of money in the past and they expect to continue that trend. And if the failing economy starts to hurt them at the gate, they'll be the ones forced to pony up the dough for these big contracts, not us.

And lest you assume that the Yankees will raise ticket and concession prices to recoup their losses, please understand that it doesn't work that way. Basic economics states that the prices are regulated by supply and demand, and in this case the supply is set at 52,325, so it's just demand. If the demand goes down, the price will go down, not up. If attendance starts dropping, they'll be forced to lower ticket prices to make up in volume what the've lost in margin.

One of the few reasonable voices out there, Will Carroll points out that the Yankees really aren't spending money they don't have. They had room in the "budget" with the departures of Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Bobby Abreu, and (we assume) Andy Pettitte, and they took advantage of that fact.

Even with the 2009 salaries and signing bonuses of these three players, plus another $10 million or so in raises to current players like A-Rod, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Chien-Ming Wang, Xavier Nady and the Melk Man (who failed to deliver), the Bronx Bombers still find themselves about $20 million shy of last year's historically large payroll.
You see, the Yankees keep themselves in check. It's only because they overspend on free agents that they are not even more successful. The pressure of playing in New York requires them to overpay for free agents, and that means that when a signing proves to be a bust, it's that much more spectacular and tragic.

That, in turn, makes them a little more wary next time around, or ties up their payroll in costly albatrosses like Carl Pavano, so that when a Carlos Beltran or Johan Santana hits the market, they can't always snatch him up. Granted, often they can, but just as often they end up eating about half the contract when the player ages prematurely or, as in the case of Jason Giambi, stops taking steroids and gets and intestinal parasite.

Some teams may have to wait and hope for victory. Royals fans may remain delusional on the issue. The Oaklands and Tampas can play Moneyball and the Minnesotas can play little-ball and the Brewers can try to catch lightning in a bottle, but the Yankees were already spending a lot of money on their team, even before the $423.5 million they promised to A.J., C.C. and Mark and if they wanted to have anything to show for it next year, the only way was to spend even more.

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13 December 2008

CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Melky's Impending Departure

Wow, that was a busy week.

As predicted, the Yankees wound up signing CC Sabathia, for a contract within about 0.6% of the total amount I estimated a couple of weeks ago, albeit for one less year than I thought. The signing came as little surprise to anyone, excepting perhaps Los Angeles GM Ned Colletti, who apparently had an imaginary encounter in which Sabathia professed to want to play for him. When push came to shove, apparently it was about the money, stupid, as Jason Rosenberg will tell you.

Also as expected, it's the largest total and largest average value for any pitcher's contract in history. The unexpected thing is that there's a player option to get out of the contract after just three years, after which the Yankees will have spent "only" $69 million on him, and after which he will be 32 and perhaps starting to (or about to) decline.

That's where the real issue lies, though. While some people have posited that the opt-out clause is actually a good thing for the Yankees, as CC will undoubtedly decide to take it so he can get more money and move closer to his home in southern California. That's only true however, if he's been both healthy and good for the first three years of this contract.

If either of those eventualities does not occur, especially in the third year, the Yankees will almost certainly be "stuck" with Sabathia for the next four seasons. Can you really imagine a pitcher who just went, say, 5-8 with a 4.93 ERA in 87 innings opting out of a four-year, $92 million contract? I don't think so.

In any case, there is every reason for the Yankees and their fans to be excited about what CC means for 2009: A legitimate, #1 ace pitcher to anchor the rotation.

And speaking of those...

The Yankees also signed A.J. Burnett this week. Burnett, coming off career highs in innings, wins, strikeouts, technically has nowhere to go but down from here, but there is some reason for hope, despite my previous protestations (begging, really) against this signing. The biggest reason to look on the bright side is that Burnett's BABIP was .318 last year, well above the MLB average of .300, but don't make too much of that. We're only talking about eleven hits here, if he reverts to the average.

Burnett gets $82.5 million over five years, which as I pointed out previously, is four more years than he's ever stayed healthy at a stretch. I hope, and fully expect, that the Yankees would not so cavalierly spend money on such a high risk, and must therefore know something I don't about Burnett's prospects for continued health. Of course, I thought that when they signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, too, and those hopes turned out to be misguided, at best.

