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CC Sabathia is still a good rotation option for the Yankees

Compared to other bottom-of-the-rotation starters, CC Sabathia is still quite good.

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The Yankees will have the best pitching staff in baseball this season. At least, that’s what Fangraphs projects anyway. According to their data, the Yankees have the third-strongest starting rotation and the strongest bullpen in the league. Perhaps the bullpen statistic is not altogether surprising. Chad Green is a top-20 reliever in the league, but the fourth- or fifth-best in the Yankee bullpen, for example.

On the other hand, the rotation projection seemed a bit more surprising to me at first, but maybe it shouldn’t be. The top of the rotation looks rock-solid. Luis Severino and James Paxton are one of the best 1-2 punches in the league. Masahiro Tanaka has ace-level stuff on his best days. J.A. Happ has found more success in his 30’s than during his 20’s, and CC Sabathia is one of the best fifth-starters in baseball.

There’s no doubt CC Sabathia is a far cry from what he was when he first came to New York in 2009, but he’s not done being effective quite yet either. No, he won’t go deep into games anymore, and some age-related decline has undoubtedly set in. Yet as far as back-end starters go, Sabathia is still a serviceable pitcher overall, and one of the best bottom-of-the-rotation pitchers in the league.

I used FanGraphs to gather all the potential fifth starters for teams projected to win at least 85 games in 2019 and compiled their 2018 statistics here:

2018 Fifth-Starter Statistics

Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Chicago Cubs Yu Darvish 40 11.03 4.73 1.58 4.95 4.86 0.2
St. Louis Cardinals Alex Reyes 4 4.5 4.5 0 0 4.41 0
Boston Red Sox Eduardo Rodriguez 129.2 10.13 3.12 1.11 3.82 3.65 2.3
Los Angeles Dodgers Kenta Maeda 125.1 10.99 3.09 0.93 3.81 3.22 2.6
Tampa Bay Rays Brent Honeywell 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Tampa Bay Rays Jalen Beeks* 50.2 7.46 4.26 1.07 5.51 4.64 -0.1
Cleveland Indians Shane Bieber 114.2 9.26 1.81 1.02 4.55 3.23 2.8
St. Louis Cardinals Michael Wacha 84.1 7.58 3.84 0.96 3.2 4.22 0.8
New York Yankees CC Sabathia 153 8.24 3 1.12 3.65 4.16 2.5
New York Mets Jason Vargas 92 8.22 2.93 1.76 5.77 5.02 0.1
St. Louis Cardinals Adam Wainwright 40.1 8.93 4.02 1.12 4.46 4.28 0.5
Tampa Bay Rays Ryan Yarbrough 147.1 7.82 3.05 1.1 3.91 4.19 0.7
Tampa Bay Rays Yonny Chirinos 89.2 7.53 2.51 0.7 3.51 3.51 1.1
Houston Astros Wade Miley* 80.2 5.58 3.01 0.33 2.57 3.59 1.5
Washington Nationals Jeremy Hellickson 91.1 6.41 1.97 1.08 3.45 4.22 1.2
*Beeks pitched for the Red Sox and Rays last season, and Miley pitched for the Brewers.

Even to my surprise, Sabathia actually performed remarkably well against his competition in this table. Due to many players in the table missing time due to injury or pitching out of the bullpen, Sabathia actually leads this group in 2018 innings. The big lefty ranks as above average in all the other categories except for HR/9, but his 1.12 per 9 rate was still better than Justin Verlander, David Price, and Zack Greinke last season.

On the other hand, FanGraphs isn’t so sure that Sabathia’s 2018 success can be repeated. His 2019 projections have him more than a full win worse than he was this past season. Here’s the chart:

Projected Fifth-Starter 2019 Stats

Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Chicago Cubs Yu Darvish 139 10.2 3 1.1 3.76 3.65 2.6
St. Louis Cardinals Alex Reyes 101 10.2 3.9 1.1 3.81 3.85 1.4
Boston Red Sox Eduardo Rodriguez 136 9.4 3.2 1.2 4.02 4.04 1.9
Los Angeles Dodgers Kenta Maeda 132 9.4 2.7 1.3 3.87 3.91 1.7
Tampa Bay Rays Brent Honeywell 74 9 2.9 1.3 4.11 4.16 0.9
Tampa Bay Rays Jalen Beeks 92 8.5 3.9 1.2 4.2 4.44 0.8
Cleveland Indians Shane Bieber 139 8 1.8 1.2 3.86 3.78 2.4
St. Louis Cardinals Michael Wacha 100 7.9 3.2 1.1 4.2 4.16 1
New York Yankees CC Sabathia 117 7.6 3.1 1.4 4.54 4.63 1.3
New York Mets Jason Vargas 113 7.6 2.9 1.3 4.37 4.47 0.9
St. Louis Cardinals Adam Wainwright 103 7.4 3 1.1 4.2 4.18 1.3
Tampa Bay Rays Ryan Yarbrough 94 7.2 3.3 1.3 4.48 4.64 0.7
Tampa Bay Rays Yonny Chirinos 94 7.1 2.6 1.2 4.28 4.31 0.9
Houston Astros Wade Miley 113 6.9 3.4 1.2 4.54 4.61 0.8
Washington Nationals Jeremy Hellickson 113 6.4 2.5 1.5 4.84 4.84 0.7

It’s hard to entirely fault the projections for such low numbers across the board. Sabathia will spend most of this season at 38-years-old, with the prospect of further knee flare-ups at every turn. Compared to his peers, he’s an above-average pitcher, as far as fWAR is concerned. Whether these more pessimistic projections come to fruition this year might just come down to Sabathia’s ability to avoid the injured lists for substantial stretches.

To their credit, the Yankees have been very cautious with Sabathia in recent seasons. Both Joe Girardi and Aaron Boone have been quick to pull him from a start when he begins to labor, and the organization isn’t afraid to put him on the injured list at the slightest hint of injury — better to not have him for two weeks than two months. I can’t predict how much time Sabathia will miss, but it feels safe to say that he will miss games this year. If he can minimize his time on the injured list, pitching more than his 117 projected innings feels like a safe bet.

Even though the 2019 projections aren’t particularly kind to Sabathia, it’s still worth noting he’s put up some nice numbers that don’t necessarily make it onto baseball cards. Last season he was one best pitchers in the league at preventing hard-hit balls, coming in at fourth in soft contact rate and eighth in hard contact rate. Sabathia was also in the top-two percent of the league in exit velocity last season.

Sabathia isn’t the pitcher he once was, but he’s not ready to call it quits. The Yankees are rolling the dice on him performing up to 2018 levels, despite projections saying he’ll regress. The fact is, Sabathia’s been able to generate lots of weak contact and continue his career when many of us thought he was done five years ago. He’s not going to win a Cy Young or be the Yankees’ go-to guy anymore, but the numbers show that compared to his peers — bottom-of-the-rotation starters on contending teams — CC Sabathia is actually still quite good.