If they were free agents today: Lee or Sabathia?


Sometimes the choice is obvious. After the 2008 season the Yankees needed an ace. CC Sabathia had just become a free agent. After 2010 the Yankees have their ace, but certainly need a pitching upgrade. It just so happens that Cliff Lee is a free agent. In both instances the top pitcher was the Yankees top target. It didn’t take all-night strategy sessions to determine their interest. But what if the two had become free agents in the same off-season, and the Yankees had enough payroll for just one? Which one would they sign?

(Duane Burleson/AP)

In terms of current abilities Lee holds the advantage. Over the last three seasons Lee has a better ERA, FIP, and xFIP. He also has walked fewer batters and had allowed fewer home runs. He also has the second highest WAR during that period, 0.6 behind Roy Halladay, despite having pitched 53.1 fewer innings. That isn’t to knock Sabathia’s abilities. He has been phenomenal in his own right during those same three years, producing a 3.07 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and 3.55 xFIP. But in terms of the guy you want starting 30-plus games in 2011, Lee is the superior choice.

When we consider a long-term contract Sabathia gains some ground. He is a full two years younger than Lee, which helps mitigate a multi-year deal. Then there’s the matter of track record. The Indians put Sabathia in their rotation to start the 2001 season, and he’s been a mainstay ever since. Lee, on the other hand, had cups of coffee in 2002 and 2003 before breaking in full-time for 2004. He also wasn’t spectacular in his early years and eventually needed a minor league assignment in 2007 to figure himself out.

(Mark Duncan/AP)

In his career Sabathia has pitched 2127 innings in 10 seasons. In those innings he has produced a 3.57 ERA, 3.58 FIP, and 3.80 xFIP. Those are excellent career numbers, and Sabathia has outperformed them ever since entering his prime (circa the 2006 season). Lee has thrown 1409 innings in nine seasons total, though he has pitched more than 179 innings in just six. Even with his recent dominance his career numbers do not stack up to Sabathia’s: 3.85 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 4.16 xFIP. Over the long haul, Sabathia is clearly the more proven pitcher.

Health also works in Sabathia’s favor. In his 10 seasons he has missed just 110 days total due to injury, and has never spent a day on the 60-day DL. The last time he hit the disabled list was at the start of the 2006 season. Since then he has missed zero days — the only time he showed he was even remotely injured was when he was pulled from a start in Florida last year. That is literally his entire injury history since April 2006. Lee, on the other hand, has missed 141 days in his career, including one 60-day DL stint, though that was all the way back in 2003. Still, the difference is huge. Sabathia’s 110 missed days are spread over 10 years of service. Lee’s 141 days are spread over seven years.

Cliff Lee might be the guy to choose on a one-year deal. In terms of current abilities, it does appear that he’s a better pitcher than CC Sabathia. But when choosing which player more deserves a multi-year deal, the advantage shifts to Sabathia. He’s been at it longer, is younger, and has a cleaner injury history. Lee’s numbers in the past three years might be better, but not to the degree that would make him a better long-term risk. Thankfully, the Yankees don’t have to make this choice. They can have both pitchers in their 2011 rotation. But forced to choose between the two for a free agent contract, give me Sabathia every day.

Categories : Musings


  1. All Star Carl says:

    Give me both. Why the hell not?

  2. More fun hypothetical: If Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia were both free agents after the 2008 season, chances that the Yankees signed both of them? I say close to 90%.

  3. JobaWockeeZ says:

    CC for me.

  4. YankeesJunkie says:

    I have liked CC going to the Yankees ever since the end of the 2007 season. My thinking was basic back then: The Yankees don’t give up prospects to get Santana and can spend the same amount of money to sign CC and the Yankees are good enough to win the 2008 WS without Santana. Can’t be right on all accounts. CC has been a beast ever since coming to the majors and there is no reason to think that is going to stop very soon considering he is in the prime of his career and not only does he have stuff he knows how to pitch.

  5. Andy In Sunny Daytona says:

    FACT: Every World Series Cliff Lee has pitched in, his team has lost.