Six years ago, I worried about Burnett's health and how Jeff Torborg's abuse of his arm might have harmed him in the long run, and apparently I was on to something. Burnett had Tommy John surgery the following April and missed most of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, plus parts of the 2006 season due to TJ-related scar tissue problems. His track record is the very definition of "spotty".

But when he's good, he's really good, a workhorse who not only eats innings but misses bats, striking out enough batters to take a substantial part of the load off the Yankees' porous infield defense. He's a number one starter the Yankees will never have to sue as such since Sabathia will (hopefully) always serve that purpose.

I find it interesting that Burnett has received a lot of criticism for his apparent unwillingness to pitch when he's anything less than 100% healthy, this from some of the same people who criticize managers for over working pitchers. It seems a bit disingenuous to me to say that Burnett should be willing to pitch even if he doesn't feel great about it, when they also criticize the culture that discourages pitchers from voicing such concerns, and retroactively villainizes managers who send pitchers out there with known ailments that eventually lead to things like ligament replacement and rotator cuff surgery.

I don't know whether Burnett could pitch through those maladies, and just chooses not to, but I know I'd rather have him at 100% for 28 starts a year than at 75% for every start through JUly and then not at all for the rest of the season.

The other notable Yankee news this week was the rumor that they're planning on trading Melky Cabrera to Milwaukee for Mike Cameron. This would give the Yankees a stable, if aging and expensive, centerfielder in place of Melky Cabrera, who had a terrible year in 2008 and eventually got sent back to AAA.

Though his terrible batting line was largely due to his .271 BABIP, well below the MLB average, the caveat here is that even if he'd hit .300 when he put the ball in play, he'd have only amassed ten more hits. That would have brought him up to a .277 batting average instead of .249, and would have given him only the 5th worst OPS among regular MLB centerfielders, instead of the third worst. Oh, goodie.

If the Yankees had taken my advice in the spring and traded Melky before the season really got underway, they might have gotten more in return for him than a 36 year old centerfielder with a .250 career batting average who might make almost $11 million in 2009, if he meets all his incentives. Cameron's not all bad, as he's got some power and takes enough walks to make up for the low batting avergae.

As it is, though, they're selling low on Melky, but if he's not likely to get any better, they might as well get something for him now. The market for centerfielders who play mediocre defense, don't steal bases and hit .275 with no power isn't likely to be much better when Melky hits his arbitration years.

There are rumors that the Yankees aren't done, either with free agents or trades, as they're still trying to reel in Andy Pettitte with a much more modest contract than he got last time around, something more in the $10 million range for a year or two. That would give them a rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain, with Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy relegated to Scranton until such time as somebody gets hurt again. I'm not sure they need Pettitte, frankly, as I still think Hughes and/or Kennedy can prove useful, but then they never listen to me.

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03 December 2008

Harold Baines for the Hall of Fame?

It amazes me that I'm even writing this.

It seems to me that if you've got a player whose main job, nay, ONLY job for most of his career was to hit, he ought to have some damn impressive stats if you're going to talk about putting him in the Hall of Fame. Harold Baines won a Silver Slugger and was a six-time All-Star, but Darryl Strawberry made eight All Star teams, Frank McCormick nine, and Steve Garvey ten. Bill Freehan went to 11(!) All Star Games, and when he came up for election, he got two lousy votes and promptly fell off the ballot.

A Designated Hitter ought to amass 200 or more hits at least once. A run producer should pile up 100+ RBIs more than three times in 22 seasons, or score 100 runs, even 90 runs, at least once. A great slugger ought to lead the league in slugging more than once, or hit 30 homers at least once, or at least be among the league leaders occasionally.

Harold Baines did none of these things, and yet there are still folks out there who think he belongs in Cooperstown, along side Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and Carl Yastrzemski and Dave Winfield.

Scott Merkin, a White Sox beat writer for MLB, is one of them. He's got a column on the MLB website calling for the longtime Pale Hose wearer to get some serious consideration for Cooperstown. To make his case for Baines, Merkin interviewed such non-partisan folks as White Sox GM (and former Baines teammate) Kenny Williams, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, White Sox color commentator Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, and Harold Baines himself. Way to keep it neutral there, Scotty.

I have never thought of Baines as a Hall of Famer, and usually just glaze over his candidacy with a few sentences between discussions of more serious candidates. Apparently few of the BBWAA voters have either, only about 28 of them, out of the 540 or so who get to vote. This is important because their opinions, unlike mine, actually matter. Merkin and others like him will need to change the minds of almost 400 of the BBWAA writers, which is unlikely.

