I am a huge fan of the Ron and Fez show on Sirius XM Satellite radio. They do a bit on the radio called life boat, and I’m borrowing it for Cleveland sports. Here’s how it works. There are four people and only three seats remaining on the life boat. You must work your way through the list of candidates and, unfortunately, someone is designated to try their hand at long-distance swimming.
A couple rules.
1. You MUST pick three people to ride in the boat. “Let them all drown!” isn’t an interesting answer and frankly, you’re not funny. It’s been done, so skip it.
2. Don’t use an overly silly premise for your answer. Life boat is a silly enough premise where you aren’t going to “wow” anyone with your take that you should “keep the fatter guy because at least when we turn to cannibalism, we’ll have someone tasty to eat!”
So, this Cleveland sports life boat is Indians starting pitchers. The candidates are:
Charles Nagy, C.C. Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, and Cliff Lee
Craig – This one seems difficult at first, but once I talked it through it wasn’t hard at all. C.C. Sabathia is safe. Cy Young award winner who made his bones as an Indian. Yes he plays for the Yankees now, but whatever. The Indians traded him to Milwaukee and it was the right move at the time.1 Cliff Lee also won a Cy Young award and is responsible for some of the greatest pitching performances of my lifetime. I can always get it down to a choice between two.
Charlie Nagy and Bartolo Colon should be easy. Colon was a superior pitcher. In the end though, my heart says I can’t not save Charlie Nagy. He was never the most dominant pitcher like any of the other guys on this list, but Bartolo Colon always seemed like a mercenary. Yes, he was effective, but he was a difficult guy in terms of earning fan buy-in.
Rick – Charlie Nagy was on the leading edge of the Indians’ rise to prominence in the 90’s. He and Sandy Alomar Jr. were the first two ‘stars’ from that group. It’s funny to think of Charlie as a star though, because of his quiet and unassuming nature. He was an all-star 3 times. He had a streak of 192 consecutive starts. Though he may not have had a truly dominant pitch, or struck out a ton of hitters like the others on this list, he gets my first seat. Let’s face it- he never should have been in that situation in Game 7 of the ’97 series. Can’t really blame him.
Sabathia gets a seat. He was just too good for too long with the Tribe. No question he struggled in the post season in big games. But so did a lot of players. Runner-up for ROY. 3 All-Star games and Cleveland’s first Cy Young since Gaylord Perry in 1972. Over 1200 strikeouts.
That means I have to choose between Cliff Lee and Bartolo Colon. Of the 4 guys on this list, Lee had the highest winning percentage. Colon follows. You can’t mention Colon without thinking of the trade that netted the Indians Brandon Philips, Grady Sizemore and one Cliff Lee. Lee of course won the CY Young immediately following Sabathia, leading the league in ERA and winning 22 games. In 2008. In 2007 Lee was a complete mess and ended up being left off the post-season roster. You would have to imagine that if Lee was half as dominant in ’07 as he was in ’08 the Indians would have won it all. I’m keeping Bartolo. My boat, my rules.
TD – this is a very tough call. Extremely. CC and Cliff Lee both won Cy Young awards as members of the Tribe. In 2005, people forget that as the fourth starter, Cliff won 18 games. You could say that Cliff not finding himself in 2007 after his injury cost the Tribe a World Series title considering hos good he was in 2008, but still, any guy who wins a Cy Young award in Cleveland gets saved. Sabathia was a rock and then eventually an ace of the staff. As a rookie he won 17 games at age 20. In eight years in Cleveland, he was never hurt and won 106 games. That narrows it down to Nagy and Colon.
Colon and Nagy both were the beneficiaries of some great Tribe offenses. Nagy made his bones with those early to late 90s clubs, Colon’s first big year was 98 and was traded in 2002 in the midst of a 20-win season. His career ERA in Cleveland was 3.92 and struck out 7.6 per nine innings. He also never missed a start in his five year run as a rotation regular. He was a power pitcher and an ace of the staff by the time he was dealt. Nagy was more of a number three guy, rock solid and consistent innings eater. He won 129 games in 13 years, but won 15 or more games six times. Wins are often an overrated stat, and that is why I was never a huge Nagy guy. In three years, he had a sub four ERA just three times. In 98 and 99 his ERA’s were 5.22 and 4.95 despite winning 15 and 17 games respectively.
Here is why I am saving Colon: Having him as a trade chip brought the Indians perhaps the biggest heist in baseball history – Colon and Tim Drew for Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Lee, and Lee Stevens. On top of that, Nagy allowed the hit that lost the World Series in 1997.
Kirk – Right or wrong, this is an easy one for me. You can point to extended success, but I look at three of these guys leading rotations during various Tribe heydays. Sabathia was probably the greatest, and Nagy was a part of the most success. Even in trading Colon, we came away with a king’s ransom of prospects. Cliff Lee to me will always be remembered as the guy who came around a year late to help us win the 2007 World Series. His surly demeanor doesn’t measure up either when lined up against guys like Nagy and C.C. Bye, bye, Cliff… one phenomenal year, two good not great years, and two rotten years does not a lifeboat seat make.
