Calculated Omissions

There’s a case for C.C. Sabathia to opt out of his contract following the 2011 season.

There’s a case for the Yankees to let Sabathia leave if he does so.

There’s even a case—however rickety—to hope that Sabathia opts out and leaves after the 2011 season.

But the two columns to this end, published this week, make an incomplete, twisted and omission-laden case for the positions of the authors.

Dave Cameron of the Wall Street Journal and Fangraphs published a piece on ESPN.com saying that Sabathia’s opt out could be a “blessing” for the Yankees. (I can’t link it because it’s Insider access, but I’ll print the relevant snippets.)

Joe Sheehan of Sports Illustrated said something similar—you can read his column here.

Both pieces, as is customary, take information and analysis out of context to fit into their purposes. Having heard ad nauseam how the stats-obsessed prefer objective analysis to the capricious judgment of those who use aspects other than pure numbers, it’s glaring in its hypocrisy that both Sheehan (who I don’t know to be a stat guy or non-stat guy) and Cameron (who’s an original and hard core stat zombie still clinging to the Moneyball farce) are writing these pieces without adding in the underlying caveats.

These caveats are clear if you know what to look for.

First Cameron’s title “Sabathia opt out a blessing for Yanks” is somewhat different from the body of the posting where he says it “wouldn’t be the worst thing for New York”.

There’s a big difference between the two assertions. One would imply the Yankees are sitting in their offices and quietly hoping Sabathia leaves; the other is having a contingency plan in place if he does leave.

Cameron suggests that Sabathia’s declining strikeout numbers from his days with the Indians is a conscious choice to cut down on the number of pitches he throws; that his ERA is likely to rise as a result of this strategy.

An increase in Sabathia’s walk and ground ball rates combined with a diminishing strikeout rate do not bode well for his future.

YEAR BB/9 K/9 GB% xFIP
2008 2.10 8.93 46.6 3.10
2009 2.62 7.71 42.9 3.82
2010 2.80 7.46 50.7 3.78

Pitching to contact is often encouraged as a way to reduce the number of pitches thrown and to save wear and tear on a pitcher’s arm. Indeed, if Sabathia has felt the effects of aging begin to kick in, it would be understandable that he would shift back toward a philosophy that offered the potential of quicker outs and less-stressful innings. The problem for the Yankees is that this approach is also less likely to be successful.

Fair enough, but what’s ignored is the way Sabathia altered his approach midway in his first year with the Yankees as he changed the grip on his fastball to encourage more movement and went on a tear thereafter; that the Yankees—regardless of their pitching woes—have an offense that is going to put up runs in bunches and a bullpen which will also diminish the number of innings and pitches Sabathia needs to throw to get through games and accumulate wins.

There are various ways to reduce innings pitched.

In my eyes, whether he throws 250 innings or 220 is relatively meaningless because the games from which he’s removed will be in favor of Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera; not Joe Borowski with the Indians or Salomon Torres with the Brewers. Important games won’t dictate that Sabathia stay in and keep pitching due to a faulty bullpen.

The defense is also mentioned. It’s a valid point to wonder how much Sabathia’s “pitching to contact” will be affected by the declining range of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez on the left side of the infield, but this is a massive assumption that both will still be playing shortstop and third base going forward in Sabathia’s Yankees career.

It’s already being speculated as to where Jeter is going to play if and when he can no longer handle shortstop; A-Rod is about 2 years away from being a primary DH. Cameron mentions Sabathia’s xFIP with the Indians from 2005 when his SS/3B combo were Jhonny Peralta and Aaron Boone—both average defensively at best.

In examining the hit locations from 2005, Sabathia got ripped when he allowed right-handed bats to pull the ball; this is more due to location execution than stuff—link.

His control is something to watch, but was his improved walk/strikeout ratio in prior years due, in part, to having pitched in a weaker division with less patience than he does now in the AL East? The Rays and Red Sox especially make the pitchers sing for their supper—has this been taken into account?

Because Cameron can’t know who’s going to be playing third and short behind Sabathia, to say that he’s going to be pitching “worse” in the upcoming years is presumptuous at best—something the stat people are supposedly dead-set against.

If Sabathia is trying to let the hitters hit the ball earlier in the count and it’s not because of declining or even drastically altered stuff, one would be safe in thinking that he can—if necessary—go back to looking for strikeouts.

The strategy-argument works both ways.

Sheehan’s column is deeper strange speculation than Cameron’s.

