On Sunday night in Anaheim, CC Sabathia dominated the Angels. His line: 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 K. It was his second dominant start in a row, lowering his season ERA to 1.71 and WHIP to 0.949. But this is nothing new for CC Sabathia 2.0. This is who he has been since the start of the 2016 season, and it’s time I said I was sorry.
Back on June 23, 2015, CC Sabathia got knocked around by the Phillies. He lasted 4 2/3 innings, allowing six earned runs on eight hits with two walks and two home runs. He didn’t get a decision in the game, but he deserved a loss, which would have been his eighth of the year. He picked up that eighth loss in his next start anyway.
After that loss to the Phillies, Sabathia’s ERA was sitting at 5.65. I despise the stat “quality start” (at least six innings pitched and three earned runs or less) because how can any start be “quality” when you can post a 4.50 ERA and have it be called “quality”, but through 15 starts in 2015, Sabathia had six quality starts and was making $23 million for the season. This after he pitched to a 4.78 ERA in 32 starts in 2013 and a 5.28 ERA in eight starts in 2014. I had seen enough. CC Sabathia was done.
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 the final seasons of his career. But what is now the third season in his transformation from fastballs right by you to cutters in on your hands, it’s time to 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 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. Sabathia 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 once again among the league leaders in soft contact with his soft stuff, 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 37-25 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 $10 million, he’s more than living up to his current contract, and if he keeps it up, he can make up for a percentage of 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 career, 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 whenever he retires 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). At this point, the Yankees should just keep re-upping him at $10 million per season until he either doesn’t want to pitch anymore or his knee or another body part won’t let him. 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’s knee holds up, there are plenty of good times to come.