In case you haven’t noticed, CC Sabathia is back. The 35-year-old left-hander, after numerous injuries and his own personal battle with alcoholism, is back on the mound. For the first time since game five of the 2012 ALDS, he seems like the Sabathia we once loved.
He’s not the same pitcher, of course, because a nearly four mph drop in velocity is enough to warrant a change in pitching style. No, Sabathia is not the flaming lefty with nasty stuff, but more like a Mark Buehrle-esque starter with a crafty repertoire. People have talked about "learning to pitch" as a euphemism for compensating a lack of stuff with better command, and that’s a good way of putting it.
There are a few questions I would have, especially since this is a level of performance we haven’t seen from Sabathia in nearly four years. Firstly, how long does this last? His HR/FB ratio is a paltry 3.2%—that’s small even in comparison to his career mark of 9.7%—and his BABIP is about 20 points under his career number. Now, this could just be regression waiting to happen, or it could mean that he has essentially turned the corner from one type of pitcher to another. It is usually the former, but I think it would be rather foolish to ignore that the latter is also a possibility. In that case, future predictions are difficult.
The other question I would have is: could he win the Comeback Player of the Year award? Even just a couple of months in, there’s already a decent possibility, and here’s why.
To win this award, you need two things, mainly: you need to be an already-notable player, and you need to return from an injury/obstacle back to an excellent level of performance. The first part is definitely covered, but the last bit is more subjective. This could mean that you push yourself into the top ten of Cy Young voting, or it could mean pushing yourself from obscurity to league average.
To look into this, I looked into starting pitchers who won the award since it was introduced officially in 2005:
- Tim Hudson, 2010: 228.2 IP, 138 ERA+, 5.7 WAR
- Francisco Liriano, 2010: 191.2 IP, 112 ERA+, 4.4 WAR
- Francisco Liriano, 2013: 161 IP, 118 ERA+, 3 WAR
- Cliff Lee, 2008: 223.1 IP, 167 ERA+, 6.9 WAR
- Chris Young, 2014: 165 IP, 100 ERA+, 2 WAR
- Chris Carpenter, 2009: 192.2 IP, 182 ERA+, 6.5 WAR
- Matt Harvey, 2015: 189.1 IP, 137 ERA+, 4.3 WAR
It’s interesting, right? Some of these seasons, like Cliff Lee’s 2008 and Chris Carpenter's 2009, were Cy Young-worthy (Lee won, and Carpenter finished second in voting), while others, like Chris Young’s 2014 and Francisco Liriano’s 2013 were average to slightly above-average.
Nonetheless, there are clear avenues to the award, and most importantly Sabathia needs to stay on the mound. If he does that, there's a good chance he’s in the running. Here are three possible scenarios for the rest of the season.
He could either keep pace with his current performance and innings, match ZiPS by predicted innings and ERA here on out, or keep pace with his innings but match his ERA projections going forward. You can likely fill in other alternatives as shades in between.
- CC Sabathia (keeps pace): 153.2 IP, ~187 ERA+, ~6.2 WAR
- CC Sabathia (paces with ZiPS innings/ERA): 136.1 IP, ~116 ERA+, ~2.7 WAR
- CC Sabathia (paces with ZiPS ERA; keeps pace with innings): 153.2 IP, ~116 ERA+, ~3 WAR
In all of these, he beats Chris Young’s winning year in 2014, at least based on the rough estimates I created. The first scenario is incredibly unlikely, but even if he beats his projections by a little bit, he’ll find himself over 20% better than league average over at least 150 innings. That, in my book, is enough for qualification.
The real issue, though, is who his competition would be. There is obviously Robinson Cano, who missed time due to his stomach issues last year, and he's hitting .294/.346/.561 with 18 home runs already. There’s also Dustin Pedroia, who missed time last year and is keeping pace WAR-wise with Cano, as well as Jacoby Ellsbury and Joe Mauer.
Cano seems to be the front-runner, I would presume, but I think Sabathia makes it close. It’s subjective, so who knows, but he has the household name and a bounce-back that we almost never see with starting pitchers. In baseball, you’re usually done once you’re done. Nonetheless, I’m going to enjoy this ride as long as I can. Anything that brings me back to pre-2013 is a breath of fresh air.