I Believe CC Sabathia Because I Have To

The Yankees had to give CC Sabathia an extension. Coming off a 19-8 season with a 3.00 ERA in 2011 and 59-23 record with a 3.18 ERA in his first three seasons with the Yankees, he had been the first free-agent pitcher to truly live up to his hype and billing during the Brian Cashman era (unless you consider Mike Mussina the first to, which I don’t). Even if he was the biggest reason (aside from the runners in scoring position debacle) the Yankees lost to the Tigers in five games in the ALDS, the team had to re-sign him.

If Sabathia had opted out and signed somewhere else, the Yankees rotation entering 2012 would have been A.J. Burnett (thankfully he was eventually traded), Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes and who knows who else since Hiroki Kuroda had yet to sign and Andy Pettitte was still retired. Just a year after we were believed to be looking at a rotation of Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Pettitte, Burnett and Hughes before Lee ruined the Christmas season, if the Yankees didn’t extend Sabathia, they would have most likely had the worst rotation in the American League and I would have had to dust off the Cliff Lee Sad Songs Playlist.

The season after getting that extra year worth $25 million in 2016 and the $25 million vesting option for 2017, Sabathia started 28 games, his lowest total since 2006 (when he also started 28), posted his highest ERA since 2005 with 3.38, won his fewest amount of games since 2006 with 15 and allowed the most home runs in a season in his career despite the missed starts. He bounced back in the postseason by beating the Orioles in Games 1 and 5 of the ALDS (17.2 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 16 K), but then looked 2007 ALDS Chien-Ming Wang against the Tigers in Game 4 of the ALCS (3.2 IP, 11 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 2 HR). Still there wasn’t any reason to be worried about the Yankees’ ace since.

And there wasn’t any reason to be worried even when the Red Sox beat him on Opening Day since he had been beaten up by the Orioles on Opening Day in 2009, the Red Sox in 2010 and the Rays in 2012. Three starts later, Sabathia was 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA, the Yankees had a 1.5-game lead in the AL East and everything seemed to be going according to the plan the way it had the previous four seasons with Sabathia at the front of the rotation. Even when he entered his final start of the “first half” with a 9-7 record and 3.99 ERA, Sabathia was going to go on his “second half” run after the break because that’s what he does.

But then the Twins torched him in that final start (4 IP, 8 H, 8 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 1 HR), in the most embarrassing loss of the season, the Red Sox lit him up in his first start after the break (5 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 2 HR), the Rays knocked him around five days later (5 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 3 BB, 6 K), and the Padres (the Padres!!!) roughed him up six days after that (5.2 IP, 11 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 4 K, 1 HR). After losing to the Padres on Aug. 2, Sabathia was 9-10 with a 4.78 ERA and the Yankees were just 12-11 in games started by him. Five days later he later the White Sox creep back from a 4-1 deficit to make it 4-3 in the eventual double blown save game. The day after that I wrote that the Yankees’ season was over.

Sabathia won’t pitch again in 2013 and rightfully so. There’s no point in running $76 million of guaranteed money out there to face the Astros in an exhibition game when it’s likely that he’s only one of two returning current starting pitchers in 2014. And because only Sabathia and Ivan Nova are likely to return to the rotation next season, it’s important, no it’s imperative that CC Sabathia return to the 2009-2012 CC Sabathia or something pretty freaking close to it to avoid a chase for the second wild-card spot a year from now.

Sabathia finished the 2013 season at 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA and somehow won five of his final eight starts despite pitching to a 4.94 ERA over that span. He won’t pitch again in a real, meaningful game until April 2 in Houston on Opening Day 2014, when he will earn the same nearly $700,000 he earned per start in this lost season. But even though a little over six months separate Sabathia and the bottom of the first inning in Houston that doesn’t mean he isn’t already thinking about finding himself on the mound or finding a new way to be successful on the mound and he talked about it on Tuesday. Let’s analyze what Sabathia had to say about his 2013 season and what he expects in 2014.

On it being hard to make adjustments.

