CC Sabathia and His Improbable Journey to 3,000 Strikeouts

Three years ago, the milestone seemed impossible for the left-hander to achieve

CC Sabathia didn’t want to be a Yankee. As a 28-year-old free agent, he wanted to move home to California to pitch. He initially turned down Brian Cashman’s lucrative six-year, $140 million offer, and after Cashman told Sabathia’s agents he would be willing to travel to California to meet with the left-hander and negotiate, he was on his way to Vallejo. They landed on seven years and $161 million. At the time, it was the biggest contract for a pitcher in history. The deal also included an all-important opt-out clause after three years.

Sabathia was a Yankee because the organization’s offer far exceeded any other teams, not because it was his first choice. But that no longer mattered to the left-hander or Yankees fans when he went 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA in the regular season, and then 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in the postseason, earning himself ALCS MVP honors and helping the Yankees win the World Series for the first time since 2000.

Fearful of that opt-out clause after his third season, the Yankees extended him, adding two years and $50 million to his contract. He continued to pitch like an ace for the first season after the extension, going 15-6 with a 3.38 ERA, and winning Games 1 and 5 in the ALDS over the Orioles. In his first four seasons as a Yankee, Sabathia had gone 74-29 with a 3.22 ERA, being as close to a sure-thing for a win every five days as anyone in baseball, and living up to his $23 million annual salary more than any free-agent pitcher ever had.

In 2013, things took a turn for the worst. Sabathia went 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA and led the league in earned runs allowed as the Yankees missed the playoffs for just the second time since 1993. In 2014, Sabathia made only starts, and pitched to a 5.28 ERA over 46 innings. In 2015, it was much of the same, as he went 6-10 with a 4.73 ERA. Sabathia was no longer the hard-throwing ace of the Yankees, but rather a wasted roster spot making roughly $700,000 per start.

Sabathia had supposedly been best friends with Cliff Lee during their time in Cleveland and it was reported that Sabathia and Andy Pettitte had talked frequently as Sabathia’s velocity diminished. I wondered then if those two stories were true, how could Sabathia not seek out the advice of his two left-handed friends on how to succeed in the league without overpowering hitters? Were Sabathia and Lee no longer friends? Were he and Pettitte just “talking” and not talking about pitching? Was Sabathia too stubborn to reinvent himself, or could he just not do it?

Sabathia was going to make $25 million in 2016, the highest single-season salary of his career, after having gone 23-27 with a 4.81 ERA in the previous three seasons. And he was going to make another $25 million in 2017 unless he ended the 2016 season on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury or spent more than 45 days on the disabled list in 2016 with a left shoulder injury or didn’t make more than six relief appearances in 2016 because of a left shoulder injury. No Yankees fan wanted Sabathia to get hurt, they just wanted him to pitch better. Any Yankees fan would have signed up for a season of a 4.50 ERA from the once-dominant lefty.

Sabathia turned his career around in 2016. He no longer reared back for a mid-to-high-90s fastball which no longer existed. He scrapped the fastballs right by you for the cutters in on your hands and the offspeed pitches and breaking balls away. The reinvention I had yearned for had occurred and Sabathia made 30 starts and pitched to a 3.91 ERA. It wasn’t worthy of $25 million per year, but it was worthy of a spot in the rotation for 2017.

He got even better as a finesse pitcher in 2017, going 14-5 with a 3.69 ERA. It was his first double-digit win season and his first season over .500 in four years. He was no longer the ace of the staff, but he was no longer an over-the-hill pitcher representing an albatross contract either. In 2018, he pitched to a 3.65 ERA, proving his new-found success was sustainable after three straight years of it.

On Tuesday night in Arizona, Sabathia became the 17th pitcher in history to record 3,000 strikeouts. It’s an accomplishment which seemed improbable three years ago when no one expected him to be in the league in 2017 given his performance and knee issues. But Sabathia has defied the odds since his disastrous 2013-2015 seasons, reinventing himself on the mound, overcoming several disabled and injured list trips and even battling a heart condition this past offseason.

Back on June 26, 2015, I wrote “CC Sabathia Is Done”. At the time he was done. He could no longer throw hard and was seemingly too stubborn to turn into a finesse pitcher for what looked to be the final seasons of his career. Now in his fourth season pitching as CC Sabathia 2.0, let’s look back at what I wrote and see how it’s changed.

Next season, Sabathia’s salary increase to $25 million for the season, and when you consider his 2011 ERA (33 starts) was 3.00, his 2012 ERA (28 starts) was 3.38, his 2013 ERA (32 starts) was 4.78, his 2014 ERA (eight starts) was 5.28 and his 2015 ERA (15 starts) is 5.65, well, where is this going to go? It could go through the 2017 season, as Sabathia has a $25 million vesting option, which will vest if he doesn’t finish the 2016 season on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury or if he doesn’t spend more than 45 days in 2016 on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury or if he doesn’t make more than six relief appearances in 2016 because of a left shoulder injury. (There is a $5 million buyout if any of these things happen, so the Yankees will have to pay him $5 million to not pitch, which is better than $25 million to pitch and not be good). So the only way the Yankees are getting out of paying Sabathia $50 million in 2016 and 2017 is if he injures his left shoulder, and when he’s not even going five innings in starts, that’s not going to happen. The only way to not throw away $25 million in 2017 is for Girardi to start leaving Sabathia on the mound to throw 150-pitch complete games, or hope that he retires and walks away from the money, and that’s not happening. So if you think this season has been bad or 2014 and 2013 were bad, it’s not going to get better.