    Not a winner.

    Good day.

    • YankeesJunkie says:

      Best. Argument. Ever.

      If the Yankees want a real winner and improve this season they should sign Robert Horry. All he does is win and there is no reason not to expect the winning in the NBA to transfer to the MLB. Robert Horry, Yankee Ace.

      • Andy In Sunny Daytona says:

        Best. Argument. Ever.

        If the Yankees want a real winner and improve this season they should sign Robert Horry. All he does is win and there is no reason not to expect the winning in the NBA to transfer to the MLB. Robert Horry, Yankee Ace.

        This is all I read.


      • Clay Bellinger says:


    • Jimmy McNulty says:

      You can expect to see this argument quite a bit if they sign him…in April they’ll talk of the Cliff Lee curse, and how he’s never won a WS.

      • Andy In Sunny Daytona says:

        Yeah, I know. I’m sure ESPN-NY has 40 articles in the queue ready to go about Lee’s inability to be a winner.

        • Jimmy McNulty says:

          I’m sure Gammons has several pieces about how he couldn’t lead his team to victory when they needed him the most, provided he signs with the Yankees. If he stays in The Lone Star State he’ll write a “Yankee Killer” piece when the season starts and when the playoffs role around.

        • Sam P. says:

          Fun fact: All those negative articles ESPN-NY has got ready to go are penned by Wallace Matthews.

  6. mike c says:

    sabathia is more durable, but with a guy that big you gotta be afraid of major injuries as he gets older

  7. Jimmy McNulty says:

    The career stats comparison really doesn’t work for a guy like Lee who had a late career revelation. Suppose Curt Schilling were a FA in 1996…you wouldn’t want to sign him because he’s been merely just good. There’s other examples of guys having late career surges. Cliff Lee 2008- is clearly a different pitcher than Cliff Lee-2007. Yes, Sabathia’s better pedigree works to his favor, but I hardly see what shit seasons in 2004 and 2007 have to do with Cliff Lee now. Leaning Cliff Lee.

    • Rob NY says:

      By that logic statistical analysis beyond 2 or 3 years has no real predictive value. The reason CC’s pedigree is a huge advantage is because it allows us to make more solid predictions about how he will pitch going forward. Meanwhile, because lee’s talent has really only blossomed over the past 3 seasons it isn’t as sure a thing to what he will be in 3 more. He’s more likely to fall off a Cliff.

  8. Hughesus Christo says:

    Lee’s injury history worries me a bit. If we’re handing out megadeals I go with CC. One year, Lee.

  9. Bryan L says:

    Agree 100 percent. Long term, I got CC. Errday.

  10. p. allen says:

    Regarding the numbers for the past two years and Lee’s being slightly better, keep in mind too that Sabathia was pitching in the AL East while Lee was pitching in the AL Central, NL East and AL West, so this may make it seem even closer.

  11. Jerome S says:

    I believe that the obvious answer is both.

  12. farentheight says:

    Arod to Lee: So how does it feel to not have a ring?

  13. ZZ says:

    I would actually take Lee over Sabathia on a long term deal.

    I think with someone like Lee who has had a unique career path we need to dig deeper into their respective ages and track records.

    While, Lee is two years older he has also thrown 718 less innings than Sabathia. So, while younger CC has 3.5 more seasons of wear and tear on his arm than Lee. In terms of track record neither of these guys are a question mark going forward, so the length of time they have been good doesn’t carry a lot of weight IMO. If we had questions about Lee’s performance going forward or if he had only been good for 1 season, I would put much more emphasis on it. However, I believe at some point once you prove yourself like Lee has, that is sufficient. For example, what does CC’s longer track record really mean? Is he a better bet than Lee to continue to pitch well because of it? I would say no.

    Then in terms of particular skilsets Lee’s elite control and impeccable mechanics give him the edge in aging for me. CC tends to go through little mechanical flaws every season and sometimes more than once, while Lee seems to be more consistent to me because of his mechanics IMO. In addition to great mechanics, Lee’s elite control make me think he will age better than Sabathia.

