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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #50 CC Sabathia

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The big left-hander kicks off the second half of Pinstripe Alley’s Top 100 series.

League Championship Series-Houston Astros v New York Yankees Game t Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Name: Carsten Charles Sabathia Jr.
Position: Starting Pitcher
Born: July 21, 1980 (Vallejo, CA)
Yankee Years: 2009 - Present
Primary Number: 52
Yankee Statistics: 120-73, 3.75 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 255 GS, 1657.2 IP, 1453 K, 12 CG, 2 SHO, 89 ERA-, 88 ERA-, 28.4 rWAR, 30.5 fWAR

Biography

Baseball has long had a fascination with the big game pitcher. Observers and fans alike conjure up images of an archetypal ace, one who takes the mound to snap a losing streak or clinch a postseason series. The starter who transcends the moment, blocks out the noise, and mows batters down no matter the situation enters legendary status among his fanbase.

Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine built their legacies on being big game pitchers. Jack Morris took his reputation all the way to Cooperstown. Bret Saberhagen, Bert Blyleven, Curt Schilling, and a host of others have worn the mantle at various points in the game’s history. In today’s era, however, no pitcher fits the title better than CC Sabathia.

The Yankees left-hander has built a storied career around his ability to serve as a stopper. He could take a team on his back for significant period of time. At 37 years old, Sabathia isn’t done yet. His story to date, however, shows why he belongs on the Top 100 Yankees list.

The Vallejo years

Sabathia was born on July 21, 1980 to Margie and Cartsen Charles Sabathia. Both athletes themselves, they took a keen interest in their son’s athletic interests. While CC would later grow estranged from his father, the senior Sabathia played a pivotal role in his baseball development. He insisted that his son, a natural right-hander, learn how to pitch and bat left-handed.

As a single mother, Margie fostered Sabathia’s budding interest in baseball. She spent hours in the backyard serving as CC’s practice catcher. She also took him to various Little League games, with one important document in hand. Given her son’s large size and mature look, Margie carried his birth certificate to the field.

It was here that Sabathia’s athleticism shined through, excelling on both sides of the ball. "He wasn't too good at running, but he was a better hitter than anyone I've ever seen," explained Tony Hodges, president of North Vallejo Little League. "Even at that age, he had a swing you just can't teach."

By high school, Sabathia began to understand the extent of his talents. According to Billy Witz, he once crept into his mother’s room during the middle of the night. “Are you awake?” he asked. When a startled Margie began to stir, the 16-year-old delivered a prediction: “Mama, I’m going to make it to the major leagues. And when I do, I’ll never forget Vallejo.”

Sabathia’s forecast came true. Following a stellar senior year in 1998, one that saw him go 6-0 with a 0.87 ERA, he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe selected him with the 20th pick in the first round, one spot behind his hometown San Francisco Giants.

The winding path to a Cy Young Award

At just 17 years old, Sabathia proved one of the youngest draftees in 1998. That didn’t stop him from having near instant success, however. He pitched rookie-ball in Burlington, posting a 4.50 ERA. He also touched 98 mph on the radar gun, which proved more impressive.

The rest of his minor league tenure came and went without much fanfare. Rumblings, however, began to surface in early 2001 indicating that he could make the Indians’ rotation out of spring training. Some dismissed this, given he never pitched above Double-A. Nevertheless, a big camp jettisoned him onto the roster at just 20 years old.

Sabathia made his major league debut on April 8, 2001 at Jacobs Field against the Orioles. He had a decent outing, holding a solid Baltimore lineup to just three runs over 5.2 innings. He only struck out three batters, but it was an encouraging start. The Indians won and Sabathia could put the first game nerves behind him.

The rookie left-hander settled down and performed well for the rest of the season. All told, he managed a 17-5 record, pitching to a 4.39 ERA over 180.1 innings. Sabathia finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Ichiro Suzuki. He also developed a reputation as a big game pitcher, one that would stick to this day. “It seems like every time we need a big win, C.C. [sic] is standing on the mound and he gives it to us,” said Indians manager Charlie Manuel.

Cleveland took home the AL Central title in 2001. They squared off against the juggernaut Mariners in the ALDS. Sabathia took the ball in Game Three, with the series tied at a game apiece. CC pitched well, surrendering just two runs to the M’s over six innings. He struck out five along the way. The Indians’ lineup stole the show that day, however, planting 17 runs on Seattle.

