Eight years ago, the mid-point of his career, C.C. Sabathia was supernatural. He was on the precipice of free agency and was the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner. The Indians’ ace was 27 years old, at the start of his prime, and was already a seven year veteran before taking the Opening Day start for the Indians. A big payday was coming for the southpaw. He was armed with a 94 MPH fastball and a devastating slider. While other pitchers threw harder, the big left hander was the epitome of a power pitcher. He was a dominant pitcher who was destined to be the 220+ innings per year pitcher — a left handed Jack Morris with better numbers.
That 2008 season gave a glimpse of what was to come for Sabathia. After a trade to the Milwaukee Brewers, Sabathia (almost) single-handily carried the Brewers into the postseason. While most pitchers on the verge of a long term deal would have played it safe, Sabathia chose to carry the Brewers, pitching on short rest three times during the final month of the season and into the postseason. He chose to pitch on short rest for a team that had virtually zero chance of bringing him back for the following season. Despite that reality, Sabathia wound up tossing 253 innings for the season as the achnor for, first, the Indians and, then, the Brewers. Of his 17 starts for the Brewers, he would complete seven of them, including three shutouts. In the era of bullpen match ups, Sabathia was that rare ace who would not only give above average production, but give it deep into games.
His performance in Milwaukee is the sort of performance that creates a bidding war. And, his timing could not have been better. The Yankees had failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and were ready to reload. While there were all sorts of rumors about Sabathia preferring the West Coast, it wasn’t a surprise when the he signed with the Yankees for a seven year contract worth $161 million. The Yankees needed a legitimate ace to compete with the Boston Red Sox and the rest of the American League. They had lacked a true ace for nearly four years. He was a perfect fit, even if the Yankees had to give him an opt-out clause that could be used after the 2011 season.
The opt-out clause wasn’t really discussed much at the time of the deal. Now, those clauses are seemingly commonplace with big free agents. But, there wasn’t too much worry in the winter of 2008 about whether or not Sabathia would opt-out three years into the deal. The thought was that if he was pitching well and did decide to opt out, he would only be 30 years old. But, that clause did turn out to be significant.
None of that mattered in 2009. The Yankees’ plan worked out perfectly. They moved into their palatial new stadium. The core of the team was still intact. Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte were still the nucleus of the team and the core link back to the championship teams in the late 90’s. Robinson Cano was just about ready to tap into his prime seasons. Nick Swisher, Phil Hughes (out of the bullpen), Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui all played key roles for the club. Sabathia did his part as he led the revamped roster that also included free agent additions AJ Burnett and Mark Teixeira to a World Series title. He would make 34 starts for the club, winning 19 games and pitching 230 innings to a 3.31 ERA. He would put together the best postseason run of his career, making five starts, winning three and pitching to a 1.99 ERA. He won the MVP Award of the American League Championship Series. Over the course of the 2009 season, he averaged 94 MPH with his fastball, the highest velocity of his career. He finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting and 21st in the MVP voting.
He would continue that level of dominance in 2010 and 2011. While the Yankees didn’t get back to a World Series, Sabathia became their “Given”. No matter the chaos or his rotation-mates performance, Sabathia would take the ball every fifth day. From 2009 through 2011, Sabathia averaged 34 starts, 234 innings pitched, 212 hits, 67 walks, 208 strikeouts, a 3.18 ERA, and a 3.27 FIP. In that time period, only three pitchers — Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, and Cliff Lee — ranked higher than Sabathia according to WAR. Only three pitchers — Halladay, Felix Hernandez, and Verlander — pitched more innings. And, while wins isn’t indicative a pitcher’s true, individual performance, only Verlander won more games (two) than Sabathia.
Predictably, Sabathia chose to opt out of the deal after that elite three year run. The Yankees were caught in a tough situation. They had no other pitcher to replace their ace. And, quite frankly, Sabathia’s skill set was unique. As pitch counts and innings limits have dominated the sport, Sabathia was one of the few pitchers who could pitch late into games on a consistent basis. He was a pitcher that, despite a high volume of innings, never broke down. The Yankees didn’t even give him much of a chance to explore the free agent market. They signed him to a new five year deal worth $122 million. The deal paid the left hander the identical salary he would have made in 2012 through 2015, $23 million per season. He got a bump to $25 million for the 2016 season, the first additional season of the new deal. 2017 will automatically vest for another $25 million unless he winds up with a left should injury. Essentially, Sabathia got two additional seasons, ages 35 and 36, by opting out. The Yankees knew that handing out $50 million for two seasons wasn’t a wise move, but they still needed their “Given” for 2012.
Sabathia fared well in 2012, but missed a few starts, making just 28. But, he eclipsed the 200 inning mark for the fifth consecutive season. 2013 was far different. He made all of his starts and wound up pitching 211 innings. He wasn’t dominant. He was more league average, pitching to a 4.78 ERA (4.10 FIP). His strikeout rate dropped to 19 percent, a decent drop from the 23 percent rate he had posted over the previous few seasons. Perhaps the most troubling part was his fastball was sitting at 91 MPH, the lowest of his career.
The velocity drop would be a theme over the next two seasons. He missed most of the 2014 season because of a knee injury. His fastball didn’t go over 88 MPH. Essentially a two-pitch pitcher with the occasional changeup mixed in, Sabathia no longer had the capability of pitching like a power pitcher. Had he not had the opt-out clause in his original deal with the Yankees, his time in New York would have been done. But, now, the Yankees had a pitcher who — to quote Mickey in Rocky II — had the heart, but didn’t have the tools any more.