    I love CC, but I’m taking Lee.

    • Steve H says:

      How many starts of Lee’s have you watched to determine his consistency in his delivery? When he was getting crushed this summer do you think he may have been going through some of the same struggles CC occasionally goes thru? Every pitcher has issues at times with their mechanics. One of CC’s greatest strengths is that he is very athletic and that he has a very repeatable delivery which is a big reason why he has remained healthy his whole career. Part of the reason why CC has thrown so many more innings than Lee is because he has been able to stay healthy. In an admitted strawman argument, is Rich Harden a better bet for a long term deal than CC because he has less wear and tear on his arm? Of course not.

      • ZZ says:

        Of course every pitcher has issues with their mechanics at times. They aren’t robots. However, there is clearly a scale at at which to determine who is better at doing it. You don’t have to be perfect to be better.

        Lee went through his back issues this summer, which I would think is pretty safe to assume caused his mechanical issues. Other than that though, barring injury, Lee is as good as it gets when talking about repeating your delivery and sound mechanics.

        CC while still great compared to a normal pitcher at repeating his delivery, is not on Lee’s level or Halladay’s level or other pitchers with impeccable mechanics. He goes through stretches, sometimes long stretches, where he really struggles with that. Both him and Eiland have talked about this a lot. He doesn’t get rocked when he has these issues, because he is still great, but it can be a problem. He can be a streaky pitcher as you can see watching him go on these stretches where he is flat out dominant every season and then stretches where he is pretty hittable by CC standards.

        In terms of throwing more innings, I am not sure health is the biggest reason. Lee was a very late bloomer, while CC was a very early bloomer.

        In terms of the Rich Harden thing I don’t even know how to respond to that to be honest. One of the points of my post was that in these unique circumstances that Lee has had in his career I feel we need to dig deeper into his particular circumstances. I was trying to stay away from comparisons just like that and isolate these two particular pitchers. It is fantastic how durable CC has been, but he has thrown a lot of innings in his career. I have a similar concern about Felix Hernandez going forward to try to illustrate that point a bit further.

        • Steve H says:

          CC while still great compared to a normal pitcher at repeating his delivery, is not on Lee’s level or Halladay’s level or other pitchers with impeccable mechanics.

          Says who?

          • ZZ says:

            CC, Eiland, Joe Girardi, Cleveland’s coaches when CC was coming up.

            It came up a couple times this year. Eiland has spoken about it in detail what CC’s issues are with his mechanics.

            Then there is just watching CC and seeing the “hot” and “cold” streaks he goes through every season and noticing the reason behind that.

            Then there is watching Lee or Halladay and listening to any coach who has worked with them rave about how perfect they are with their mechanics.

            • Steve H says:

              CC, Eiland, Joe Girardi, Cleveland’s coaches were talking about Lee, Halladay and “other pitchers with impeccable mechanics” in comparison to CC? When was this?

              • ZZ says:

                They were talking about CC’s issues when he loses his mechanics and delivery and the issue he has with it every season.

                You can then compare that to what is said about Lee.

              • ZZ says:

                You can also check the release points from the pitch FX data if you’d like. Won’t be difficult to spot.

          • ZZ says:

            Watching Lee, almost every pitch he throws is from the same release point and with the same arm speed.

            It is incredible to watch.

    • ZZ, reinforcing my opinion that he waits to see what other people think just so he can take the opposite side! :P

      As a counterpoint to your argument, when Lee’s mechanics do get messed up for whatever reason (as evidenced by the back injury that affected him this year) he gets lit up to Bad-AJ levels. CC, who was battling a knee injury all year, still managed to string together some very good starts. To draw a conclusion from it, I think CC gets by better when he “doesn’t have his good stuff”. Call it grinding out a game or whatever, but when Lee is off (which, admittedly, doesn’t happen often) he gets smacked around badly.

      Based on that and CC’s durability I’d have to take him if forced to.

      • ZZ says:

        Yeah, it is definitely an issue when Lee loses his mechanics or has something a little off because he relies on having impeccable control and have something wrong with your mechanics is really going to affect that.