He mentions Sabathia’s size and weight:

This situation may be different because of the risks presented by the 6’7″, 290-pound Sabathia. This week’s news about his weight loss aside, Sabathia is a big guy who puts strain on his back and legs with each pitch. As he said this week, even leaving 25 pounds behind just gets him to his listed weight of 290 to start the spring. There have been precious few pitchers with Sabathia’s size in baseball history. Just 30 pitchers since 1901 have come in at at least 6’4″ and at least 260 pounds, and of that group, Sabathia is far and away the career leader in everything. Just three pitchers meeting those criteria have ever thrown a thousand innings in the majors, with active hurlers Carlos Zambrano and Aaron Harang joining Sabathia. Take away the height requirement and drop the standard to 250 pounds, and you still see Sabathia at the head of a group that includes just seven who pitched one thousand innings.

Okay.

Um, but wait…where’s the list of the other pitchers that were of that massive size and pitched in the big leagues?

Cameron—to his credit—mentions this plot hole as well.

I sent a couple of emails to people who would have access to such information to possibly get an outlet for an easy list of these mysterious entities that Sheehan alludes to without naming names.

Once I hear back, I’ll publish it.

But here’s what I suspect: Sheehan’s size-based argument against Sabathia was hindered by the pitchers who inhabited said list since they weren’t on a level with C.C. Sabathia; nor were they on a level with Harang or Zambrano.

If he listed them, I’m betting the prevailing response would be, “Who?!? You’re putting him in a category with Sabathia based on what? Because he’s big?”

Then you get to the “strain on (Sabathia’s) back and legs”.

Is Sheehan a physiologist? A pitching expert? Does he have encompassing knowledge of the history of injuries to pitchers who’ve been that big and thrown that many innings or was it something he threw into the pot to fool the reader into believing what he’s saying?

If Sabathia had a history of injuries to his knees and back, I’d say there’s a basis for this idea; but Sabathia has been amazingly durable during his career and his few injuries that have cost him time have been a strained oblique, a strained abdominal and a hyper-extended elbow.

No back problems; no knee problems. In fact, Cliff Lee—much smaller than Sabathia—has a far longer injury rap sheet than Sabathia and missed time this past season because of his back.

Is this a viable reason for the Yankees to hope Sabathia opts out? Or is it a baseless, groundless assertion to provide an underpinning—spindly though it may be—for a wobbly table of hoarded “facts” to prove a nonexistent set of tenets?

For all the stat people’s reliance on “objectivity”, they abandon the fealty to “truth” when it suits them. I’m reminded of an insinuation years ago—in fact, I think it was Cameron who made it—that Garrett Olson of the Mariners had shown evidence of being a useful reliever.

Where?

He can’t throw strikes, gives up a lot of homers and is an equal opportunity punching bag getting blasted by both righties and lefties.

What evidence was there that Olson could be “useful” apart from having nothing else to say about him?

There was none.

Finally, both Cameron and Sheehan say that Sabathia is replaceable.

By whom?

If the argument is based on finances and long-term cost control, then yes, the Yankees would be better off if Sabathia left and found cogs—from inside and outside the organization—to take his place in the rotation.

But this is reality.

What are the Yankees going to do next winter if Sabathia opts out and they let him leave?

Sheehan postulates that they could go for a 1000 run offense by signing Albert Pujols and shifting Mark Teixeira to DH. Not only would this clog up the DH spot for…well…forever, but they’re supposed to pay Pujols an A-Rod contract for the rest of his career? Wouldn’t they be better off simply extending Sabathia for half of what Pujols would cost?

And let me say right now that Albert Pujols, at his age and with his ties to the Cardinals, doesn’t want any part of New York as anything other than a lever to increase his paycheck with someone else.

Does Sheehan really believe that the Yankees front office—independent of GM Brian Cashman’s desires and fresh off of ownership overruling him on Soriano—will try and sell Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos—as a replacement for Sabathia even for one year? And after the way Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy of the vaunted “young core” of starting pitchers flamed out?

Really?

Then he names possible targets Matt Cain (the Giants aren’t letting him leave); Cole Hamels (given the age of the other pitchers, they’re going to lock him up); Jered Weaver (after Jeff Weaver‘s experience in New York, is he going to want to go to the Yankees?); and Zack Greinke (good luck with all of that baggage).

The only way the Yankees could conceivably “replace” Sabathia in 2012 would be to trade for Chris Carpenter. As great a pitcher as Carpenter is, his injury history is like the medieval Wound Man charts favored by Dr. Hannibal Lecter for his basement amusements; and he’s 5-years older than Sabathia.

So then what?