“Yeah, it is (difficult). It’s me being stubborn, too, and not wanting to change and thinking that I’ve got stuff figured out. It was a lot of different things. Of course, you want to have more time to work on things, especially when you’re trying to change things in your delivery. I’ll have the whole offseason to work on my throwing and my mechanics and be back right.”

I’m not sure “stubborn” is powerful enough for a starting pitcher who rejects change and midseason adjustments while losing 13 games. Sabathia was asked to carry the team (along with Robinson Cano) through injuries and earn his $23 million, but he failed to do so. At least he has an extra month to work on his mechanics! So I guess it’s a good thing the Yankees won’t be playing in October!

On if he can return to being a dominant pitcher.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to be that same guy again. I’m 33 this year, but pitching against San Francisco the other night, I felt like back to myself more so than any other start. It wasn’t velocity — I was 90 to 93 — but just pitching inside, being aggressive, throwing fastballs in hitters’ counts. Just going out there and being a bully. That’s something I feel like I was before and kind of lost that this year.”

The Giants suck. You know this, right? They haven’t seen .500 since June 24 and are 24th in runs score in MLB, 29th in home runs and 27th in slugging percentage. Being a “bully” against the Giants shouldn’t make you feel like yourself. It’s the Giants! The Giants!

“I feel like at certain times, I kind of fell in the same pattern, pitching the same way. Hitters watch video and they know what to expect out of me, so it’s only right for me to do the same thing. … I’ve always been a guy that never watched video and that’s something that I need to change.

You mean guys like Mike Napoli? Yeah, I would say watching video might be something you want to change if it’s going to result in career .258 hitters like Mike Napoli turning into Manny Ramirez vs. Andy Pettitte (36-for-92, five home runs, 23 RBIs) against you.

On changing the way he prepares for games.

“My preparation for games probably needs to get a little better in that way. That’s something me and Larry talked about, and going forward will be better.”

At what point did you and Larry talk about changing your preparation? Was it before or after (or possibly during) your winless six-game stretch from July 9 to Aug. 9 (36 IP, 49 H, 33 R, 28 ER, 12 BB, 27 K, 7 HR)? I’m going to hope it was sometime after this since losing to the Royals, Twins, Rays and Padres and picking up no-decisions against the Red Sox and White Sox over the course of 31 days isn’t a good look for the “ace” of the staff. Even Phil Hughes can shake his head at that disappointing stretch, which helped ruin the Yankees’ season.

On what went wrong this season.

“I’m just talking about going out and pitching like I did the other day (against the Giants). Grinding games out. That’s something I feel like I didn’t do a good job of this year. Getting runners on base and being able to get a double play. Giving up a run or two, and being able to shut the inning off. I feel like I gave up too many big innings and big situations. We come out and score a couple of runs off a tough pitcher, and I come back and give the lead right back. That’s stuff that I didn’t do, or I don’t do, and it happened this year. I think that’s what I say when I talk about coming back and being right.

I would have to say I trust Sabathia the least when it comes to pitching a shutdown inning right after the Yankees get on the board. It got so frustrating this season watching him give up leads or increase deficits that actually became funny. It became funny because it got to the point that all you could do was laugh as CC built picket fences on the scoreboard for the opposition, put the Yankees in early holes and blew late leads. I’m just glad he realizes what he was doing and didn’t just go to into A.J. Burnett “Eff It” mode when things unraveled even if it looked like he went into that mode.

On what will change in 2014.

“I think I’ll be back to myself. I know a lot of people have written me off and said I’ve thrown too many innings and whatever, whatever, but I’ll still be here and still be accountable and still be the guy that signed up in 2009.”

That quote made me go back and watch CC Sabathia’s press conference from December 2008 when he was introduced with A.J. Burnett 10-plus months before they would help end the eight-year World Series drought. And in that press conference CC said, “I want the ball every day if they’ll give it to me.” There was a time when I wanted him to have the ball every day. If he holds true to his promise, I will want him to have the ball every day next season.