Posted April 01, 2013

Sabathia’s Opening Day dud no surprise but is it worth worrying about?

CC Sabathia, New York Yankees, Opening Day
CC Sabathia

CC Sabathia gave up four runs in five innings against the Red Sox on Monday. (Elsa/Getty Images)

When CC Sabathia took the mound in the Bronx on Monday afternoon, it marked his eighth consecutive Opening Day start dating back to his days with the Indians, and the 10th such start of his career. The latter mark tied Roy Halladay for the lead among active players, and the Yankees’ jumbo ace now owns the longest active streak, since Cole Hamels, not Halladay, will get the call for the Phillies on Monday evening.

Such quantities of Opening Day starts are generally the province of aces. Of the 25 pitchers with at least nine such starts under their belts since 1916 — as far back as Retrosheet’s game-by-game records go — 14 are already in the Hall of Fame, with two more on the most recent BBWAA ballot, and one other one a virtual lock. Here’s the top of the leaderboard:

Rk  Player  OD GS
1 Tom Seaver 16
2T Steve Carlton 14
Jack Morris 14
Randy Johnson 14
5T Roger Clemens 13
Robin Roberts 13
7 Bert Blyleven 12
8T Fergie Jenkins 11
Dennis Martinez 11
10T Bob Gibson 10
Roy Halladay 10
Juan Marichal 10
CC Sabathia 10
Warren Spahn 10
15T Pete Alexander 9
Mark Buehrle 9
Livan Hernandez 9
Walter Johnson 9
Phil Niekro 9
Gaylord Perry 9
Brad Radke 9
Steve Rogers 9
Nolan Ryan 9
Rick Sutcliffe 9
Don Sutton 9

Morris, whose 14 starts were done consecutively from 1980 through 1993 (a record) and Clemens are both on the most recent BBWAA ballot, though their candidacies are among the most highly polarizing for reasons we’ll avoid revisiting until December. With 303 career wins and five Cy Young awards under his belt, Randy Johnson is likely to join the Cooperstown group once he’s eligible on the 2015 ballot.

Sabathia and Halladay have put themselves in position to join that group, though they both still have a ways to go as far as rounding out their resumes. Among the other pitchers above, Buehrle is also active, while Hernandez pitched last year.

For as many times as Sabathia’s gotten the call on Day 1, his track record in those games is rather unimpressive. Monday’s five-inning, four-run performance against the Red Sox, which saw Boston bat around in the second inning as it turned two walks, two infield singles to fill-in shortstop Eduardo Nunez and two outfield singles into four runs, pushed his career ERA in Opening Day starts from 5.66 to 5.80, the highest of the above pitchers save for Niekro’s 7.31 mark. Incidentally, that latter ERA is the highest of any pitcher with at least five Opening Day starts, while another former Brave, Rick Mahler, has the lowest such mark at 0.92 — including three complete-game shutouts, one short of Walter Johnson’s record of four.

Back to Sabathia, only four of his 10 Opening Day outings have been quality starts, including just one out of the last six, a six-inning, three-run effort for the Yankees against the Tigers in 2011. Including Monday’s loss, his teams are 3-7 in those starts; the Indians went 2-3, including in 2007, when he notched his only such individual win in 2007, while the Yankees are now 1-4.

Owing both to cool temperatures and a need to modulate the workload of the workhorse, Sabathia’s managers haven’t pushed him very hard on Opening Day. He’s averaged just 5.4 innings per start and has never thrown more than 106 pitches, though he’s topped 100 pitches in each of his last four, including Monday’s 102. In this context, it’s worth remembering that he’s coming off surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow, and that he’s something of a slow starter in general; for his career, he has a 4.13 ERA in 55 March/April starts, the highest of any month, while his September/October ERA in 64 regular season starts is 2.86, the lowest of any month, and his 3.25 mark in August is his second-lowest; while his 4.53 ERA in 18 postseason starts (and one relief appearance) is nothing to write home about, it’s also a much smaller sample size.

The bottom line is that if a wobbly first day of the season from Sabathia were to guarantee a similar such season as they’ve gotten in the past — a 3.22 ERA spread over an average of 32 starts and 226 innings — the Yankees would take that deal every time. While the team has no shortage of things about which to fret, their ace’s performance isn’t one of them.

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