If you’e reading this, you know what a star pitcher CC Sabathia is today. In each of the last 6 years, Sabathia has qualified for the ERA title with an ERA+ of at least 136. He’s the only pitcher since 1901 with a qualifying ERA+ of at least 130 in each of his 6th through 11th years. (For the rest of this post, I’ll use the term “star season” to mean a year qualified for the ERA title with ERA+ of at least 130.)

But before he became a star, Sabathia was a rotation fixture for 5 middling years, averaging a 107 ERA+ in 195 innings. His best season ERA+ was 122; the other 4 years fell in the range of 100-106. Those first 5 years were remarkably similar all-around: starts ranged from 30 to 33, IP from 180 to 210, strikeouts from 139 to 171, HRs from 17 to 20.

During his early years, many folks in Cleveland and throughout baseball thought it was only a matter of time before he became an elite pitcher. However, the studies I’ve just done studies that suggest that, after 5 years without significant improvement, it was historically quite unlikely that Sabathia would become a star.

I looked at this in three different ways, each time covering the years 1901-2005 for a pitcher’s first 5 years, and 1901-2011 thereafter.

(1) Pitchers with at least 4 qualified seasons of ERA+ at or below 115, within their first 5 years. Their were 65 such pitchers, counting Sabathia; 9 met this standard in all 5 years, the rest in 4 of 5 years.

For the rest of their careers (year 6 onward), only 13 of those 65 pitchers had even one star season, with a total of 30 such seasons from the 65 pitchers. Sabathia has 6 of them; Red Ruffing 5; Don Sutton, Catfish Hunter, Jim Perry and Chief Bender 3 each; and 7 others had 1 such year.

(2) For his first 5 years combined, Sabathia totaled 973 IP and a 107 ERA+. I looked at pitchers with 800 to 1,100 IP and ERA+ from 102 to 112 over their first 5 years. Then I looked at their performance in their 6th through 11th years combined.

Out of 113 pitchers in this group, only 8 totaled as much as 20 bWAR in their 6th-11th years. Greg Maddux was #1 with 40.9 WAR; Sabathia was 2nd at 34.8 WAR; no one else had 27. Maddux also led in ERA+ at 172; Sabathia was 2nd at 142; no one else with 200+ IP was over 133. Only 7 other pitchers had at least 800 IP and ERA+ at least 120 for years 6-11.

Comparing Sabathia’s 6th-11th year totals to the average of the rest of the group:

  • Sabathia: 1,392 IP, 142 ERA+, 34.8 WAR
  • The rest: 754 IP, 103 ERA+ (weighted), 6.4 WAR

(3) This time I started from the other end of the question. I found those who had been roughly similar to Sabathia in years 6-11, then looked at what they’d done in years 1-5. The results here are a bit different from the other two studies.

There are just 20 pitchers with at least 4 star seasons in their 6th through 11th years. Only Sabathia has 6; 10 pitchers have 5 (most recently Johan Santana); 9 pitchers have 4 such years.

Of those 20 pitchers, 8 had no star seasons in their first 5 years:

Another 5 from the original 20 had just 1 star season in their first 5:

The group totaled just 26 star seasons in their first 5. Jim Palmer and Pete Alexander had 2 each; Roger Clemens, Walter Johnson and Ed Walsh had 3; Lefty Grove and Christy Mathewson had 4.

So the first two studies suggest that it’s very uncommon for a pretty good pitcher to become a star after 5 years and 800 IP. Yet the third study shows that those who are
stars in their 6th-11th years generally weren’t stars in their first 5 years. This seeming disjunction suggested one last study.

(4) What happens to those pitchers who are stars in their first 5 years? I looked at pitchers with at least 2 star seasons in their first 5, then looked at their 6th-11th years. Out of 110 such pitchers:

  • Almost half had no star seasons in years 6-11 (53 of 110).
  • The median was 1 star season, the average 1.1.
  • Three had 5 star seasons in their 6th-11th years; four had 4; 14 had 3; and 36 had 1.

So what does it all add up to? If young stars are unlikely to remain stars in mid-career; if mid-career stars mostly weren’t young stars; and if pretty good young pitchers are unlikely to become stars — does it just mean that a pitching career is even more of a crapshoot than we already think?

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