The Mariners rebounded, taking the series in five games. The postseason experience, though, proved invaluable for Sabathia. He admitted that nerves plagued him before the start. “The closest thing I can put it to,” he told reporters after the game, “is when I was a little kid and my mom would take me to Toys ‘R’ Us, when you get that anxious feeling going into Toys ‘R’ Us and you can pick out anything you want.”

The window closed on the Indians shortly thereafter. By June 2002, the team began selling off pieces. A long rebuild was in store. It would take years before the Indians would ready themselves for another playoff run. Sabathia, meanwhile, failed to take the step forward so many expected. From 2002 through 2005, he logged a 4.03 ERA with a 3.93 FIP over 792.1 innings. He consistently gave the team length, and earned a pair of All-Star nods, but came up short of the dominance his stuff suggested.

Sabathia’s breakthrough began in earnest in 2006. The big left-hander posted a 3.22 ERA with a 3.30 FIP. His results began to align with the raw potential he possessed. He also continued his workhorse ways, pitching 192.2 innings on the year. In many ways, this season would serve as the forerunner to his Cy Young Award winning campaign just one year later.

ALDS: New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game 1
Sabathia during his Cy Young campaign
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

From start to finish, 2007 played out as the season of Sabathia. Through June he owned a 3.20 ERA with an even better 3.14 FIP. The southpaw stumbled in July, becoming eminently hittable to the tune of a 5.12 ERA. Once the calendar flipped to August, however, the dominant CC reemerged. He worked to a 2.48 ERA down the stretch, securing Cleveland’s first playoff berth since his rookie year.

Sabathia struggled in the postseason, pitching to an 8.80 ERA over 15.1 innings pitched. That did include a victory over the Yankees in Game One of the ALDS. The Bombers scored three runs off him, but Sabathia managed to last five innings. Like his previous postseason start in 2001, the Indians ran up a laughable score. They hung 12 runs on the Yankees, including eight against starter Chien-Ming Wang, The ALCS, however, didn’t prove as kind; the Red Sox pummeled Sabathia in both of his starts.

Postseason struggles aside, Sabathia was rewarded for his exceptional season. He won the Cy Young Award handily, beating out runner-up Josh Beckett by 33 votes. CC accepted the honor graciously, acknowledging his competitor’s talent along the way. “I did look at a few numbers,” he told reporters. “I definitely thought that Beckett — it could have went either way. I’m just happy and thankful that it went my way.”

The good times in Cleveland, however, neared their end. Sabathia’s award winning campaign would also be his last full season pitching for the Indians. Instead, the next set the foundation for establishing his status as an all-time great Yankee.

The Milwaukee trade

It became clear early on that 2008 would be Sabathia’s final year with Cleveland. Walk years always have that sense looming overhead, but this one was different. Both sides knew that and admitted as much. Few would be surprised when CC departed via free agency at season’s end.

It was surprising, however, when the Indians stumbled right out of the gate. They never recovered either, sitting at 37 - 47 on July 1st. In less than a week’s time, Cleveland dealt Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for three prospects. “We just felt that we needed to go for it at this point,” Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin told Jack Curry. “We feel that this is a year that gives us a chance.”

The Brew Crew stood at 49 - 39 the day prior to the trade, and appeared poised to make a run at the National League Wild Card spot. The team decided to invest in Sabathia to secure their first postseason berth since 1982. He rewarded them handsomely, delivering 130.2 innings to the tune of a 1.65 ERA.

Brewers CC Sabathia Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

CC established himself as a workhorse of the highest order during his tenure with the Brewers. With the Wild Card on the line, he pitched nearly the entire month of September on short rest. His 2.11 ERA on the month played a critical role in Milwaukee snapping its postseason drought. In short, Sabathia willed the team to the playoffs.

Unfortunately for Sabathia, he had to go to the well once too often. The Phillies rocked him in Game Two of the NLDS, tagging him for five runs over 3.2 innings. The Brewers suffered an early elimination, but Sabathia’s efforts were greatly appreciated. To this day he receives deafening applause when visiting Miller Park.

While Sabathia carried the entire state of Wisconsin on his shoulders, the Yankees lurked in the background. Per Jack Curry’s report, Brian Cashman engaged Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro on the left-hander over the summer. Cashman broke off the talks upon learning the Yankees wouldn’t be granted an exclusive window to negotiate a contract extension. New York’s front office remained undeterred, however. Realizing that the Brewers saw Sabathia as just a hired gun, the club would take their chance in free agency. That’s how they would get their man.

