CC Sabathia, now 37, is having a great postseason. Across three starts (15.2 IP), he’s allowed just 11 hits, 7 walks, and four earned runs. In his most recent start, in game three of the ALCS against a surging Houston Astros team, he provided six innings of shutout baseball to fuel an 8-1 Yankees win. It’s prompted some to wonder if the former Cy Young winner and 2009 ALCS MVP and World Series champion, who is a free agent whenever New York’s current postseason run ends, belongs in the Hall of Fame. At the moment, a modest margin of surveyed fans says yes:
Is CC Sabathia a Hall of Famer
— Frank Fleming (@NjTank99) October 17, 2017
When I saw that survey, I thought of Barry Larkin, a player who, for whatever reason, sits in my mind as a weaker HOF inductee. In 19 seasons, all as a shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, Larkin produced 66.9 career WARP. So far, in seventeen seasons for three different teams, Sabathia has contributed 65.2 WARP. It isn’t unreasonable to imagine Sabathia pitching another year or two and eclipsing Larkin by this measure.
For a number of reasons, though, such a comparison of Sabathia and Larkin may not be the best way to approach this question. That an active starting pitcher likely will accumulate more wins above replacement than a career shortstop allegedly on the fringes of Cooperstown following his election on a circumstantially weak ballot doesn’t really shed a lot of light on Sabathia’s standing among the all-time greats, as a similar comparison to another supposed borderline Yankees starter, Mike Mussina (101.2 WARP in eighteen seasons), illustrates. (Actually, that Mussina comp might be significant enough to stop the conversation right here, but let’s press on for the fun of it.)
A better way to begin to get a quick handle on a player’s Hall-of-Fame standing is to look at JAWS. Its creator, Jay Jaffe, explains:
JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the baseball-reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement to estimate a player’s total hitting, pitching and defensive value to account for the wide variations in scoring levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history and from ballpark to ballpark. A player’s JAWS is the average of his career WAR total and that of his peak, which I define as his best seven years. All three are useful for comparative purposes, as Hall of Famers come in different shapes and sizes. Some—Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson—dominated over periods of time cut short by injuries, military service or the color line. Others such as Eddie Murray, Don Sutton and Dave Winfield showed remarkable staying power en route to major milestones. While it’s convenient to believe that every Hall of Famer must do both to be worthy of a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, they can’t all be Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Willie Mays, or the institution would merely become a tomb, sealed off because so few have come along to measure up in their wake.
For the purposes of comparison, players are classified at the position where they accrued the most value, which may be different from where they played the most games, particularly as players tend to shift to positions of less defensive responsibility—and thus less overall value—as they age. Think Ernie Banks at shortstop (54.8 WAR in 1,125 games there from 1953 to ’61) as opposed to first base (12.8 WAR in 1,259 games there from ’62 to ’71). A small handful of enshrined players, including pioneers and Negro Leaguers with less than 10 years of major league service, are excluded from the calculations; Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, for example, had major league careers too short to use as yardsticks for non-Negro League players.
According to JAWS, Sabathia currently would make for a below-average Hall-of-Famer, but he wouldn’t be an outlier among enshrined pitchers. Notable Hall members with a lower JAWS mark include (in ascending order) Catfish Hunter, Dizzy Dean, Whitey Ford, Koufax, Early Wynn, and Don Sutton. By contrast, the following (in descending order) are among the notable players with a higher JAWS mark not in Cooperstown: Curt Schilling, Mussina, Roy Halladay, Rick Reuschel, Kevin Brown, Luis Tiant, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, David Cone, and Bret Saberhagen.
Sabathia is approaching 3,000 career strikeouts (currently 2,846), a not-insignificant milestone that probably will mean less whenever he retires than it did when he first broke into the majors in 2001 in light of the current strikeout environment. Still, it seems it will need to be things like that and additional significant postseason success that shore up Sabathia’s Hall-of-Fame resume, as another year or two of below-peak regular-season numbers aren’t likely to do much for him through JAWS-like eyes.
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