A few tidbits from Merkin:

Clutch hitting for Baines [...] led to an amazing 1,628 RBIs despite only topping the 100-RBI plateau in 1982 (105) and 1985 (113) with the White Sox, and with Baltimore and Cleveland in 1999 (103). Baines turned 40 before the 1999 campaign.
It's a model for consistent excellence on Baines' part, accomplished the right way through dedication on and off the field, without any questionable shortcuts.

First of all, being 28th all-time at something does not constitute "amazing" in my book. A-Rod is right on his heels, and will pass him before the end of May next year. Jim Thome and Carlos Delgado are about 140 RBIs back, and could both pass him in the next two years, without necessarily even being much good. Chipper Jones is about 250 back, and could pass him inside of three years easily. Any two of those four will push Baines out of the top 30, and thus his best case for Cooperstown will weaken quite a bit.

Also, it's hard for me to agree with "consistent excellence" as an appropriate term to describe someone who hit, on average, .289 with 22 homers per 162 games. (His actual average per season was about 17.5 homers, because he rarely played more than around 145 games in a season.) More like "typical goodness" which sounds a lot less compelling.

Sure, I'll give him three snaps in Z formation for not using steroids, but then do we even know that for sure? He played almost half his career in the so-called steroids era, and suffered little apparent drop off in skills as he went into his late 30's, when most players slow down.

Baines hit the second most homers of his career at age 40, in 1999, the height of the PED era, and also had the third highest slugging percentage and RBI totals of his career that year, then fell off the table, hitting just .254 with 11 homers in Y2K. If players as mundane as Jason Grimsley and Ricky Bones and Hal Morris and David Justice and dozens of others were all using, is it so hard to believe that Baines could have, too?

Even assuming that he was clean, was he the amazing clutch hitter that Merkin makes him out to be? White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Kenny Williams think so, but then if you asked any owner and/or GM about a longtime fan favorite on the Cooperstown ballot, they'd probably say something nice like this. But is there any (non-anecdotal) evidence?

Baines hit .289/.356/.465 in his career overall, and while he did hit .313/.387/.427 as a pinch hitter (presumably a clutch situation, most of the time), his "Close & Late" numbers (.284/.360/.474) and other clutch stats hover right around his career marks. In short, there's no evidence that he was any more clutch than anybody else.

Baines' hit total of 2866, 40th all-time, is his other main argument. It's as close as any eligible player has gotten to 3,000 hits without getting elected, and two-thirds of the next 30 players on the list are either in the hall or will be someday. That 3,000 mark has always seemed like a lock, and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf blames himself for Baines' inability to get there:

"What really has bothered me for a long time is that if we hadn't traded him, he would have his 3,000 hits and he would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. We traded him twice and into bad situations where he was a platoon player. If he stayed with us, he would have gone over 3,000 hits. If he doesn't get in, it would really bug me. I talk to him about it, and he just shrugs it off."

Should Reinsdorf blame himself for the fact that Harold Baines elicits so little support for election to the baseball Hall of Fame? Besides the fact that 3,000 hits is by no means an automatic ticket to the Coop, given how bland Baines' other numbers look, is it actually possible that Baines would have gotten more playing time and therefore more hits if he'd stayed in Chicago? Let's see:

In 1989, he was traded to Texas on July 29th, and he played in only 50 of the Rangers' remaining 62 games, but not because he was a platoon player. He got five sporadic days off, but then missed seven consecutive games in September, after being pinch hit for in the 6th inning of the last game before the missed week. We have to presume an injury here, and if so, we cannot presume health if he'd stayed in Chicago.

So at best maybe he gets five more games. But does he really? The White Sox had not played him every day either, as he appeared in only 96 of the team's 102 games up to that point, a day off every 17 games. In Texas, not counting the alleged injury, he sat about once every 11 games. So that gives him less than two more games, if he sits once every 17 instead of once every 11. Hitting .321 (his White Sox BA that year) in those two games would give him maybe three more hits. Woo hoo, only 131 to go!