The new Yankees ace

The 2008 season marked the first time in 14 years that the Yankees missed the playoffs. A number of factors contributed to the mediocre campaign. For example, injuries hampered the lineup. Relying on highly touted, although unproven, arms in the rotation backfired as well. Their starters that season combined to produce an ugly 4.58 ERA with a 4.05 FIP. It became abundantly clear that upgrading the pitching staff would take top priority, and the 2008 - 2009 free agent class offered a number of options. The crown jewel? CC Sabathia.

The Yankees long coveted Sabathia. They expressed interest at the 2008 trade deadline. Some have even suggested that the Bombers opted to forego on the long-rumored Johan Santana trade because of CC’s looming free agency. It made sense that Cashman and company would pull out all the stops to reel the southpaw in.

Unfortunately, the Bombers weren’t alone in this thinking. The Sabathia sweepstakes dominated the early offseason. He drew interest from several clubs, including the San Francisco Giants. The Yankees made their interest clear though and aggressively pursued the southpaw. Cashman famously left the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas to meet with CC and his wife Amber at their home. He made one persuasive pitch, as Sabathia agreed to a seven-year, $161 million contract with New York the very next day.

Sabathia joined AJ Burnett as the new additions to the Yankees’ rotation. The pair expected to form a one-two punch at the top of the staff. Make no mistake, though. Sabathia stood out as the club’s ace, and the rest of the Bombers took notice. "I'm sure every team in baseball would love to have him. He's a guy who's an intimidating factor on the mound," Derek Jeter told reporters.

After much fanfare, the 2009 season got off to a shaky start for the Yankees in general and Sabathia in particular. He labored on Opening Day, and was charged with six runs over 4.1 innings against the Orioles. The rest of April didn’t fare much better; he pitched to a 4.73 ERA (4.30 FIP) on the month. This would begin a series of slow starts for the left-hander, who took a while to warm up.

From May onward, Sabathia looked like his old self. He anchored the rotation of a team that won 103 games. In total, the big guy went 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA. He also had a near identical 3.39 FIP. Along the way, Sabathia racked up 197 strikeouts and logged 230 innings. That earned him a fourth place finish in the year’s Cy Young voting.

The Bombers stormed through the 2009 playoffs using exclusively a three-man rotation, one anchored by Sabathia. He had the most dominant postseason showing of his career to date, pitching to a 1.98 ERA over 36.1 innings. In the process, he took home the ALCS MVP award.

Sabathia also made two starts in the 2009 World Series. He took a hard luck loss in Game One, holding the powerful Phillies’ lineup to two runs over seven innings. It just so happened that Cliff Lee, his former teammate on the Indians, stifled the Yankees. CC took a no decision in Game Four, however, when he pitched 6.2 innings of three run ball at Citizens Bank Park.

With a World Series victory, the Yankees had a sense of instant gratification from the Sabathia signing. The investment would continue to pay off, as the left-hander would establish himself as one of the premier pitchers in the American League. In 2010, he went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA (3.54 FIP). The Texas Rangers sent the Yankees home in the ALCS that year, but Sabathia placed third in the Cy Young voting, his best showing in pinstripes.

Another brilliant year in 2011, however, led the Yankees to a difficult choice. Sabathia’s contract contained an opt-out clause following that season. Cashman and company had to decide if they wished to pursue their ace should he elect free agency. Fortunately, Sabathia made the decision for them, agreeing to a two-year contract extension in lieu of opting out. In typical 2011 fashion, he made the announcement himself on Twitter.

The Yankees secured their ace, but cracks began to show in 2012. He pitched well by all means, throwing 200 innings worth of 3.38 baseball. He did, however, spend two stints on the disabled list, including a trip for a balky elbow. When a workhorse on the wrong side of 30 experiences elbow pain, red flags jump up pretty quickly.

In many ways, Sabathia carried the Yankees through the postseason that year. Well, at least he shared the burden with the suddenly unstoppable Raul Ibanez. CC lived up to his reputation as a big game pitcher multiple times during the playoffs, but no outing exemplifies this better than Game Five of the ALDS. Against the division rival Orioles on October 12th, he pitched a complete game, surrendering just one run. Sabathia struck out nine in the process, making it his best postseason start to date.

