One of the selling points of CC Sabathia’s Cy Young case is the incredible volume of innings he’s amassed this season. Fans have long grown accustomed to the bulky lefty throwing up outsized innings pitched totals, and for this reason it’s easy to gloss over his prolificity. This year, he’s thrown 176.2 innings, a number eclipsed by only Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers. In the last two years, he’s thrown the third most innings in baseball, behind Halladay and Felix Hernandez. In the last five years no one in baseball has thrown more innings than Sabathia. He’s thrown 1,138.1, leading Roy Halladay by 8 innings. The next closest is Dan Haren with 1072.2. If you add in the seventy some-odd innings he’s thrown in the postseason since 2007, his lead over Halladay only widens further.
This is a cause for pride and for concern. Sabathia has earned his reputation as a durable ace, and there’s no current reason to think he’ll suddenly get injured or break down. Still one could be forgiven for wondering if he’ll be able to do this in perpetuity. If he won’t, then when exactly will the decline begin? This is a particular relevant question this season, as CC is currently on pace to threaten to eclipse his past innings pitched and total pitches thrown totals. Below is a chart detailing the past five years of work, and projecting what he might achieve if current trends hold.
As it currently stands, Sabathia is throwing around 108 pitches per start. This is a mark reminiscent of his last contract year with the Milwaukee Brewers. If he keeps up his current pace, Sabathia will pitch close to 250 innings again and throw around 3700 pitches, 100 pitches or so higher than what he did in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and, again, closer to his 2008 campaign. Of course, the postseason counts too. It doesn’t show up in Sabathia’s initial Baseball-Reference page, but the pitches he’s hurled with that left arm count just as much (if not a little more, given the stress of the event) than the ones in April.
Obviously, the 2011 totals could vary a great deal depending on how far the Yankees go into the postseason. In the scenario that minimizes the number of postseason pitches thrown for Sabathia (the worst-case scenario for the Yankees, they go home in the ALDS), Sabathia makes one start. In the scenario that maximizes the number of postseason pitches thrown, Sabathia makes 8 starts (2 in the ALDS, 3 in the ALCS and 3 in the WS – heart-attack city). Spitballing it, his 2009 numbers seem like a fair enough estimate for what he might do in this year’s postseason, but even so he averaged 7 innings and close to 110 pitches per outing that year. Scaling it back to 5 starts, 500 pitches and 30 innings is a bit more conservative. This isn’t any sort of serious projection, to be clear; no one knows how far the Yankees will go into October and how many starts Sabathia will make. There’s nothing wrong with spitballing though as long as you admit you’re spitballing it! Here’s the cumulative data on Sabathia, including the regular season and postseason.
To recap, Sabathia is likely looking at around 250 innings and 3,650-3,700 pitches in the regular season. This would be his highest mark since 2008. If he throws 5 postseason starts of six innings and 100 pitches apiece (a conservative estimate that could vary wildly), his innings pitched and pitches thrown totals will creep up to an all-time high, well past the 265.4 IP and 4,134 pitches thrown mark he set in back in 2009. It’s not inconceivable that he could crack 280 innings and 4,200 pitches. If he were to make 2 starts in the ALDS, 3 in the ALCS and 3 in the World Series, he’d easily surpass the 300 innings pitched mark.
This is all a moot point if the Yankees get bounced before the World Series, but it’s at least worth monitoring for several reasons. For one, the last time he cracked 250 innings in the regular season (after pitching on short rest for what seemed like weeks) he was ineffective in his only NLDS start with the Brewers. He looked run-down, and the Brewers went home early. It doesn’t even need to be said, but the Yankees need a sharp CC to do well this October. Secondly, Sabathia will likely opt-out of his current contract and re-up with the Yankees on another long-term deal this winter. If he’s going to be around for awhile and making big bucks, it might be a good idea to look after his long-term interests.
One easy way to do this would be to continue to roll with the six-man rotation in August. As Moshe Mandel of The Yankee Analysts noted in great detail, the six-man rotation this month would result in one less start for CC Sabathia. Hughes and Nova both pitched well in their last outings, so there doesn’t seem to be huge harm in allowing them to continue to battle it out this month, and hopefully it would result in slightly lower innings pitched and pitches thrown totals for Sabathia. He’ll still have ridiculously high numbers by the standard of mostly any other pitcher, but there’s only so much that can be done. The Yankees should do what they can to keep him fresh for October and beyond, but at some point they’ll simply have to roll the dice and hope for the best.