When New York Yankees starter CC Sabathia made his debut in April, 2001 with the Cleveland Indians, he was a fresh faced 20 year old with a sizzling fastball and a world of promise in front of him. He made the leap from Double-A Akron, where he finished a successful 2000 season. In his major league debut against the Baltimore Orioles on April 8, three current members of the Baseball Hall of Fame appeared in that game (Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar and Cal Ripken, Jr.). The ageless Bartolo Colon, still pitching today with the Texas Rangers, was a member of the Indians rotation with Sabathia.
The game itself was different, mostly in terms of pitching. In 2001, there were seven 20-game winners. Today, there are a handful of starters who could possibly win twenty games, but will need to win most every start to reach that goal. Curt Schilling led MLB with 256.2 innings pitched in 2001. In 2018, the current leader in innings pitched, Washington’s Max Scherzer is projected to finish with 228. Emphasis isn’t placed on individual win-loss records (rightfully so) today, and bullpens are tailored to be ready for action by the time an opponent’s lineup comes around for the third time.
CC Sabathia is a throwback to days of yore, when starters were still expected to pitch seven or eight innings and hand the ball over to the set-up man or closer to finish off a victory. He pitched 180.1 innings in his rookie season, and remained a durable and consistent starter for over a decade, including a seven year run of 200 or more innings from 2007 through 2013. In those seven seasons, Sabathia pitched a total of 1,610 innings over 230 starts, winning 124 games and averaging exactly seven innings per start. He earned a reputation as a reliable big game pitcher down the stretch for playoff teams in Cleveland, Milwaukee (in 2008), and New York.
However, all those innings began to take it’s toll on CC. His right knee, which is his landing-knee, began to give him pain. In May 2014, renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews determined that Sabathia’s knee injury is a degenerative condition. He would start only eight games that season as he dealt with pain and working with Yankees doctors to determine the best course of treatment for the future. It was decided he will eventually need a full knee replacement after his career is done, but team doctors can manage the bone-on-bone knee with periodic draining of fluid and cortisone shots.
In addition to managing his troublesome knee, CC had to learn to pitch with decreased velocity as the sands of time brought the inevitable. When his fastball averaged 94-95 mph and touched 98, as it did at the pinnacle of his career, he could get away with throwing it 60% of the time. By 2014, with his average four-seam fastball averaging just over 90 mph, he began to struggle. He had primarily been a three-pitch pitcher his entire career, with his fastball and slider, mixing in a change-up here and there. CC began to realize he would need to adjust his style of pitching if he wanted to have continued success. He began working with retired legendary Yankees starter Andy Pettitte, who was Sabathia’s teammate for four seasons in New York. Alfred Santasiere III wrote a nice piece on CC in the spring of 2017, some of which goes into detail about him learning the cutter from Pettitte.
Armed with his new cutter and new approach to attacking hitters , along with a bulky, but sturdy knee-brace that he wears when he’s pitching, Sabathia began to regain consistency and success. CC began using the cutter in earnest to open 2016, and his results stabilized. He finished the 2016 season with nine wins and a 3.91 ERA, and gave up fewer hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2012. CC won 14 games in 2017, lowering his ERA even further to 3.69.
On December 26, 2017, the Yankees re-signed Sabathia to a one-year contract for 2018. In May, he said he would retire if the Yankees win the World Series this year, but seemed to back off the statement shortly afterward. In late July, Yankees beat writer Brendan Kuty (NJ.com) reported that Sabathia wants to finish this year and pitch again in 2019, then retire.
CC has pitched well in 2018 with a well-managed workload, currently boasting a 7-4 record with a 3.30 ERA. Six innings has been mostly the limit to ease the strain on his balky knee and keep him fresh for the stretch drive. After a dominant outing against the Rangers on August 12, where Sabathia allowed no runs and just one hit over six innings, the Yankees announced he would be put on the disabled list with knee inflammation. He only missed one start, thanks to a pair of scheduled off-days built into the team’s schedule. CC returned from the DL Friday night against the Orioles in Baltimore and went six innings, giving up just a pair of runs and notching eight strikeouts.
When Sabathia signed his one year deal in late December, he made sure having his wife, Amber, and their four children with them at home and on the road would be part of the deal.
The story above, written by MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, details how vital it is for CC to have his family with him for support and have them experience the uniqueness of each city on the road.
In Bryan’s story above, Sabathia said with a laugh he wouldn’t want to miss next summer’s road-trip to London, England, against the Boston Red Sox. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is his swan-song with retirement no more than two months away. He has been dealing with knee-pain for the last eight years, and chronic pain can be distracting. Mentally, it can suck the life out of a person. It’s hard work for a starting pitcher to maintain their body for 30-plus starts over a 162 game schedule, no matter how young or old they are. It’s even more work for a 38 year old starter with a bad knee, who’s started well over 500 games and pitched over 3,400 innings. Between the mental and physical grind, it has to wear on a person. Coupled with requesting in his 2018 contract that his family accompany him on the road, I have a hunch these upcoming weeks may be the last for CC Sabathia. If that’s the case, it’s been a hell of a ride watching his career for the past 18 seasons.