Of course, with the supposedly bursting farm system, they could make a trade for a young pitcher like Ubaldo Jimenez should he come available, but that’s a major risk for a team to let Sabathia walk and hope that Jimenez comes available; and if you believe that the trading team isn’t going to hold the Yankees desperation in that instance to extract a more significant portion of the farm system to fill that hole, you’re dreaming.

If it were any team other than the Yankees—a team with payroll constraints; with a patient fan base; with less of an imperative to win immediately and, more importantly, sell tickets; and to have that star power that a Sabathia brings—I’d say yes, these thoughts make sense.

But it’s not.

And they don’t.

It’s the Yankees.

They need Sabathia. They have the money to pay him if he does opt out. And they don’t have any viable options to fill that hole in the rotation with a pitcher of commensurate star power and on-field accomplishments.

Cameron’s and Sheehen’s columns are not manuals of evenhanded and intelligent ways to build an organization. They’re tricks designed to mislead—calculated omissions—because the facts don’t bolster the arguments. When that happens, it’s best to leave said facts out and hope no one notices.

You’re smart enough to see through the puffery disguised as well-thought-out and objective analysis because it’s anything but.

Confusing those who are afraid to protest diminishes credibility. Credibility that isn’t really there to begin with as long as convenience is placed before intellectual honesty.

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  1. #1 by Joe on February 20, 2011 - 6:54 pm

    I enjoyed this post. The one thing you could have left out was taking a shot at Dave Cameron by saying he is a stat-zombie, and is still clinging to the Moneyball-farce. Whether you think he is, is besides the point. It took away from respectually-disagreeing, which is fine. The rest of the post was really just you disagreeing with these two opinions. And was well-written and well-thought out. I would be a little concerned with his weight, and declining K rate. But I hardly think he is going to become an albatross if he doesn’t opt-out. And even if he did, this is the one organization best-suited to take that hit. Josh Beckett isn’t the same body-type. But I would feel more comfortable moving forward with Sabathia for the next five, than I would with Beckett or Lackey the next four years (And I am actually confident that Beckett and Lackey bounce back). Five years, $115 million is certainly risky for a pitcher that is going to be on the wrong side of 30, but sometimes I think it can be overblown. If this were a mid-market team, then I would hope for the opt-out to be exercised. But it isn’t a mid-market team, it’s the Yankees. However, if CC DOES opt-out, and wants an even longer deal — which he obviously will. Then I would let him walk. The deal getting even riskier, does not help the Yankees. Also, Joe Sheehan used to work for BP. So yes, he enjoys the numbers.

    • #2 by CHRIS on February 26, 2011 - 4:29 am

      @Joe if CC wanted to opt out and re-sign for 4 years 99 millions dollars then I wouldn’t be against bringing him back but of course then why opt out at all since you only pick up 5 million dollars from what you are already making. No instead he wants to opt out and got for another 6-7 year deal worth 140 million dollars and that is just the dumbest things the Yankees could ever do IMO.

      Everyone keeps saying even if he tanks the Yankees can handle it but if he gets to be a year mid 4 ERA and Teixeira’s defense and power starts to decline, Arod becomes an everyday DH hitting 20 HRs and Jeter can’t play a single position on the field without being a defensive liability and hitting .250-.265 all of them making the biggest chunk of the Yankee salary how do you just handle that?

      Draw the line in the sand like they should have done with Arod and let him leave, trade for a starter or wait until the following offseason when some nice names are FA and maybe Banuelos or Betances will develop into a nice starting pitcher.

  2. #3 by CHRIS on February 26, 2011 - 4:22 am

    How are you going to say that Sabathia has never had a knee problem when he had knee surgery just this offseason? The fact that he not only had surgery but felt the need to lose 25 pounds because of the stress on said knee actually does make perfect since with the article written.

    Unless you are trying to change facts as you have claimed these men have.

    I also don’t see the logic in how he could just “go back to looking for strikeouts”, when you consider he is now in his 30′s (and looking for an extension until he is 38) and no longer throws as hard as he once did, pitchers don’t just change to throwing more 2 seamers just to get more movement they usually do it because they need more movement thanks to losing velocity on his fastball. CC is no longer the fireballer he once was as a 26 year old Indian and if he does opt out I hope he leaves, just as it would have been dumb to give Cliff Lee 5-7 years it would be dumb to do the same with Sabathia.

    Besides Sabathia isn’t the best pitcher in the league and unlike when he signed the contract I don’t think he is even in the discussion for that anymore, he was never better than Doc Halladay and now he has been surpassed by Lee, Felix, Josh Johnson, Ubaldo Jiminez, Lester and before the TJ surgery Wainwright. So if he isn’t the best pitcher in the league why give him more money than all of the rest, especially when you already made him the highest paid pitcher once already.

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