CC Sabathia began his career 18 years ago as the youngest man in the big leagues. Now, he is the sturdy veteran, the crafty lefty, the leader. The erstwhile ace has transitioned terrifically into a new role as a middle-of-the-rotation starter with reduced velocity, and has found light at the end of his big-league tunnel. Sabathia has been streaky this year for the Yankees, but he has unquestionably been at least their third-best starter and a huge part of the team. Whenever these Yankees need a big win or need to stop a losing streak, they know they can turn to big number 52.
Still, Sabathia has sent mixed signals about the remainder of his career. He previously suggested that he would retire if the Yankees won the World Series this year, but now seems adamant on returning for at least one more year, no matter what. Without a doubt, the Yankees will keep feeding him one-year contracts until he is ready to walk away. When the time comes for Sabathia to hang up the spikes, one huge question remains: is CC Sabathia a Hall of Famer?
First, let’s look at Sabathia’s numbers, as of mid-2018. He has 243 lifetime wins, good for 55th place all-time (the average Hall of Famer has 251). Over his 18-year career, he has won a Cy Young (2007), made six All-Star teams, was the ace of a World Series team and has tossed 38 complete games in an age where they are exceedingly rare. He also led the league in wins twice and innings pitched once. His 61.4 lifetime WAR is more than Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Red Ruffing and Andy Pettitte.
Sabathia’s greatest trait has been his penchant for striking out batters. He is 17th on the all-time strikeout list, and is just 55 punchouts away from joining the prestigious 3,000 strikeout club. He has the third-most strikeouts among lefties of all time, and he has struck out more batters than Cy Young, Tom Glavine, Warren Spahn, Bob Feller and Don Drysdale. When it’s all said and done, Sabathia could very well be in the top 15 on the all-time strikeouts list.
Sabathia does have a few shortcomings. His 3.69 lifetime ERA is higher than all but three Hall of Fame pitchers. He was merely above-average for the first couple years of his career and endured a brutal two-and-a-half year stretch later on where he looked completely out of gas. While Sabathia has bounced back now, some argue that his peak from 2007-2012 was a bit too short for a typical Hall of Famer.
To get 75 percent of any vote is exceedingly tough, and that’s the threshold that Sabathia would have to beat to get into the Hall. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to look at other pitchers who had similar careers and see how their campaigns went. By Bill James’ similarity score, some pitchers statistically similar to Sabathia include Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Luis Tiant and Vida Blue. Unfortuantely, none of these players are in the Hall of Fame yet, although Mussina and Schilling seem to have good chances and Pettitte has yet to reach the ballot.
Jack Morris is another interesting comparison. Morris lasted 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot, but didn’t get in. However, he was inducted by the Veteran’s Committee last year. Morris was a big-game pitcher with a long career, but he was never considered the best in the league. He even has the worst ERA of any Hall of Famer at 3.90. Sabathia compares favorably to Morris in most categories, but Morris won four World Series, compared to Sabathia’s one. Morris earned three of his rings in the last four years of his career when he turned back the clock with a late-career revival.
This is the path that Sabathia must take to maximize his votes. No one is disputing that Sabathia’s peak was Hall of Fame-worthy. The question is if his whole career is. Sabathia overcame a lot in the last few years – a trip to rehab for an alcohol addiction, various injuries and physical decline– and his comeback story could have him ending his career on a high enough note to steal some votes. It was a long and bumpy road for Morris to get into the Hall, but if he can do it, a pitcher with slightly better numbers and similar “clutch” intangibles like Sabathia should earn heavy consideration. All CC needs is at least one more ring.
Sabathia should also be paying attention to how the voters treat Schilling, Mussina and especially Pettitte. These guys are his contemporaries and best comparisons. Though we can’t really make a true verdict on Sabathia’s Hall of Fame chances until we see what happens with these guys, recent trends suggest that there may be a chance for Sabathia to break into the Hall.
Regardless of whether or not CC Sabathia makes it into the Hall of Fame or not, he is surely one of the five best starters in Yankees history and seems in line for a plaque in Monument Park one day. Sabathia will tell you that he’s just focused on winning another championship, but the 2017 playoffs showed that CC stilll has a lot in the tank. It remains to be seen if this final push will do enough to get Sabathia into the rarified air of Cooperstown, New York.