The biggest problem for Sabathia at the time (aside from not giving the Yankees a chance to win in most of his starts) was the money he was owed. No Yankees fan wanted Sabathia to get hurt, but everyone was hoping the Yankees would instead use the $5 million buyout on him for 2017 to pay him to go away.

Sabathia turned it around in 2016, just in time for the Yankees to decide to not buy him out. And in the span of two years, he went from looking at being bought out and retiring to starting Games 2 and 5 of the ALDS against the Indians and Games 3 and 7 of the ALCS against the Astros. Sabathia’s line in those four postseason starts: 19 IP, 16 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 10 BB, 19 K, 1 HR, 2.37 ERA, 1.368 WHIP. I still can’t believe the same person whose career seemed over when he made only eight starts in 2014 and pitched like his career was over when he did pitch was given the ball to start a game in 2017 with a trip to the World Series on the line.

I have written several times that Sabathia needs to find a way to get outs without overpowering hitters the way his former teammate Andy Pettitte and supposed best friend Cliff Lee were able to do. With the Yankees in Houston, it was made known that Pettitte and Sabathia have talked frequently as Sabathia’s velocity and repertoire has changed, and if this is true, when are the changes going to take place, or are they ever? And do we know Sabathia and Pettitte are even talking about pitching when they talk? They could be talking about anything.

It took three seasons of a 4.81 ERA and leading the league in earned runs allowed in one of those seasons for Sabathia to finally give up on trying to be the pitcher he had been since 2001. He finally went through with the advice of Pettitte, who he now mirrors in his starts, both with his stuff and his performances, and it has revitalized his career. Sabathia is consistently among the league leaders in soft contact, and while he might not be the hard-throwing, seven-plus inning ace anymore, he doesn’t need to be to get productive results.

At this point, I treat every Sabathia start like a trip to the casino. If you plan on spending $500 at the casino then you’re going into it assuming you’re going to lose that $500 and anything you don’t lose or if you happen to end up winning, it’s an unexpected bonus. When Sabathia takes the mound, I assume the Yankees are going to lose, and if they aren’t blown out, he will certainly blow a lead they have given him at some point in the game. If he comes out in a tie game, with the Yankees winning, it’s the unexpected bonus. That’s not how it should work for starting pitcher making $23 million this season, $25 million next season and possibly another $25 million in 2017.

Since 2016, the Yankees are 53-37 in games started by Sabathia, so he’s no longer an expected losing trip to the casino. In today’s market, as a No. 5 starter making $8 million, he’s more than living up to his current contract, and has made up for the money he “earned” from 2013 to 2015.

During the 2011 season, I said “Jorge Posada is like the aging family dog that just wanders around aimlessly and goes to the bathroom all over the place and just lies around and sleeps all day. You try to pretend like the end isn’t near and you try to remember the good times to get through the bad times, and once in a while the dog will do something to remind you of what it used to be, but it’s just momentary tease.” Well, that aging family dog has become Sabathia.

The aging family dog might be 21 now, but it still has a few years left!

The next time Sabathia puts the Yankees in a hole before they even come up to bat for the first time, I will try to remember his first four seasons with the Yankees when he went 74-29 with a 3.22 ERA. The next time, he lets the 7-8-9 hitters get on base to start a rally, I will try to remember his win in Game 1 of the 2009 ALDS, his dominance over the Angels and winning the ALCS MVP in 2009 and his role in beating the Phillies in the 2009 World Series. The next time he can’t get through five innings, forcing the bullpen to be overused, I will try to remember his Game 5 win in the 2010 ALCS against the Rangers to save the season. And the next time he blows a three-run lead the inning following the Yankees taking that lead, I will try to remember his wins in Games 1 and 5 against the Orioles in the 2012 ALDS to get the Yankees out of the first round.

No matter what happens for the rest of Sabathia’s final season, I will remember it in three parts. (Well, three parts as of now.) Part I being 2009-2012 when he went 74-29 with a 3.22 ERA, made 13 postseason starts and one postseason relief appearance and helped the Yankees win the 2009 World Series. Part II being 2013-2015 when he went 23-27 with a 4.81 ERA and made $69 million for 69 starts. Part III being 2016 until the end of this year when he made the transformation from power pitcher to finesse pitcher and saved his career. (Let’s hope there isn’t a Part IV where he becomes the 2013-15 pitcher again).

I get that after 20 years and pitching on an aching knee, Sabathia wants to retire and give his body a rest and spend time with his family. But if he wanted to keep pitching, I’m sure the Yankees would keep giving him one-year deals for as long as he wanted because this version of CC Sabathia can seemingly pitch forever.

I will try to remember the good times CC Sabathia once gave us nearly every time he took the ball because they hardly happen anymore and they are only to going to become more rare. I wish there were more good times to come, but there aren’t.

I don’t have to wish anymore because as long as Sabathia avoids the injured list, there’s a few more months of good times to come.


My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!