The Commish Online www.thecommishonline.com
Sabbatical for Sabathia?
August 19, 2008
Frequent reader Ben Cleveland emailed me with an interesting question regarding Milwaukee's use of CC Sabathia:
Commish, I'm interested in your take in how the Brewers have been working (perhaps overworking) their rent-a-stud CC Sabathia.
Last night the Brewers had him take the mound in the ninth inning with a 7 run lead and ran his pitch count over 130. An easy mop up spot for your shakiest bullpen guy and you decide to push the needle on your best hope for playoff success? Sabathia regularly flips the triple digit odometer- has he pitched less then 100 since his debut?
I understand the interest in allowing your pitcher to get the complete game, but Sabathia already leads the NL in complete games and he only came onboard in July.
It seems to me that the Brewers want to get every dime out of their rental (they know he'll be in another jersey next season), but at what cost to the athlete? Should we be concerned about how the Brewers are managing one of the top arms in the game? Is the club acting inappropriately, or acting within the lines and reality of the modern game? Is this a new paradigm for small market teams to deal with a large market world? What do you think?
One important thing to consider in the way Ned Yost and the Brewers use Sabathia is that it is unlikely they would intentionally overwork Sabathia just to spite others down the road, especially given last year's circumstance, where CC seemed unbeatable much of the regular season only to struggle in the playoffs.
With a playoff berth on Milwaukee's mind, their intent is likely to keep Sabathia's arm in as good as shape as possible for another 7 - 10 weeks. Any reader of TCO knows that I am not a fan of adhering to strict pitch counts, but that doesn't mean I believe in abusing pitcher's arms either. Each arm is different, and while a guy like Sabathia is used to a heavy workload where 10 extra pitches probably won't hurt, I wouldn't let a guy like Rich Harden throw 125 pitches after being babied for so long. The arm, like any body part, needs to be strengthened. The trick with pitching is finding the balance between strengthening and not abusing it. Let's take an unbiased look at how the Brewers have fared with CC so far:
In 2008, Sabathia has thrown less than 100 pitches just four times and twice occurred in April when pitchers are still getting "stretched out." One other time occurred with Cleveland (98 pitches) and the last time was in CC's first start with Milwaukee (97 pitches). So far, so good.
Cleveland has always extended the leash on Sabathia, letting him eclipse 110 or more pitches eight times in his 18 starts this season (44% of the time). Milwaukee has let Sabathia go 110+ pitches five times in his nine starts (55% of the time). Still nothing alarming.
Looking at the career numbers, however, does reveal some concerning statistics. Using baseball-reference.com's fantastic PI Game Finder, Sabathia's pitch counts can be easily sorted for every game in his career. The burly pitcher has thrown 115+ pitches 45 times in his career and, based on the results, seems quite comfortable in the 115-120 pitch zone. What's alarming is that in just two short months, Milwaukee has let Sabathia ring up his highest pitch count ever (last night's 130), two of his top four pitch counts, and three of the top 10 pitch counts. Granted, we're talking the difference between 122 and 124 in some cases, but to answer the question about abuse, yes, I would say last night's 130 pitches with a 7-run lead in the ninth inning qualifies as not being aware of the ultimate goal, which is to get this guy humming in October.
I still maintain that pitch counts are overrated and that the best way to climb a mountain is to practice climbing a mountain. If you want your ace to throw a complete game in the NLCS, you'd better be ready to let him give it a go in August. The key is being practical about it, and at this point, it looks like Milwaukee might want to ease up the load of CC's shoulder at least a little bit.
I don't think the Brewers are acting inappropriately, and I don't think they are intentionally doing anything abusive to Sabathia. Baseball is too much of a fraternity to purposely sabotage an asset like Sabathia. When guys like Mark Cuban have difficulty breaking into the business despite having the cash, those that are already involved are not going to risk their livelihoods just for the chance to possibly "stick it" to a player's future team.
In all, managing a pitcher's health has been the biggest mystery in baseball, with theories ranging from total rest to total use. The Brewers apparently feel that Sabathia can withstand plenty of use, and the near future will tell us if they were right.