With spring training more than halfway done, the Yankees still have a few roster battles to finish up. One of these questions is who will be the fifth starter: the aging veteran lefty, CC Sabathia, or the inconsistent but still promising righty, Ivan Nova? Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman have insisted that the last spot will go to whoever gives the team the best chance to win. If that's the case, it's clear it needs to be Nova.
Heading into spring training, Sabathia was the favorite to land the spot. However, he has really struggled this spring and looks like a shell of his old self. Nova, meanwhile, has looked stronger thus far (his so-so last start notwithstanding). Spring training stats don't mean a lot, but they can have significance when trying to decide a roster battle.
Sabathia has admitted to struggling during spring training throughout his career. So far he has started three games, lasted 7.1 innings, allowed 11 hits, four walks, and stuck out just four, with a 7.36 ERA and 2.05 WHIP. Nova, on the other hand, has pitched 13.1 innings over four starts, pitching to a 4.05 ERA and 1.35 WHIP; he has also struck out eight and walked five. Sabathia is clearly getting hit, allowing tons of base runners, and not striking people out. Nova has been more effective in every facet.
What's more important in spring training is the eye test, and Nova edges Sabathia in that as well. Nova's been throwing strikes, and his velocity has hit around 93 mph. Sabathia has struggled to get his velocity out of the high 80s, and he has been leaving off-speed pitches over the plate. It's clear he's not the pitcher he once was.
He once was a great pitcher, one of the best starters in baseball for a decade. Every fifth day he went out there, went deep in games, and gave his team a great chance to win. Sabathia had some big moments in the playoffs too, helping the Yankees win the 2009 World Series. He arguably belongs in the Hall of Fame, but hasn't been a good pitcher since 2012. From 2013-2015, he posted a 4.81 ERA over 424.1 innings. Much like in spring training, he has been hit hard, allowed a lot of base runners, and hasn't missed many bats.
Nova has not been a Cy Young winner himself these past few seasons, but there are more signs of encouragement in his case. In 2013, Nova had a great season. In 23 games, he was 9-6 with a 3.10 ERA, 3.47 FIP, and 2.5 fWAR. In 2014, Nova was hurt in early April and missed the rest of the season after getting Tommy John surgery. Last year, he didn't look great, posting a 5.07 ERA in 17 starts. It's not as bad, though, when you consider that it was coming off of TJS. Another year removed from the surgery, he should be closer to 2013 form.
Don't just take it from me, though. Projections agree that Nova should have a better 2016 than Sabathia. Here are their ZiPS projections for this season:
The results are not starkly different, but they do favor Nova. He's projected for an ERA of almost half of a run lower, a better WHIP, a better HR/9, and a better WAR (if projected for same number of innings). Sabathia only edges him in K/BB, but Nova doesn't strike out many batters as a ground ball pitcher anyway.
One of the main arguments for keeping Sabathia in the rotation is his contract. He's set to make $25 million this season and next season unless a left shoulder injury forces him to miss significant time or end the 2016 season on the DL.
There are two reasons this doesn't matter, though. First, if the Yankees are serious that the fifth starter will be the pitcher who gives them the best chance to win then contracts shouldn't matter. It is becoming clearer and clearer that Nova is that candidate, even if he's making $20 million less than Sabathia this season.
Second, Sabathia's contract is what economists would refer to as "sunk cost." A sunk cost has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. The Yankees are paying Sabathia $25 million this season whether he's a starter or the most expensive reliever ever. They may also be paying him again in 2017, but that's also independent of him being a starter or reliever this season (unless you're being cynical and saying he has a better chance to hurt his shoulder as a starter).
Look, I understand Nova is far from a sure thing. He's had an up-and-down career and definitely can't be considered reliable. At this point, though, neither can Sabathia. The difference is Nova offers promise and upside that Sabathia no longer has. Whether you go by recent past performance, how they've done in spring training, or how they're projected to do in 2016, Nova has every edge.
If the Yankees stated goal each season is to win a championship, then having Ivan Nova be the fifth starter is the choice to make.