Over the past three seasons, CC Sabathia has gone from being a perennial All-Star and Cy Young award contender to a cross your fingers and hope for the best fourth or fifth starter for the New York Yankees. Sabathia’s demise had been predicted for years. Six-foot, seven-inch pitchers whose girth only possibly stops short of 300 pounds are not supposed to be workhorses into their mid-thirties. After delivering six straight seasons of sub-4.00 ERA pitching with four All-Star appearances and a Cy Young, Sabathia saw his ERA balloon all the way to 4.78 in 2013. The next year was even worse, as nagging injuries, declining velocity, and a breaking ball with less bite than ever turned Sabathia into a pitcher with a 5.28 ERA. He made only eight starts in 2014, leaving real questions about his future heading into the final three years of his massive contract. That the 2017 option year that will pay Sabathia $25 million can only be triggered by the left-hander not spending more than 45 days on the disabled list in 2016 with a left shoulder injury, or end the year on it should tell you all you need to know about Sabathia.
This year didn’t look much better for the former prized free agent signing. A knee injury was a new development, and Sabathia posted an ERA in excess of 5.00 in each of the season’s first four months. Sabathia was an integral part in delivering the Yankees’ last World Series victory in 2009, but it did not appear he would be an integral part of helping to chase ring number 28 this fall. Things looked even more grim when Sabathia went on the disabled list with a knee injury at the end of August with a 5.27 ERA.
Sabathia has come back strong with a new knee brace and a new lease on life. Though the conventional wisdom would tell you that the Yankees will start Masahiro Tanaka in the Wild Card game, Sabathia should at least be considered. In four starts since coming back from the knee injury, Sabathia has posted a 2.22 ERA with three wins and an opponent’s batting average of .222. It was Sabathia who ended the Yankees’ mini-skid last night and helped clinch the postseason berth. Tanaka has been dealing with his own injuries — a hamstring strain — and struggled in his return last Friday, allowing four earned runs and a home run in five innings. If you’ve never had a strained hamstring, you might not know that cold October weather is not the best thing for them. Has Tanaka shown enough in his side sessions and workouts to prove that his hamstring is not still affecting him? Everything is lined up for Tanaka to start the Wild Card game, and he probably will, but that does not mean Sabathia has not at least pitched himself into a position worthy of being considered to start the winner-take-all game.
Pitchers like Sabathia, who could get by with exceptional velocity early in their careers are often in for a rude awakening when that heater begins coming in a hair slower. Justin Verlander has been through the same thing the past two seasons and is just now turning it around as well. Sabathia and Verlander are great pitchers, but must make adjustments to their approach to succeed with lessened velocity. Sometimes that takes awhile, but if a pitcher is one of the best like Sabathia and Verlander are, he will figure it out if given time. The Yankees have been patient with Sabathia, and now it has begun to pay off. With Tanaka’s health still a question mark, Michael Pineda inconsistent, and another question mark in Nathan Eovaldi, it’s hard to believe Sabathia could be the safest option in the postseason. He is the hot hand entering the postseason. Still, there must be a thought in the back of Joe Giradi’s mind that Sabathia is still the shell of a pitcher who graced the Yankees rotation for the first five months of the season. It takes some creative thinking to win the Wild Card game, but will Girardi be able to pull the trigger on Sabathia?
In a must-win game, it is hard to hand the ball to a pitcher whose ERA was over 5.00 for most of the season even if he has been the best on the staff in September. Tanaka will still get the ball in the Wild Card, but if the Yankees should manage to hold on and advance to the ALDS, every consideration should be made to giving Sabathia the ball in Game 1. He is a veteran pitcher who has finally pieced it together after a few down years. Sabathia has already delivered one World Series during his stay in the Bronx, now he can get to work delivering another one.