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CC Sabathia is repeating his success for the Yankees

The team’s erstwhile ace is putting up a second consecutive year of quality production.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Time comes for us all. Baseball, as well as any sport, makes that clear. Every player succumbs to age at some point. Time may force a gradual decline, the way it did for Yankees greats Andy Pettitte or Mariano Rivera. Or, age can strike a player overnight, the way it seems to have this season with aging sluggers like Jose Bautista or Carlos Beltran.

Age appeared to catch up to CC Sabathia overnight. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2011, and was still ace-caliber in 2012. Then, in 2013, he looked fried. He spent the next three seasons vacillating between ineffectiveness and the disabled list. After spending much of his career on a Hall of Fame track, Sabathia suddenly was nothing more than a back-end starter at 34.

He managed to turn things around with a strong season in 2016, though, morphing into a crafty southpaw just as quickly as he cratered. Nothing about 2016 screamed vintage-Sabathia, but rather a wily, soft-tossing version. He logged 179.2 innings with a 3.91 ERA, totaling 3.0 rWAR for the first time since 2012.

Given Sabathia's struggles between 2013 and 2015, as well as his clearly diminished physical state, it seemed 2016 could have been a one-off year for Sabathia. He may have been able to dance around major league lineups with a sub-90 mph fastball and hold off his degenerative knee problems long enough for one last hurrah. At age-36, however, regression would have been a reasonable outcome for Sabathia's 2017 campaign.

Instead, Sabathia has achieved a comparable level of success while deploying similar tactics. What could have been a fluke in 2016 is proving with each passing start to have been something real. Age is liable to corral him again, but with every time out, Sabathia is showing that he really has discovered something in the twilight of his career.

At the top level, most of Sabathia's numbers have hardly changed since last season. His ERA has held steady at a strong 3.82, even as offensive levels have risen. He's struck out 7.0 batters per nine after whiffing 7.6 last year, and his walk rate has fallen from 3.3 per nine last year to 3.1. He allowed 1.1 home runs per nine last year, and has allowed 1.2 in 2017.

At a more granular level, the way Sabathia has achieved those results has also stayed the same. Much of his success last year seemed to stem from his acceptance of who he was. He realized he was no longer the dominant fire-baller of yesteryear, and adjusted accordingly. After pounding the zone with a 95 mph fastball for over a decade, Sabathia retreated to the edges of the zone. He invited players to swing and miss or make weak contact with pitches away from the middle of the plate.

According to FanGraphs, last year Sabathia threw pitches in the zone 44% of the time. That’s the lowest rate he's ever posted in a season in which he made 30 starts. This figure has dipped even lower to 41% in 2017. Sabathia knows that he can't challenge hitters the way he did a decade ago. His two-seam fastball has sat at 90.7 mph per Brooks Baseball since 2016, after holding near 95 mph in 2009.

Yet a major part of Sabathia's resurgence was his lessened reliance on two-seam and four-seam fastballs. He introduced a cutter to his arsenal in 2016 and relied on it heavily to attack right-handed hitters. After using a two-seam or four-seam fastball 58% of the time per Brooks Baseball from 2013 to 2015, he used those two only 31% in 2016, with almost all of that accounted for by the sinker. He threw a brand-new cutter about 30% of the time in place of the four-seamer.

This makes sense. Between 2013 and 2015, right-handers feasted on his slowing four-seamer, batting over .300 and slugging over .500. After pounding righties with his cutter in 2016, he's done so again this year. Nearly 60% of his offerings to right-handers have been cutters or sliders, pitches that would typically bear in on their hands. Right-handed batters have posted batting averages and slugging percentages of .175/.320 and .254/.418 against Sabathia's slider and cutter, respectively.

Sabathia has an introduced a new offering to his repertoire and molded himself into a pitcher that lives on the edges of the zone rather than in the middle. He is in the process of doing so for consecutive seasons. That Sabathia has executed seemingly the same game plan for the past two seasons — one that is in stark contrast to his earlier years — indicates that last year wasn't a fluke. This new Sabathia may have truly figured something out and can be depended on to be more than a fifth starter.

In fact, if it wasn't for his recurring knee issues, there would probably be even more hope that Sabathia could maintain this a little while longer. From Brooks baseball, here's Sabathia's average velocity on hard pitches:

Sabathia's velocity is still far lower than his peak, but the numbers has actually ticked up recently. His arm appears to be stronger now than it was at his nadir, lending credence to the idea that he still has something left in the tank. Unfortunately, it's anyone's guess as to whether Sabathia's lower body will hold up, but his arm is providing hope that the end isn't imminent. That he has been able to stave off time after appearing at the end of his rope two years ago has been a pleasant surprise. If Sabathia continues to stick to what's made him newly successful, his swan song needn't end any time soon.