THE LIST of major league pitchers who enjoyed extended and successful careers despite carrying some excess meat on their bones is as long as those hurlers are wide. Mickey Lolich, Rick Reuschel, David Wells, Fernando Valenzuela, Sid Fernandez: None of those gents was ever called upon to pose in his Jockeys, the way Jim Palmer once did for a national ad campaign. But each pitched effectively into at least his mid-30s, and between them they accounted for 17 All-Star Game selections, 10 top 5 finishes in the Cy Young balloting, a no-hitter and a perfect game. Then there was the fellow with the 2.28 career ERA who might have been the best of them all had he not discovered early on that he was even more talented with a bat than with a ball. He was a cherubic chap—not as big as he'd become, but no waif either. Went by the nickname the Babe.
Now CC Sabathia is a free agent, and given his age (28) and his résumé, he might be the most coveted pitcher ever to hit the market. Since 2001, when he entered the majors, Sabathia ranks fourth in strikeouts, fifth in wins and eighth in innings pitched. He pitched so well after being traded in July from the Indians to the Brewers—he went 11--2 with a 1.65 ERA—that he finished sixth in the NL MVP voting even though he was a National Leaguer for just half the season. Had he won the award, it would have marked the first time that one league's MVP was twice the size of the other's. (The AL MVP was Boston's diminutive second baseman Dustin Pedroia.) And the pitcher's size, some observers believe, represents a serious problem.
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° 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."
Besides, the experts say, whoever signs Sabathia might want to think twice before stocking the lefty's locker with Slim-Fast. "For years people said that Fernando Valenzuela was too heavy," one National League G.M. says. "Then he finally lost the weight and couldn't get anybody out." There are both mental and physical explanations for that kind of decline, says Tom House, the big league pitcher turned pitching coach who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and co-founded the National Pitching Association, which promotes proper training techniques for young pitchers. "These guys learned how to pitch when they were heavy," House says. "Changing what their body is may or may not help them."
In fact, suggests House, only half in jest, the success and durability of Sabathia and other supersized pitchers like him might inspire a new philosophy in major league scouting departments. "There probably can be an argument made that if you find a big fat guy with a good arm, sign him, because he'll probably pitch for 20 years," House says.
The collection of teams that have expressed interest in signing Sabathia—which reportedly includes, besides the Yankees, the Dodgers and Giants—suggests that big league front offices have already noticed little relationship between extra pounds and performance. Interestingly, those three clubs have bestowed free-agent riches upon such pitchers as Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown and Barry Zito, all of whom would look a lot better in an underwear ad than they did on the mound after signing their megadeals.
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Sabathia is showing that one can be both an effective PITCHER AND A BELLY-ITCHER.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER