TWENTY, 20, ANDREW JACKSON, CC SABATHIA
Perhaps it’s no big deal for CC Sabathia to win his 20th game now, but there was a time in my life when the Yankees didn’t have 20-game winners. Beginning in 1996 it has happened five times: Andy Pettitte has gotten there twice and David Cone, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina did it once each. The Yankees had 20-game winners in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1983 and 1985, and then they stopped, seemingly forever. From 1986 through 1995, Yankees starters topped out at 18 wins, and they got there only twice, Dennis Rasmussen and Jimmy Key turning the trick in 1986 and 1993, respectively.
Now, 20-game seasons aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sometimes they signify good pitching and sometimes they don’t. Pitchers can have great seasons and not win 20, or even have a losing record — think of Nolan Ryan leading the NL in strikeouts and ERA in 1987 but going 8-16 due to receiving a miserable 3.1 runs per game of offensive support. Conversely, you can name dozens of 20-win seasons that reflected offensive and bullpen support more than they did pitching excellence. Jack Morris won 21 games in 1992 despite an ERA higher than the league average due to nearly six runs of offensive support a game. Former Yankees Rookie of the Year winner Stan Bahnsen won 21 games for the 1972 White Sox despite an ERA a half-run below league average. The next year his ERA was three-quarters of a run better than league average and he lost 21 games. As a statistic, wins can give you some hints as to the proficiency of a pitcher — truly bad ones don’t pile up wins no matter what — but there are a lot of outside factors that go into making a win, and we generally need to look beyond them to discern if we’re seeing real quality or just a fair pitcher who is getting unusually generous help from his team.
Should Sabathia win 20 games, we need not ask too many of those questions, because these wins have been earned. Sure, he got five runs of support per game, but he also gave the Yankees 21 quality starts in 33 tries and went crazy in the second half, putting up a 2.36 ERA since the All-Star break, upping his strikeout rate from a mediocre six and change per nine innings to an even nine. During the crucial six-week period beginning in early July when the Yankees caught up to the Red Sox and then surged past them, Sabathia made nine starts and won seven of them.
Should Sabathia succeed in winning his 20th, it will have a different feeling than that of Mike Mussina a year ago. That win represented the culmination of a career and a wonderful last hurrah by a great pitcher who had seemed all but washed up the year before. Unfinished business was finished, and a prop was taken away from those who will argue that Mussina doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. Crucially, the Yankees were not going to the postseason, so the story was pure feelgood — it had no bearing on the greater history of the franchise.
That is not the case with Sabathia, a big-money ace who actually proved to be worth the money, which is a nice turnaround given 30 years of busts ranging from Eddie Lee Whitson to Carl Pavano. And as with Ron Guidry’s 1978, Ed Figueroa’s 1978 or Tommy John’s 1980, this season meant something toward a pennant. Actually, you can double that, because given the inconsistency of A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain’s lost season, and the constant turnover of the fifth spot in the rotation, Sabathia had only Ol’ Aches and Pains Pettitte to rely on as a wingman — and even he missed time. Now that the Yankees have clinched and the Red Sox are falling away, locked in an autumn malaise, it’s easy to take this pennant for granted, but it was not long ago that the Yankees were gasping for air and the Sox seemed to be on the way to winning 100 or more games. The outcome of this season is the result of a massive reversal of fortunes, and Sabathia was one of the players who engineered that. In short, should he win 20, it will be well worth celebrating a legitimate accomplishment.