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Your Random D-Back: Erik Sabel

First Diamondbacks draftee in history to hit the majors with the D-Backs.

White Sox v Diamondbacks X

42nd round draft.

When you think of collegiate baseball, your first thoughts probably don’t go out to Tennessee Tech. Nor did the Diamondbacks probably think of that university in 1996, but in the 42nd round of that year’s draft they picked up Erik Sabel, the first time in 10 years that a player from that program got drafted.

Sabel had joined the Golden Eagles in 1994 from his high school in West Lafayette, Indiana, and, after a tough first year, led his college baseball team’s rotation the next two years. Pitching on an unspectacular team for an unspectacular baseball program it was kinda hard for Sabel to stand out. While his ERA wasn’t impressive, he did pitch several complete games and a couple of shutouts, while limiting the hard contact. Maybe the lack of opposition had to do with that, but, still, with 50 rounds and a franchise that lacked any talent, a case could be made for the Diamondbacks to select Erik Sabel.

After pitching in his draft year for the Lethbridge Black Diamonds, the predecessor of the Missoula Osprey, in the Rookie leagues, he is assigned to the High Desert Mavericks in 1997 in A+. The righty tosses 143.2 innings as a starter, but allows too many hits and homers. Just like his more famous German counterpart, he is expected to be more successful in short bursts and so Sabel is moved to the bullpen.

That works. In 1998 he rapidly moves from A+ to AA and finally ends the season in AAA, with a combined 3.83 ERA, but what stands out most is his excellent 2.2 BB9, pretty much in line with his previous season. Sabel is a pitcher with great control, but not really able to strike batters out. That becomes even more evident in his first full season in AAA, in 1999, where the SO/BB rate is a meagre 1.58. Sabel survives in Tucson though, thanks to limiting the hard contact, where he averages a 0.50 HR/9 and limits the runs therefore, despite a weak 1.40 WHIP. His 3.34 ERA and peripherals puts him amongst the better relievers in Tucson, but the outlook for a major league debut isn’t really that great, because of a well performing 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks team that with some good pitching is on its way to a 100-win season.

First Diamondbacks draftee to debut with the Snakes.

On that great 1999 team Sabel makes his debut though. Maybe it is his track record that helps pushing his name, as Erik Sabel becomes the first player drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks to make his major league debut on the team. A terrific feat for a 42nd round draftee. It is in line with the aggressive pushing of drafts in the Diamondbacks’ farm system in those early years, but as a 25 year old with an okay record in the minor leagues, his debut doesn’t come out of the blue.

Thus Sabel makes his debut on July 9, 1999, a bit more than 24 years ago, in Oakland. He enters the game in the 8th inning and after a strikeout and ground-out allows a double and a walk before being pulled. The next day he pitches again against Oakland, now a 9th inning appearance where he gets the final 3 outs, although the Diamondbacks end up getting shut out by the Athletics. Sabel has trouble throwing strikes, but returns back to AAA with a clean 0.00 ERA. Not bad at all.

He returns a month later, in a long relief appearance against the Chicago Cubs, when Brian Anderson needs to leave the game in the 2nd inning. Sabel allows 5 hits and 2 walks over 3.2 innings, but is not tagged with any runs. His lone strikeout though is once again proof that Sabel has troubles in striking batters out.

When rosters expand in September he is a logical addition to the roster again, but this time he is less successful: in 4 appearances he allows 7 runs, although all runs are given up in low-leverage situations, with either the Diamondbacks in a strong winning or losing position. It does cast some doubt over his major league-readiness, so the right-hander starts the 2000 season in AAA again.

That 2000 season can easily be forgotten. The strikeout and walk rates are in line with his minor league career, but Sabel allows a ton of hits and this time is punished by the long ball. What lies beneath those struggles wasn’t traceable to me, but some control issues are likely to have appeared.

A ring.

The soft-tosser, however, puts his name back on the sheets in the memorable 2001 season. He spends some time in Tucson as well in 2001, but forms an integral part of that 2001 squad that will win it all. Sabel is a very useful bullpen member who doesn’t pitch in any real high-leverage situations; he only achieves 4 holds. He appears in 42 games and pitches 51 innings and isn’t much of a clean sheet, allowing hits frequently with the occasional homerun, but he does save a lot of innings for other more powerful members of the pitching squad. A .767 OPS against isn’t great, but it will do for the 2001 team, and although Sabel doesn’t make any post-season appearance that season, he does get a world series ring.

Despite his useful contributions in 2001, his performance isn’t really anything outstanding so come 2002 Sabel finds himself back in Tucson again. He pitches quite in line with his minor league stats, but this time the Diamondbacks don’t think it is enough and come July consider him expendable. Sabel is released and signs with the Detroit Tigers. He is soon back up in the major leagues and makes his debut for the Tigers on July 28 in a game against Cleveland, but fails to get a batter out and allows a hit and a homerun on just 5 pitches. Sabel is moved down to AAA and released once the season finishes.

In 2003 he signs minor league deals with the Rays and Diamondbacks but isn’t able to repeat his previous upper minors success. By the end of the 2003 season he signs with the Texas Rangers, but there his playing record finishes.

Abrupt ending to a playing career.

He gets an opportunity in 2004 to enter the Diamondbacks’ farm system as a pitching coach and from 2004 to 2010 tries to mould the talents in Yakima, South Bend and Visalia. After that he is the baseball coach on the Mountain View HS in Arizona and come 2012 he gets a regular job on a logistics company.

In 2019 he is appointed Director of Addiction Services on the Association of Professional Ball Players of America and it is obvious there has to be some juice to that appointment. Digging into the internet it is clear that at one point Erik Sabel had an addiction to pain killers, not uncommon for baseball players or other sport professionals, but he eventually was able to overcome it. At one time a certain podcast had an episode with him to talk about the experience, but it is no longer available anywhere on the internet, so we’ll have to do it with some guessing.

However it may be, it obviously didn’t temper his love for the sport and he is still active in the sport as a baseball coach in Arizona, where he still lives, as well.