Scott – Carsten Charles and Clifton Phifer get the first two seats based on the Cy Young alone.
There was a game in 2008 where I had a prior engagement that forced me to be (what I had assumed) one or two innings late. Sabathia was starting. When I walked in, it was already the fourth inning and the big man was absolutely dealing — he hadn’t allowed a base-runner to that point. He would go on to retire the last 17 in a complete game demolition of the Minnesota Twins. The game lasted just over two hours — I saw roughly 70 percent of it. I wasn’t even mad — I was impressed.
Lee had about as untouchable of a season as any Indians pitcher in recent history. It’s tough to imagine what would have happened in 2007 has Eric Wedge kept him on the postseason roster.
As Rick said, Nagy was incredibly instrumental within those mid-90s teams. A multiple-time All-Star and the type of guy who obviously built quite the rapport while he was here as he was in the organization as recent as 2009.
The last time Colon was cast away, he provided quite the return. Lets see if he can do it again. In you go, Bartolo.
Andrew – I’m glad we get to make our own rules for who we save on our lifeboat. Charles Nagy is easily the worst pitcher on this list. And he’s the first guy I would save. He’s one of my favorite players ever, a quietly gritty performer, and a guy who helped usher in one of the best eras of Indians baseball.
CC is also an easy save for me. The big fella was a dominant pitcher who bridged the “Era of Champions” to the next playoff appearance in 2007. And he also won the Cy Young.
My final spot comes down to Cliff Lee winning the Cy Young. I can’t overlook that and I have to save him. Nothing against Bartolo. He’s just the least memorable of the 4 on this list for me, so he’s the odd man out.
Jon – To me, both CC and Colon are pretty safe, but let’s stop and explain why.
First, both are very very fat, which is adorable.
But even more than that, both were fairly dominant homegrown forces for the Indians for lengthy stretches. During Colon’s nearly six years with the Indians he had an ERA+ (adjusted for era and ballpark) of 121, meaning he was 21% better than the average pitcher over that span. From 1998-2002 he averaged 211 IP, a 3.69 ERA in a dominant offensive era and won almost twice as many games as he lost. He also pitched in four postseason series with the Indians, including his brilliant but oft-forgotten performance in 1998 against both the Red Sox and the Yankees, giving up just two earned runs in 15 innings. On top of that, he managed to net the club three of its best prospects of the millenium, so I think he stays.
CC’s brilliance may not have been as sustained in Cleveland as Colon’s was, and his trade return wasn’t nearly as good, but his peak was much higher. From 2001-2005, CC looked like a good-if-not-great pitcher who won more often than he lost, but walked too many batters and seemed to struggle with mechanical issues that tend to plague “big” pitchers; his K/BB ratio during these years was below 2.00–mainly due to control issues–which is typically not a great indicator for future success. But then in 2006 he took off, posting a three year period of sustained excellence Cleveland hadn’t seen in perhaps a half century. His ERA+ was 145 (!). He started 97 games and finished 20. He managed to improve both his strikeout numbers AND his walk numbers, resulting in a remarkable K/BB ratio of over 4.5 for this three years stretch. He deservedly won the 2007 Cy Young award, and likely would’ve won again in 2008 if not for the mid-season trade that created split stats in the AL and NL. I’m not sure Cleveland (and unfortunately Milwaukee) has seen a pitcher dominate like this in decades.
So that leaves me with the two skinny guys. I do think Nagy is getting beat up a little too much here, so I think I’ll stick up for him. Yes, his ERA was terrible, but I think too often we forget that he pitched in a run scoring environment that is vastly different than todays. In the mid-90s, teams were routinely scoring 5-6 runs per game, and for all sorts of reasons that’s no longer the world we live in. Compared against his peers, Nagy performed rather admirably: from 1991-1997 he posted and adjusted ERA 16% better than league average. He was in the top 10 for the AL Cy Young three times and in the top ten in AL ERA three times as well. While his run was never dominant, he was consistently above average and fairly durable, averaging 187 IP over that span. I say Charlie is safe here.
Which leaves me to drown Cliff Lee. He was as good as they come in 2008 for the Indians, winning a Cy Young behind a brilliant campaign wherein he seemed to rediscover his control and his competitiveness all at once. But I have at least two, if not three problems with Cliff. One, he really only did it here one year. You can discuss his 2005 season if you like, but I’d just point out that while he did win 18 games that season, he did it with some really smoky mirrors: a career low (to that point) HR/FB rate of 7.9%, a career-low (to this day) BABiP of only .277 and a fluky career-high spike in infield flyballs (14.4%) all contributed to an actual ERA (3.79) well below the estimators (around 4.25).
So really Cliff had one great season with the Indians, a few partial/mediocre ones, and one lucky one. On top of that, he couldn’t wait to get traded out of Cleveland, which is never quite as endearing as some players want to believe it should be. Lastly, Cliff just couldn’t get along with Victor Martinez, and somewhat famously got in a shouting match with him on the mound at the end of his execrable 2007 season, when he was bouncing between Columbus and Cleveland. As a general rule, people who yell mean things at Victor Martinez should drown, and in this case, I’m happy to help make that happen.