CC Sabathia lumbered into the Yankees’ clubhouse with the sweat dripping from his forehead after stretching and throwing on a humid Tuesday afternoon at the Stadium.
He sat on the sofa next to teammate Chad Green, slouching slightly with his left leg crossed over his right and his arms stretched wide. With an inquisitive stare, he watched as Colombia and England played extra time in the World Cup.
Sabathia spent no more than 10 minutes watching before moving to his locker at the back of the clubhouse, hamming it up with Dellin Betances, Luis Severino and anyone else who walked by. A day before his Fourth of July start against the Braves, he was as laid-back as ever.
That’s always been the thing about Sabathia. Even during the turbulent years in which he adjusted to being a finesse pitcher after years of leaning on his fastball, he remained upbeat (even if he did get ejected by plate umpire Lance Barrett on Saturday for arguing ball-strike calls in a game he did not pitch).
“He’s been around for so long, he knows there are ups and downs,” Chasen Shreve said. “He’s always been the same guy in the clubhouse, always been a leader to us.”
Once able to throw in the upper 90s, Sabathia — who is listed at 6-6, 300 pounds and will turn 38 on July 21 — once was one of baseball’s premier power pitchers. The lefthander relied on a steady diet of fastballs to complement his devastating slider. But when his velocity dipped precipitously, Sabathia had to reinvent himself.
In his first four seasons with the Yankees — in which he helped to lead them to a World Series title in 2009 and made three straight All-Star teams from 2010-12 — Sabathia was 74-29 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 905 innings. At that point, he was 191-102 with a 3.50 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 2,564 1⁄3 innings in his first 12 major-league seasons — a consistently overpowering, durable pitcher.
But in the next four seasons (2013-16), Sabathia — limited to 46 innings in 2014 — went 32-39 with a 4.54 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in only 604 innings. As his velocity slowed, his results trended downward.
Some of that could be attributed to a balky right knee that still requires maintenance, including extra days of rest. Still, he has turned himself into a crafty strike-throwing machine.
In the past two seasons, Sabathia is 20-8 with a 3.44 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 191 strikeouts in 238 innings. He will bring a 6-3 record and 3.02 ERA into his Game 1 start in Monday’s doubleheader in Baltimore. In his past six starts, he is 4-2 with a 2.09 ERA.
According to FanGraphs, Sabathia has forced the second-highest amount of soft contact (26.4 percent) among qualified starters this season. He forces the sixth-lowest amount of hard contact (28.6 percent).
“He doesn’t throw 100 anymore, so he had to find a way to get guys out,” Austin Romine said. “He has a good cutter that he throws, and he’s always had the good slider he can throw any time he wants, to go with a two-seam and a changeup. He just knows how to pitch. He’s a veteran. It’s unbelievable what he’s been able to do and how he’s been able to turn it around.”
Romine and Shreve both mentioned the cutter as part of Sabathia’s resurgence. Mariano Rivera made it famous in the Bronx, riding it up and in on lefthanded hitters and shattering bats, and Andy Pettitte has helped Sabathia with the pitch. Sabathia doesn’t throw it as hard as Rivera did, but the movement he generates offsets the loss of velocity.
Relying on movement, Romine said, is one of the many reasons Sabathia has been able to succeed in 2018 despite an average fastball velocity of 91.9 mph, according to FanGraphs. His cutter is his most used pitch at 38.1 percent. He hardly uses his four-seamer (1.6 percent) and uses his slider 32.6 percent of the time, by far the most in his career.
That’s almost the textbook definition of “crafty” as it pertains to pitchers, especially considering he averaged 95.1 mph with his fastball and threw it 45.5 percent of the time in 2009.
“He’s got a completely different mindset of what he does now and what he used to do,” Sonny Gray said. “He was throwing 95, 96, 97 just right by people and still had a wipeout slider. Obviously, everyone knows his fastball’s not as crisp as it used to be, but his changeup’s really good. His slider is still a really good pitch, but not like it used to be. But what he does with them, first of all, is he throws a ton of strikes.”
That three-year stretch before his turnaround tested him. Also struggling off the field, Sabathia checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation facility in October 2015 before the Yankees were to play in their first postseason in three years.
His teammates’ confidence in him did not waver, though. Shreve, someone who also has experienced ups and downs in his four-year stint with the team — albeit in a less glamorous role — said Sabathia’s mindset is what got him through.
“He’s one of the best competitors, honestly, that I’ve ever seen,” Shreve said. “I don’t know his numbers when we’ve lost the day before his starts, but I know it’s ridiculous. He’s always going to give you a solid outing when you need it. That’s rare. That’s hard to find.”
Sabathia is 12-0 with a 2.47 ERA in 18 regular-season starts following a Yankees loss since the beginning of 2017. That’s a testament to his gritty mentality and indeed is quite ridiculous.
“It’s important to have guys like that, especially starters like that, on your team,” Gray said. “He just puts it upon himself when we’re down from a loss, he just solely puts it upon himself to take care of it and make sure it doesn’t escalate.”
With a mix of off-speed pitches and a reliable cutter, Sabathia gives the Yankees a chance to win whenever he pitches.
Said Shreve: “It’s just what CC does.Ted ”
CC this season