Across the Seams: Is CC Sabathia a Hall of Famer?
On Saturday, veteran left-hander CC Sabathia announced what many already expected — that the 2019 season would be his last.
Sabathia has been a stalwart in the big leagues since 2001, making six All-Star games and winning the Cy Young award in 2007 with the Cleveland Indians. He sits just shy of 3,000 strikeouts at 2,986, along with a 246-153 record and a 3.70 career ERA.
Six years from now, assuming Sabathia doesn’t attempt some kind of comeback, he will be eligible for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame has had an odd relationship with modern-era starting pitchers, making it hard to determine CC’s Hall of Fame chances.
Here is a quick and dirty look at the pros and cons of Sabathia’s Hall of Fame chances, along with my own verdict and a prediction as to what the BBWAA will do with CC six years from now.
Pros for Sabathia and the HOF
Sabathia is 14 strikeouts away from becoming the 16th member of the 3,000 strikeout club. Of those 16 only two aren’t enshrined in Cooperstown: Roger Clemens, who is being held out because of steroid use, and Curt Schilling, who has the numbers but isn’t getting the votes likely due to a, shall we say, tumultuous relationship with many of the writers.
Sabathia is third all-time in strikeouts as a left-hander, behind Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson. Not terrible company to be in.
It’s always important to compare players to their peers, but it’s particularly important for starting pitchers. After all, comparing Sabathia to Walter Johnson or Bob Feller doesn’t make any sense.
Looking at Sabathia’s career numbers in the last 20 years, here’s where he falls in some key categories:
1st in strikeouts (17th all time)
1st in wins (51st all time)
2nd in complete games (Behind Roy Halladay)
T-3rd in shutouts (Halladay and Clayton Kershaw)
3rd in WAR (Halladay, Justin Verlander) (51st all-time among pitchers)
Clearly we are cherry picking Sabathia’s career — but it’s still notable that over the last 20 years, the only pitchers who are arguably better than Sabathia are Halladay, Kershaw and Verlander – all current or eventual Hall of Famers.
Additionally, Sabathia stacks up well when using baseball-reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Standards — which are metrics created by Bill James to compare players to Hall of Famers at their position. For Hall of Famers, an average HOF Monitor score is 100, while the HOF standard score is 50. Sabathia has a 113 and a 46, putting him right around where Hall of Famers typically finish.
Plus, Sabathia’s slider has always been a fun one to watch:
Cons for Sabathia and the HOF
Most of Sabathia’s career accomplishments have come simply from immense longevity rather than pure dominance, as evidenced by his subpar 117 ERA+. That mark is tied with Andy Pettitte and Mark Buehrle, and below other good but not great pitchers like Cliff Lee and Masahiro Tanaka.
Building on that, Sabathia rarely dominated. He was always good, but rarely great. He had a monstrous half-season with the Brewers in 2008, but otherwise he only had two other seasons with an ERA+ over 140 — not exactly the marks you would expect from a dominant hurler.
He has one more season to boost his numbers, but as of right now he falls short of the average Hall of Famer in bWAR, 7-year peak WAR and JAWS – all metrics used by the great Jay Jaffe to measure a player’s HOF candidacy.
Right now, Sabathia’s 62.7 bWAR, 39.4 7-year WAR and 51.0 JAWS are all short of the average HOF SP: 73.4 bWAR, 50.0 7-year WAR and 61.7 JAWS. One more season probably won’t dramatically change any of that.
Of course, being just below the average marks of a HOFer doesn’t automatically disqualify someone from being enshrined, but this era seems to be very hesitant to allow starting pitchers into the Hall. Halladay and Mussina both going in last season was a huge boost, but Sabathia’s career numbers fall somewhere between Mussina’s and Pettitte’s — his two closest statistical comparisons.
His candidacy rests on how voters interpret his career: is he more of a Mussina, who earned his way in last year, or a Pettitte, who only earned 9.9 percent of the votes last season, his first on the ballot?
Sabathia had a few great seasons, a lot of good seasons and very few bad seasons over a very long, fruitful career. He would certainly be a bottom-tier Hall of Famer, but I think he does deserve to be in. I’ve always been a ‘big Hall’ guy though, and people who view the Hall as a more exclusive club will no doubt disagree — which I understand.
I don’t feel exceptionally passionate about Sabathia one way or the other, but I do think he deserves the honor.
A lot of people will assume that a combination of East Coast and recency bias will help get Sabathia into the Hall. However, ‘Yankee bias’ — as it pertains to the Hall of Fame — doesn’t seem to exist. If it did, players like Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, David Cone and Bernie Williams would be in the Hall.
Still, Sabathia will be an interesting Hall case to watch. Six years is a long, long time from now, and the ballot will look very very different. Overcrowding and the asinine Rule of Ten is preventing a lot of Hall-worthy players from getting their due, including players like Jim Edmonds, Kenny Lofton and Lance Berkman falling off the ballot in just one year.
Assuming the ballot is much less crowded in six years, Sabathia should get plenty of votes — although I suspect it will take at least 4-5 years before he gets inducted. I do, however, think it will eventually happen for the big fella.
(Graphic provided by @freshmeatcomm on Twitter)