Weighing in on Sabathia
December, 1, 2008
Last week, I raised an unanswerable question: What happens to a 290-pound pitcher as he ages? Well, shortly after I wrote that blog post, I opened up the latest Sports Illustrated and found that Ben Reiter tries to answer the question
Sabathia is listed at 6'7" and 290 pounds, although one wonders if the scale involved in that measurement was borrowed from an especially disreputable pawn shop. He is a behemoth -- only 295-pound reliever Jumbo Brown, who began a 12-year career in 1925, is heavier among pitchers in big league history. Sabathia's bulk has long caused baseball pundits to question his long-term durability, and a subset of Red Sox fans has even begun to express hope that the Yankees (who two weeks ago offered him a six-year, $140 million contract, a record for a pitcher) will sign him, the Sox supporters believing that he'll either break down or eat himself into oblivion. In a recent ESPN the Magazine column in which he listed several reasons why he loves sports, noted Red Sox fan Bill Simmons wrote, "Reason No. 947: The thought of 365-pound CC Sabathia laboring through a 98 [degree] game at Yankee Stadium in 2012 with four more years and $105 million remaining on his contract. Please, God. I don't ask for much."
But the message from each of the half-dozen experts contacted for this piece -- a group that included doctors, academics and pitching gurus (none of whom know or have personally examined Sabathia) -- was uniform: Be careful what you pray for, Mr. Simmons. While signing a pitcher to a free-agent deal always represents a gamble, they concede, the odds that he'll stay healthy aren't lengthened as you move from L to XXXL. In layman's terms, one can effectively be both a pitcher and a belly-itcher. "I'm not aware of any evidence that directly correlates size with injury," says the University of Washington's Dr. Stanley Herring, who is a team physician for the Mariners and the Seahawks. "It's not just size. It's lean body mass, training, conditioning, power, strength, endurance. There are a lot of pitchers who make you want to say, 'Hey, man, put a shirt on -- this isn't pretty.' But it's not just what the package looks like; it's what's inside."
"Mass is just one piece of the puzzle," says Jill McNitt-Gray, a professor in the University of Southern California's department of kinesiology and the author of such beach reading as "Landing Strategy Adjustments Made by Female Gymnasts in Response to Drop Height and Mat Composition." "The key issue is, can the athlete control all the mass that he has, through the proper coordinated muscle action? You have to have the physical preparation -- the training -- that leads to that result."
Despite his outward appearance, Sabathia's training regimen has rarely been questioned, and it's something on which he prides himself. "I work my ass off every day," he told me two springs ago, in the only moment during a 45-minute interview during which the good-natured lefty got a bit testy. "So whoever wants to criticize me, tell them to come work out with me one day and see if they can hang."