Swan Song for Sabathia?

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.

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Yankees 1st Half Report-Card: Pitchers

The All-Star break is over, and teams are set to resume the second half of the season in Major League Baseball. In my last entry, I graded the position players on the New York Yankees. This time, we will assess the pitching staff’s job at the halfway point.

Starting Pitchers

Luis Severino – (5-4, 3.54 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) Severino used his time wisely over the past winter, working on pitches and mindset with Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez while in the Dominican Republic. The results have been profound. With some better luck and run support, Sevy could easily have at least five more wins. He’s emerging as the newest ace of the staff.

Grade: A-

Masahiro Tanaka – (7-8, 5.47 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) Tanaka is the guy that is SUPPOSED to be the staff’s ace, but has had an abysmal first half. It all started on Opening Day, when he gave up 7 runs in 2.2 innings and two home runs. Tanaka has been like the proverbial “little girl with the curl”, either very, very good or very, VERY bad. There hasn’t been much in between. The Yankees’ hopes for the season depend on him getting better. Tanaka can opt-out of his contract after 2017 if he chooses too, but if he doesn’t get better it seems the team will have another bad contract to pay for.

Grade: D- (five dominant starts saves him a failing grade)

CC Sabathia – (7-3, 3.81 ERA, 1.28 WHIP) When Sabathia started wearing a brace on his chronically bad right knee at the tail end of 2015, the results were much better and it carried through 2016. His numbers on the surface look good, and he made a number of starts where he looked like vintage CC. However, there has been 5 starts where he allowed 4 runs or more.  This includes a hideous stretch from late April into early May where he gave up 18 runs in 14.2 innings. Sabathia enjoyed a run of six effective starts, lowering his ERA by two runs, when he tweaked a hamstring on June 13 in Anaheim.

Sabathia tweak hammy

Sabathia came back on July 4 against Toronto and had no command. He probably could have used a rehab start for Scranton or Trenton. He’s 37 years old, but still has more in the tank. His velocity sits at 89-91, but still has 94 in his back pocket on occasions as needed. Hopefully CC will stay healthy and effective for the second half of the season.

Grade: B-

Michael Pineda – (8-4, 4.39 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) Michael Pineda is an enigma. Still. In fact, a picture of Pineda should be next to the definition of the word enigma. After a tough first start of ’17, Michael sailed along on a nine start stretch where he allowed three earned runs or less. Over said stretch, he won six of seven decisions and carried a 3.32 ERA at the end of May. Then June happened. Like flicking a light switch, 2016 Pineda emerged, looking every bit like the shell-shocked, unfocused Pineda that drives Yankees fans batshit crazy. From June on, his ERA shot up from 3.32 to it’s current 4.39. He gave up 53 hits over 36.2 innings during this stretch.

**EDIT** Pineda was diagnosed with a torn UCL in his right elbow, ending his season. Terrible news.

Pineda finishes 2017 with probable Tommy John surgery and an uncertain future. I wish him well.

Grade: D+

Jordan Montgomery – (6-4, 3.65 ERA, 1.23 WHIP) The rookie Montgomery opened everyone’s eyes in Spring Training with his ability to get guys out and willingness to challenge hitters. He earned the 5th spot in manager Joe Girardi‘s rotation and has kept a grip on it, like a bulldog. “Monty”, as Girardi refers to him, has worked at least six innings in eight of his 16 starts. Sure, he’s had a few clunkers, but all rookies do. Still, there are only three starts where he allowed four or more runs. He is striking out almost a batter an inning. Montgomery still hasn’t been lit up yet, unlike veteran starters Tanaka and Pineda.

Monty seems impressive and has a bright future ahead of him.

Grade: B+


Relief Pitchers

Aroldis Chapman – (2-0, 3.48 ERA, 1.31 WHIP) Chapman started off 2017 in his usual dominating way, converting all five save opportunities through April 26. That day, Chapman labored through the 9th inning, walking two, allowing a hit and striking out two. It was raw and drizzly in Boston and he threw 33 pitches. On May 7, in his return to Wrigley Field against the Cubs, he blew his first save, throwing 36(!) pitches before Girardi mercifully pulled him. Five days later, after another bad outing against the Astros, it was revealed Chapman was suffering from shoulder inflammation. He returned on June 18, but his results have been uneven. We’re in the 1st season of a 5 year/86 million dollar contract, so it would be prudent for Girardi to not leave him in games for 35 pitches.