We normal people are resistant to change. Change scares us because it forces us to give up the expected and perhaps have to deal with the possibility of failure. And, that’s just us regular people. Imagine being an elite athlete for one second. Since the age of eight, someone like C.C. Sabathia has been the best player on the field. As a young player, he threw harder than anyone and was able to strike opposing kids out easily. As he grew, he gained more velocity. He had so much velocity that he didn’t need another pitch. He was good enough to be drafted out of high school at 17 years old. He was in the Major Leagues at 20. At that point, he had a slider to go with his fastball. He would carve up hitters for 13 straight seasons. He’s made his money. He has his World Series ring and every personal accolade a pitcher could have. Change is even scarier for an elite athlete. You are asking them to change a process that gained them big money, accolades, fame, and one that they’ve had such success with. Their singular process made them great. And, even though their production was slipping, the elite athlete has a strong belief that his process is what got him there and his process is what will keep him there. Very few elite pitchers can change after they lose their top stuff.
But, Sabathia chose to change. His success this season is a direct result of changing his process. The velocity is still 88 MPH. Yet, Sabathia has posted a 2.28 ERA (3.32 FIP) through his first 10 starts. In 59.1 innings, he has allowed 48 hits, 24 walks, and has struck out 49 batters. He has elicited soft contact at a 25 percent rate, far above the 16.4 percent rate he posted from 2012 through 2015. His 2016 soft hit rate is second best in the American League behind Oakland’s Rich Hill. He entered Spring Training fighting for the fifth starter job. Now, he’s the best performing pitcher on the staff. And, he is slowly becoming their “Given” once again. While the days of eight and nine innings are over, Sabathia has given the Yankees a consistent six inning starter; in his last seven starts, he has pitched at least six innings in six of them. For a team that has a deep bullpen, he is giving them everything they need.
His change in process is one that can be difficult for any pitcher, especially someone with over a decade of elite success. Sabathia has added a cut fastball to his arsenal. He started to learn it in 2013, but only used it 2 percent of the time. In 2014, he used it 3 percent of his pitches. Again, the idea of changing a formula that worked for over a decade is difficult for any pitcher. It was successful before; it could be again. Sabathia held on to the idea that he didn’t need velocity to succeed. Yet, it took him two seasons to finally make the change he had tinkered with over the previous two seasons.
This season he is employing the cut fastball at a 30.7 percent rate. His four seam fastball — one in which he used at a 60 percent rate for his career — is used just 34 percent of his pitches. The additional fourth pitch, one with good movement, has stopped batters from sitting on a fastball. The result has been that soft contact. He is still eliciting swings and misses with pitches in the strike zone at a 12 percent rate, which is down about five percent from his prime. But, he has adjusted to being the type of pitcher who can get batters to hit his pitch that has movement. The loss of velocity definitely necessitates better command as his home run rates have shown from 2013 through 2015. With the mastery of the cut fastball, he has allowed just two home runs in his first 59.1 innings of work.
This isn’t to say that Sabathia can keep this pace up for the remainder of the season. We can cite things like his low BABIP and all that as indicators for regression. But, his change in process will allow him to be a productive pitcher over the next few seasons. Yes, he’ll need to keep his pinpoint control and he doesn’t have a wide margin of error. There will be days when he gets hit hard. It happens to pitchers who can’t make up for location mistakes with a blistering fastball. He does, however, have an arsenal that will allow him to compete as he inches closer to 40 years old. He’s now made the change from power pitcher to complete pitcher. It was a change made out of necessity. Again, very few elite athletes are capable of making such a change after a long period of success. Sabathia, with as much scrutiny as any professional athlete has dealt with, is now in his new-normal phase. He seems comfortable in it. It took him a few seasons to find a successful process. His former teammate, Mike Mussina, took a few years of league average results before finding a new formula that allowed him to finish his career with a 200 inning, 20 win season at the age of 39. Sabathia is a couple of years ahead of that.
He is no longer that big, power pitching southpaw that rattled off 13 consecutive seasons of 180 innings or more to start his career. He no longer reaches 90 MPH consistently. He no longer has the great margin for error on each pitch. He does, however, have a new pitch that allows him to compete and maintain a standard of performance. The focus will be on his salary, but he is really getting paid for a dozen years of brilliance. After a few down seasons, C.C. Sabathia has completed his metamorphosis. The Yankees now have a dependable starter. He can no longer be considered their ace, but how many 35 year old pitchers with over 3,000 innings carry that expectation? Instead, the Yankees will deal with their new-normal; they have a solid rotation member who looks like he will give six good innings a night over the next season and a half. There’s still a shortage of guys like that around the League. They once had a veteran southpaw on their staff who became that late in his career. Andy Pettitte was able to use his cut fastball to keep batters at bay during his late 30’s and early 40’s. Sabathia, who did work with Pettitte over the past couple of Spring Trainings, looks to be doing the same thing.
The 2016 Yankees have a litany of issues. From age questions to a multitude of injuries to a flawed lineup, they are a team that has far to many questions to answer from game to game. But, C.C. Sabathia no longer appears to be one of those questions. His change in process has allowed him to once again be their most reliable starter. In that sense, the title of “The Given” is still appropriate.