When it comes to mega contracts for New York Yankees pitchers, two obviously stand out in recent memory in the deals for CC Sabathia and Gerrit Cole. Both were signed with similar aims in mind: to provide an ace with Cy Young-caliber pedigree and proven success to lead a rotation that needed a lot of a support, and return the Yankees to the World Series after a long period without one. It’s a given that contracts like the two of those come with huge expectations. How did Cole’s initial season with the Yankees compare to CC’s?
Considering inflation, Sabathia’s initial 7-year, $161 million contract looks almost quaint compared to Cole’s 9-year, $324 million pact. The $15,285,714 he earned in 2009, the first season of the deal, was an absolute steal considering the final numbers he put up. Sabathia finished that season with a 5.8 fWAR, 230 innings pitched, 197 strikeouts, an ALCS MVP Award, and his only World Series championship. Although it didn’t quite match the highest peaks he reached in Cleveland and Milwaukee, it’s hard to argue with those results.
Cole’s Yankee debut season of 2020 can’t truly be held side-by-side with Sabathia’s 2009 because of the shortened nature of that season. Still, we can compare some of their rate-based stats. For example, Cole’s K/9 was 11.6, while Sabathia’s in 2009 was 7.7. Baseball is more strikeout-heavy today than it was 11 years ago, but that doesn’t totally explain the difference, considering that Sabathia finished outside the top 10 in that stat, while Cole finished eighth. Indeed, by FanGraphs’ weighted K%+, Cole’s was 140 vs. Sabathia’s 119.
One area where Sabathia’s debut seems definitely better than Cole’s was in his ability to limit home runs. His HR/9 rate of 0.7 is much better than Cole’s 2020 mark of 1.7. Indeed, that might be the one area where you could truly knock Cole that season. Their walk rates were a bit closer together, with Sabathia and Cole posting figures of 2.6 and 2.1, respectively.
A big part of Sabathia’s appeal in 2009 related to the sheer number of innings he was able to throw (before injuries derailed the later part of his career). His 230 innings ranked sixth in MLB in 2009, though he only threw 10 fewer innings than the leader Justin Verlander. Cole’s 73 innings pitched in 2020 was tied for ninth in baseball. Cole has shown the ability to cross the 200 innings mark before — hopefully he’ll show that skill later in his Yankees career. (He might have made it in 2021 had it not been for his COVID-IL stint in early August.)
Both of these pitchers also pitched in the playoffs their first seasons in pinstripes with the expectations of being dominant. Sabathia more than delivered — he held a 1.98 ERA over five starts on the way to the championship. Cole was strong as well in 2020, but home runs once again stand out as his primary issue. His HR/9 over his three starts was 2.0, and while he was excellent on short rest in the decisive ALDS Game 5, one run ended up being the difference in that contest. The one hit Cole allowed was a solo homer. Cole was able to raise his strikeout numbers even higher, with a K/9 of 14.7. (Sabathia’s home run and strikeout rates in the 2009 playoffs were 1.0 and 7.9, respectively.)
Considering the differences in MLB and pitchers overall between 2009 and 2020, I think Cole’s and Sabathia’s debuts are actually quite comparable. Recency bias has Cole’s poor 2021 Wild Card start at front of mind, but he was certainly not responsible for the Yankees falling flat in 2020. I think there was a sense that the thrills of 2009 overall meant that Sabathia could do no wrong later in his career, and hopefully soon Cole will have the championship that will also put him fans’ positive memories forever. Besides the lack of a ring, he should be garnering similar early support to Sabathia.