Grade: C+

Dellin Betances – (3-4, 3.18 ERA, 1.41 WHIP) On the morning of June 22, Betances had a record of 3-1, 0.40 ERA and was shutting down everyone. Five days later, he was summoned by Joe Girardi to close out a game in Chicago and walked two batters, hit another and gave up a hit, resulting in a walk-off White Sox win. Things continued to fall to hell from there. Since June 27, Betances’ stat-line is ugly: 3.2 IP, 2H, 7R, 7ER, 10BB, 6K. Even Carlos Marmol wasn’t that wild. Warning signs began to show themselves earlier. He began walking more hitters in early June, when his workload become sporadic because games weren’t close and he wasn’t needed. After he pitched on May 27, his next appearance was six days later. His following appearance was five days after that. Then a four day gap. Pitchers need regular work, especially a man Betances’ size. Repeating a delivery is tougher for big and tall guys, and I believe the time off hurt him. I think if he gets regular work, Dellin will be okay.

Grade: B-

Tyler Clippard – (1-5, 5.24 ERA, 1.31 WHIP) Just as June was unkind to Betances, it’s been every bit as bad for Clippard. The problem for Clip is he is being hit all over the yard AND he’s walking people. His stat-line from June 1st to now is: 12.1 IP, 14 H, 16 ER, 12 BB, 13K and five HR’s allowed. Clippard doesn’t have the stuff and the upside Betances has. If he doesn’t turn it around quickly, the 32 year old Clippard may be gone before the trade deadline on July 31.

Grade: D-

Adam Warren – (2-1, 2.02 ERA, 0.79 WHIP) Warren has quietly had an excellent season out of the Yankees bullpen. In years past, he’s been a swing-man, making spot-starts and used in long relief. This year, he’s been used a variety of ways in relief, earlier in the year in low-leverage situations, and Girardi has also trusted him to hold the lead in the 7th inning. Warren missed three weeks in June because of a cranky shoulder, returned at the beginning of July. Whenever he’s been handed the ball, he’s done his job.

Grade: A

Jonathan Holder – (1-1, 3.78 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) Holder is a highly regarded young arm who hopefully will grow into a role where he will be trusted to hold leads and maybe even close games someday. He throws four pitches, so an eventual starting role isn’t out of the question. Right now, it’s hard to tell what you will get from Holder from game to game, because he’s left a lot of pitches over the plate. Those pitches are usually hit very, very hard.

Grade: C-

Chasen Shreve – (2-1, 2.96 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) After a promising beginning to his Yankees career in the first half of 2015, Shreve has been relegated to filling an inning or two of relief in mop-up situations. His control has been better this year, which has helped his cause. When a starter is failing in the early innings, Shreve is usually the guy you see warming up in a hurry because he can be ready quickly. He’s been optioned back and forth to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes Barre when fresh arms have been needed.

Grade: C

Bryan Mitchell – (1-1, 5.06 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) Mitchell has some of the best stuff on the Yankees staff, yet it seems Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild don’t know what way to use him. In 2016, he was all but named one of the five starters coming out of spring training, then suffered an unfortunate toe injury that took most of the season to heal. This year, Mitchell was having a good month of April until later that month when he gave up 7 runs over back to back outings. Since then, he’s been ping-ponged back and forth to Scranton where he’s now stretched out. The Yankees plan to start Mitchell in Boston on Sunday in the first game of a doubleheader.

In the wake of Michael Pineda’s injury, my guess is they will give Mitchell a start or two to prove if he’s worthy of being in the team’s plans or possibly to showcase him to other teams who need starters, or a good right arm. I am thinking the latter. For some reason, I have a hunch Girardi and Cashman have soured on Mitchell.

Grade: C-

See ya next time,

Charlie