But his performance slipped a bit too when he went to Texas, his batting average dropping from .321 to .285. There's no saying why this was, but let's just pretend that Harold was sad when the ChiSox traded him, and didn't hit as well because of it, and that he would have continued to hit .321 in the remaining 52 games in 1989, instead of .285 in 50 games. How many more hits would that have gotten him? That would give him 58 hits in 188 at-bats instead of 49 hits in 172 at-bats, his actual numbers in Texas. So we've got a total of nine additional hits. Down to 125.

The next year he split between Texas and Oakland, hitting .284 with 118 hits in 415 at-bats. Baseball Reference says that if he'd spent the whole year with Chicago, he'd have had 115 hits in 412 at-bats, three less than his actual total.

But let's also assume that he'd have gotten more than the 135 games they gave him in Texas and Oakland, too. Some of that was due to normal days off, but others may have been injury-related, like when he missed three games in May after playing all of a doubleheader, or when he missed nine games in July, after a game started in which he only got one at-bat, and had only a two-inning appearance in right field in the middle. He played only 103 games of 129 with Texas before the trade to Oakland, where he actually did play every day (and hit only .266).

We can't give him the 12 or so he presumably missed due to some ailment, so we'll give him seven days off (one every 17 games, like in 1989 with Chicago), plus the 12 due to boo-boos, which leaves him with 143 games played instead of only 135. With four plate appearances per game, he gets 32 more plate appearances at most, but he did walk some, so that takes away about four plate appearances. Hitting a 1990-Comiskey adjusted .279 in 440 at-bats instead of the .284 in 415 at-bats he actually compiled gives him 123 hits that year instead of 118. That's five more hits, and we're down to 120.

You see where this is going? I've written over 1,600 words, and we've managed to find 14 hits for him. At this rate, I'll have written a novella about Harold Baines before we get him 3,000 (real and imaginary) hits. But let's keep it up...

I'm not going to make adjustments for the five years in between Baines' first and second stints with the White Sox. He spent two seasons in Oakland and three in Baltimore, never playing more than 141 games in a a season. Let us presume that this was because he was a 30-something DH with bad knees and not because his managers didn't care about getting him into the Hall of Fame.

If that's the case, there's little reason to think that he would have played more often in Chicago than he did in Baltimore and Oakland. Furthermore, adjusting for ballparks (via Baseball Reference) shows that Baines would have had fewer hits, not more, playing half his games in Comiskey, a slight pitcher's park. We'll leave well enough alone there.

Anyway, the second trade Reinsdorf was talking about happened in late July 1997, two days before the famed White Flag Trade. Baines had played 93 of the team's 103 games to that point. When he went to Baltimore, he was in a platoon, mostly with righty Geronimo Berroa, who hit .277/.366/.426 after Baines' arrival. Baines, for his part, hit .291/.356/.418 for Baltimore, playing 44 of the team's remaining 59 games, but his OPS was 120 points lower against lefties than righties that year, so it seems the platoon was justified.

Reinsdorf would have you believe that Baines would not have been platooned in Chicago, but with 1B/DH Frank Thomas hitting .347 that year, I find that hard to believe. Thomas hit .344 against righties that year, and therefore did not need to be platooned, but if they only used Baines as a DH against righties and played Thomas at first those days, Baines still would have gotten less playing time, not more.

Even if we believe Jerry's argument and we give Baines nine more games (6 games off in the remaining 59) and about nine more hits (using the same .300 batting average and the same ratio of at-bats to games played). Now he only needs 111 for the Hall to come calling.

The next year he was platooned again, this time with Joe Carter and Eric Davis, mostly, but he also missed about 32 games from late June to early August due to an injury, so at best he might have played 117 games that year (with the normal game off every ten days) instead of the 104 he actually played. This exercise typically picks us up about one hit per game, so we'll give him 13 more hits, and now he "only" needs 98 more, and they're obviously not going to be found.

By this point in his career, Baines was a part-time player, and deservedly so. He wasn't getting to play as much because most clubs, including the White Sox, had better options at DH than a 38-year old who couldn't hit lefties and didn't have much power. Reinsdorf is just flat-out wrong.

Another quote from Reinsdorf:
"He's going to have a tough time [getting HoF votes] because for a good part of his career he was a designated hitter and a lot of writers won't vote for a DH,"

No, writers will vote for a DH if he's good enough, as they did for Reggie Jackson, and as they will for Edgar Martinez and Frank Thomas. It's not because Baines was a DH, it's because he wasn't a great DH.

