New York Yankees: CC Sabathia lives up to huge contract expectations

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 21: CC Sabathia /

When CC Sabathia signed a mega-contract with the New York Yankees before 2009, it wasn’t likely to end well. Against the odds he surpassed expectations.

The New York Yankees’ season is over and so is CC Sabathia’s. With free agency on the horizon, there’s a good chance ALCS game 7 was his last appearance as a Yankee. Things didn’t go as planned last night, but in many ways it’s miraculous he made it there at all.

The Contract

28-year-old CC Sabathia was the hottest commodity in baseball in the winter of 2008-2009. He won the Cy Young award with the Cleveland Indians in 2007, and single-handedly willed the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs after a mid-season trade in 2008, posting a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts.

After flirting with the Brewers and his hometown San Francisco Giants, he signed a 7 year, $161 million deal with the Yankees with an opt-out after the third year. The deal gave him an average salary of $23 million per year, second in baseball only to Alex Rodriguez.

Bad History for Big Deals

In hindsight, we know now that these long-term contracts rarely work out. Since 2009, 19 MLB players have signed deals for $160 million or more.

Player, TeamContract2016 bWAR2017 bWAR2016-2017 bWAR averageYears remainingFinal season age
Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins13 years, $325M2.57.65.11138
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers8 years, $248M4.9-0.82.1842
Robinson Cano, Mariners10 years, $240M7.33.45.4640
Albert Pujols, Angels10 years, $240M1.4-1.8-0.2441
Joey Votto, Reds10 years, $225M4.07.55.8740
David Price, Red Sox7 years, $217M3.11.72.4536
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers7 years, $215M4.43.23.8332
Prince Fielder, Tigers9 years, $214M-1.4-1.4
retired in 2016 with 4 years remaining
Max Scherzer, Nationals7 years $210M6.27.36.8436
Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks6 years, $206.5M1.04.42.7437
Jason Heyward, Cubs8 years, $184M1.62.32.0633
Joe Mauer, Twins8 years, $184M2.33.42.9135
Mark Teixeira, Yankees8 years, $180M-0.6-0.6ended in 201636
Justin Verlander, Tigers7 years, $180M6.66.36.5236
Felix Hernandez, Mariners7 years, $175M1.60.81.2334
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals7 years, $175M3.36.54.9634
Buster Posey, Giants9 years, $167M4.64.04.3434
Chris Davis, Orioles7 years, $161M3.0-0.11.5536
CC Sabathia, Yankees7 years, $161M3.02.82.9ended in 201736

Eleven of these players averaged less than 3.0 bWAR in 2016-2017. The eight that were better than 3.0 bWAR have an average of 5.4 years remaining on their contracts, so at least some of them are likely to turn sour.

The Extension

Sabathia’s first three years in New York were as good as advertised. He averaged 6.1 bWAR while topping 230 IP and earning Cy Young consideration each year. However, the opt-out clause in his contract came due following 2011. Faced with losing their ace, the Yankees added an additional season and $25M onto his deal with a vesting option for 2017 at the same price. As quoted by Brian Hoch of,

"I wanted to stay here, I wanted to be here, I loved it here. I love pitching here, I love being a part of the Yankees organization, and I’m so happy to be able to come to an agreement.-CC Sabathia, October 31, 2011"

The Decline

One year after singing the extension and canceling his opt-out, Sabathia ran out of gas. His ERA ballooned to 4.78 in 2013 and he led the league in earned runs. In 2014, injuries limited him to 8 GS with a 5.28 ERA. He returned to start 29 games in 2015 but with a sub-par 4.73 ERA. His fastball velocity averaged 94.78 MPH in 2011, but sagged to 91.22 MPH in 2015: the last year of his original contract.

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"All good things eventually come to an end, and the Yankees and Sabathia should realize that the good times are long gone.-Matt Goldman, Beyond the Box Score, July 12, 2015"

Making matters worse, Sabathia voluntarily left the team on the final day of the regular season to treat his addiction to alcohol.

"Here we were about to go to the playoffs, where arms are everything, and I was telling my boss that I physically and mentally couldn’t be a part of it.-CC Sabathia, The Players Tribune, March 7, 2016"

The Resurrection

Sabathia and the Yankees were now into the extension years of the deal. The 35-year-old lefty had exactly one quality season since voiding his opt-out clause (2012), and the extension looked like a costly mistake by any measure. Pitchers in their mid-thirties with declining velocity almost never regain success.

Somehow, Sabathia defied baseball’s aging curve. He lowered his ERA to 3.91 over 30 starts, good for 3.0 bWAR. He tied Gary Sanchez as the third most valuable Yankee by bWAR behind Masahiro Tanaka (5.4) and Brett Gardner (3.4).

His resurgent 2016 campaign triggered his vesting option for 2017. He responded with a 3.69 ERA, his lowest since 2012. The Yankees trusted him enough to give him the ball twice each in the ALDS and ALCS, including both of the deciding games.

Think about where you were as a human being in 2009. For many of us, our lives have changed dramatically. Hopefully you’re better off, but maybe you aren’t. Chances are, you’re different than you were. You’ve grown and changed in profound ways: personally, professionally, romantically, and others.

Next: Houston Astros advance to second ever World Series

Baseball players are no different. It’s impossible to calculate the odds of a pitcher signing a seven-year deal (that turned out to be nine) remaining a valued member of the rotation all the way through the end. Factor in age, velocity decline, and personal demons, and the chances seem astronomical. Sabathia and the Yankees may not have beaten the Astros yesterday, but they sure did beat the odds.