        I am just not sure how often we can expect that to happen with Lee. It happened this past summer but from following Lee the past few years I haven’t noticed it be a recurring problem with him.

  14. Poopy Pants says:

    Most people are mentioning a lack of confidence in Lee’s health, but CC is morbidly obese and just had knee surgery. The clock is ticking on him as well.

  15. nathan says:

    Without any hesitation I would vote for CC too. Lee’s history just scares me. He also had two different injuries last year: an oblique injury to start the season and the back injury (which he hid and got criticized for by Ryan) at Texas. I am forgetting the injury he had while with Philly. And he will turn 33 soon.

    Right now it looks like a given that Yanks will offer the most money, i just hope they are atleast sensible with the years. 4 is ideal, 5 i can cringe and accept but 6+ is a disaster.

  16. joeytime says:

    what are the chances that Cliff Lee get the 7 years 162 he is asking for??? Can anyone see that happening?

  17. MikeD says:

    My choice would come down to the length of the contract. I give the edge to Lee right now in ace level, but I’m not convinced that a year or two from now he might slip behind CC.

    Lee’s average fastball sits around 91. He’ll be 33 next season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him in the Andy Pettitte velocity territory, around 89, in three years. While he seems the type to remain effective with reduced velocity, my guess is he will no longer be considered an ace as he’ll become a little more hittable, which means he would slip into the number two position in the rotation. Sabathia’s average fastball sits around 93, and he hits 96 at times, so it gives him a better chance to remain effective as he ages. CC is also younger. On the downside, who knows what impact his heavy body will have on him. There is no comparable pitcher. Yet he is an excellent athlete and has been injury free, and has carried his weight through his career, during which time he got better from his early 20s to his late 20s, so he could very well be pitching when he’s 40.

    So if we’re looking at a six year deal, then I’d go with CC. If we could keep it to a four year deal (impossible), I’d go with Lee.

    • joeytime says:

      Agree with most of what you say, I’ve seen Lee’s fastball against the Yanks in the 2010 ALCS hitting 94-95 at times… Lee also has considerably less inning on his arm compared to CC… Must be taken into consideration…

      **I’d love to know how the meeting went today…
      I heard that if Lee’s agent was accepting offers that the Yanks were prepared to make their “Best Offer”…!…!..!

  18. Evan says:

    I’m surprised that nobody brought up the fact that CC’s just a more athletic dude…I know that sounds funny given the way he looks, but he played football, basketball and baseball in high school, and excelled at all of them. He was an all-conference tight end, and received offers to play at UCLA…I get that he’s a bit portly, but the dude is a straight up athlete. So with that said, I think that CC is the safer bet in terms of injuries, and I’d be willing to bet that he will pitch well into his forties, a la Roger Clemens.

    In terms of the better pitcher, I think Lee has the better stuff, but not by much, and I think that CC’s ability to pitch well even when he only has his B or C game makes him a better overall pitcher. CC’s just the kind of pitcher I trust 100%, no matter what the situation. That’s not to say that I don’t trust Lee, but I feel like if I had to choose, no matter how I look at it, CC’s my pick.

  19. toad says:

    I agree with the post. I think CC would be less risky over a long-term contract than Lee.

    Is it my imagination, or are big fat guys more durable than average?

  20. Greg Davenport says:

    I have never seen a more dominating pitcher than lee in the past five or so years. When he was with the phillies and faced the bombers he was over powering them. Although I am a yankee forever and love CC one on one it’s lee. However I question lee’s heart when he starts getting bounced around. There is no quit in CC. The money and brand are in place for CC to finish as a yank but the supporting cast is a rebuilding project that would challenge any GM

  21. Greg Davenport says:

    We watched every televised game the yanks played in 2010. They won many games via walkoff hits,homeruns and just oldtime good fundamentals. I also believe they had their share of good luck. With the same line up and division rivals spending like drunken salesmen it’s going to be a long,long season unless they get more bats to slug it out and or arms to keep it close

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