Merkin also argues for Baines, if you can believe this, based on his defense(!):

Many people will forget Baines' natural ability as an outfielder during the early portion of his career, finishing with 10 assists for three straight seasons from 1981 to 1983 and with 15 assists in 1986. But Baines did not play the field from 1993 through his retirement in 2001.

Assists are not the best measure of an oufielder's defense, but they are a measure. In this case, Baines' 15 assists were not in the top 30 among outfielders between 1980 and 1986, the last year he played the field regularly. The 10 assists he had in other years probably would not be among the top 100 marks in those seven seasons, and he never won a Gold Glove. That's not everything, but it tells you that he was never considered one of the three best defensive outfielders in the league when he played.

Surprisingly, according to Baseball Prospectus he was a pretty decent outfielder, good for between 11 and 17 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) each year from 1983 to '86. That's not fantastic, but it is pretty good. Still, you can't give him credit for what he might have done with good knees without throwing everything else off, so we have to evaluate him based on what he actually did, which was DH.

And as a DH, he just doesn't measure up. It's not Reinsdorf's fault. It's not the voters' fault. Baines just wasn't great enough. Being "pretty good" for 22 years should not be, and will not be, enough for Cooperstown.

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01 December 2008

Problems in Projecting C.C. Sabathia: The $140 Million Question

Rob Neyer and Anthony McCarron have weighed in on the large-looming presence that is CC Sabathia, and the even larger one that will be his next contract, well north of the $100 million mark. Neyer followed that up with some comments on a Sports Illustrated article discussing Sabathia's size and other attributes as well.

I discussed CC a bit last week, but did not go into too much detail. Hopefully I'll remedy that oversight here.

Ben Reiter of SI thinks that CC's as good a bet as anyone to be a very good pitcher for the next several years, in spite of his size. McCarron things that this is a big risk, but one the Yankees have to take, and I mostly agree with that, though I don't necessarily think that comparing him only to other $100 million pitchers is fair, exactly. For one thing, the $100 million is just a convenient benchmark. If you brought it down to, say, $85 million, still a hell of a lot of money, you'd have the likes of Mike Mussina and Carlos Zambrano, neither of whom can be considered a bust, at least not yet.

And if you look at average annual value, the list gets even bigger. Andy Pettitte and Jake Peavy both made more money per year than Brown or Hampton, but then so did Roger Clemens and Jason Schmidt, and those didn't go so well. Roy Oswalt and Mark Buehrle and Roy Halladay aren't far off that mark, either, and their clubs are all pretty happy with them, but then there's also John Smoltz and Chris Carpenter, so...we just don't know. Spending money is a risk, and the more you spend, the bigger the risk. This is not news.

But among the few things we can say with confidence about CC Sabathia, there is this: He is not Barry Zito. Or Kevin Brown. Or Mike Hampton. Unfortunately, neither is he Johan Santana.

Still, for the sake of argument, it might be helpful to look at the warning signs associated with these other huge contracts, to see if they "should have known better", or something.

Rob Neyer had reasons that three of the previous four megadeals should have been avoided, but I find a few problems with his arguments:

"[Kevin] Brown had been up and down, durability-wise, and was well into his 30s
when the Dodgers signed him (and it should be said that he did pitch brilliantly
for two years)."

Granted, he was 35 when he signed, and should have been considered an injury risk for that reason alone, but "up and down"? He missed a month in 1995 with a dislocated finger, and missed some time in September of 1989 and 1990, but had been a veritable workhorse every year from 1991 to 1998, averaging well over 200 innings per 162 games.

The Dodgers got three very good (if non-consecutive) years and two injury-plagued ones from Brown, and then they traded him for two good years of Jeff Weaver (his last two good ones, it would turn out) plus two other pitchers. That's about as good as they could have hoped, given the fact that they were dumb enough to sign a 35-year old pitcher through his 40th birthday.

Another one of Neyer's retrospective assessments:

"Zito was a disaster waiting to happen, his performance obviously slipping long before the Giants signed him. "

Have to disagree there, too, to some degree. There may have been some advanced metrics to suggest the impending drop in performance, but his slipping performance was hardly "obvious". At the time of the signing, Zito was a 28-year old lefty who had averaged 16 wins, 220 innings and a much better than average ERA for the previous 6 years. Those aren't the only important numbers, naturally, but you can hardly make a case for an obvious drop in skills.

Even if you just looked at the previous 2-3 years, he was still a durable, better than average lefty starter, which is a rare commodity. Of course, $18 million a year is too much to pay for that commodity, but there was little reason to think that Zito would turn out to be as bad as he's been the last two seasons.

"And Hampton was a very good pitcher who was thrown into an extreme environment."

Not sure about this one either. If anything, he was a so-so pitcher who had thrived in one extreme environment, and was therefore highly overrated. Hampton had been helped significantly by the severe pitchers' parks in Houston when he was with the Astros and in New York. His career ERA split after the 2000 season was 2.88/4.09, in over 1,200 innings of total work, meaning that away from those pitchers' havens, he was basically a little better than average.

Not only was he removed from that extreme environment, but he was forced to pitch half his games in an even more extreme environment, one with the exact opposite properties of those that had masked his mediocrity. That revealed his weaknesses, and severely so. Colorado to their credit, unloaded him after two seasons, and got some value in return.

Sabathia is none of these things. Unlike Brown, he's not almost 35. Unlike Hampton, his success does not come from the parks he's called home. Unlike Zito, he doesn't have rising walk rates and dropping strikeout rates and his best season was last year, not five seasons ago.

He doesn't have control problems. He doesn't have obviously problematic mechanics. He doesn't just "get by" with a decent fastball and a whole lot of junk. By all accounts, he's not a self-absorbed jerk, or a hot-head, or a primadonna, or a clubhouse cancer, or anything of that ilk. He doesn't appear to wilt in the heat of a pennant race or the playoffs. In short, there's really nothing wrong with him, except...

His size. Unlike Neyer's assessment, though, this is not the elephant in the room nobody talks about. For one thing, everybody's talking about it, and for another, can't we come up with a less loaded analogy than that for a fat guy? "Sabathia's weight is the gauche, pink drapes in the room everyone's ignoring!" Nah, now we're upsetting a different demographic. Sorry, fat guys.

He's listed at 6'7", 290 lbs, which means he's probably well over 300 lbs these days. There's never been any pitcher his size who's been successful for any length of time. Heck, there's really never been anybody his size in MLB. A mediocre relief pitcher named Jumbo Brown, who pitched before World War II, was listed at 295 lbs, but he was gone after his age 34 season, perhaps to fight the war, and never even pitched more than 90 innings in a year.

A handful of other pitchers are listed as being over 250, but most of them (Jeff Juden, Jeff Nelson, Chris Young, maybe Tim Stoddard) are very tall and a different body type from CC. Others, like Dennys Reyes and Bartolo Colon, are much shorter and fatter, whereas CC is more thick than fat.

And the ones who might be comparable physically, like Bobby Jenks or Chris Britton, don't have the same workload put on them because they pitch only in relief. There's a big difference between throwing 800 pitches a year and 3,500, and we have no idea how Sabathia's knees (and back, and arm...) will hold up under that strain. Either that or they don't have enough of a MLB track record to say anything about them, like Colter Bean or Humberto Sanchez. There just isn't a reasonable comparison for CC anywhere.

And because of this, the others in the exclusive $100M club, Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, Barry Zito and Johan Santana, are almost nothing like Sabathia, except perhaps that three of the four are lefties. The pitching styles, and perhaps most important, body types, are very different from CC's. This is what makes it so difficult to project Sabathia's performance going forward.

Baseball Prospectus, an organization that makes a living at telling you what baseball players are likely to do, says that CC's "Similarity Index" (incorporating body type and performance) is 5, where anything less than 20 is "historically unusual". That "5" means basically that they don't have any idea at all.

For comparison, coming into 2008, Andy Pettitte was a 41, Roy Halladay a 43, Matt Morris a 56, Cole Hamels a 48. Those guys were reasonably common, and more or less performed as you might have expected them to perform. (Much better than that, in Halladay's case.)

Jamie Moyer and Kenny Rogers were both in single digits, like CC, and while Rogers basically pitched as badly as BP expected, Moyer was much, much better than anticipated, and nobody exactly knows why. Randy Johnson's Similarity Index is a zero, meaning that there's really nobody even remotely like him for comparison's sake, and CC's not much better so take anything you see about what he might do with a grain or two of salt.

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