He didn’t have the same luck in the ALCS, however. He made one start against the Tigers, where he was tagged for six runs over 3.2 innings. That ended the Yankees’ season, and closed the chapter on his tenure as the staff ace. At the time, few could have imagined how much that abysmal outing would foreshadow the next several years.

Complete collapse

An endless list of factors contributed to the disaster that was the 2013 Yankees. For one, the lineup consisted of a mishmash of Triple-A players and reanimated veteran corpses. Save for Hiroki Kuroda, the pitching also sunk the team. No one regressed more painfully than Sabathia, however. He struggled every step of the way that year, logging 211 innings to the tune of a 4.78 ERA.

Many latched on to his declining velocity as the culprit responsible for his ineffectiveness. “I’m hoping more velocity comes back, but if not, then we’ll work with this,” he told Jorge Arangure Jr. of the New York Times at the start of the season. Unfortunately, it never returned and Sabathia slogged through the rest of the year. The Yankees missed the postseason for the first time in five years in no small part due to their nominal ace’s sudden collapse.

Heading into 2014, Sabathia hoped for a clean slate. He wished to show the previous year’s disaster was nothing but an anomaly. In an interview with Wally Matthews, he suggested his sudden weight loss could be to blame for his 2013 woes. "I lost a lot of weight,” Sabathia explained, “but I wasn't physically ready to go out and play. So this year was just all about training and getting ready to play."

The extra preparation failed to deliver results. In fact, he had an even worse year, posting a 5.28 ERA over an injury shortened campaign. Sabathia suffered a season-ending knee injury. He underwent surgery to halt the degenerative condition, hoping it would allow him to pitch better in the future. At this point, it became clear that the Yankees were saddled with an albatross contract, one that couldn’t end soon enough.

For most of 2015, Sabathia battled injuries and ineffectiveness. The addition of a knee brace in September, however, worked wonders as the Yankees battled for a postseason spot. Over his final five starts on the year, he worked a tremendous 2.17 ERA. His peripherals, although not as shiny, showed a remarkable improvement. His 3.93 FIP and 0.62 HR/9 gave the Bombers encouragement as they clinched a Wild Card spot. If they made it through the Astros, the team thought, they could use an effective CC in the ALDS.

Those dreams never came to realization, though. The Yankees fell to the Houston, but a more troublesome development emerged. On October 5th, 2015, Sabathia checked into rehab for alcoholism.

The King of Soft Contact and unfinished business

"Today I am checking myself into an alcohol rehabilitation center to receive the professional care and assistance needed to treat my disease.” Those were the last words Yankees fans heard from Sabathia in the 2015 season. "I love baseball and I love my teammates like brothers, and I am also fully aware that I am leaving at a time when we should all be coming together for one last push toward the World Series.”

No one knew what to expect from Sabathia heading into 2016. He was pitching well prior to checking into rehab, but he was also 35 years old and had a growing injury history. After a painful April — one that saw him pitch to a 5.06 ERA — most figured it was the end of the road for the big guy. The storied career would have no happy ending.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, something changed. Sabathia began to throw differently. No longer working as a power arm, he mastered the art of pitching to contact. He generated a 24% soft contact rate, good for second best in the league. He also led all of baseball with the lowest average exit velocity, a meager 85.3 mph.

The renaissance of CC Sabathia continued in the 2017 season. With the use of his new trademark cutter, he kept batters off balance all year. After a short trip on the disabled list — one that admittedly led him to consider retirement -- the southpaw picked up right where he left off. He finished the year with a 3.69 ERA, complete with a 49.9% groundball rate, over 148.2 innings.

Perhaps the most telling story of 2017, however, came in the form of postseason Sabathia. It was here that the Yankees turned to left-hander as their stopper. As a battle-tested big game pitcher, he took the ball in multiple must-win scenarios. “We talked about it. We wanted him on the mound tonight,” Joe Girardi told reporters after Game Three of the ALCS. “We thought we had the right guy on the mound. Six innings, just an outstanding effort. Couldn’t ask for anything more.”

The Yankees ultimately couldn’t overcome the Astros and fell just one game short of a World Series appearance. At the same time, Sabathia’s mega-contract finally reached its end. The veteran southpaw, however, had no intentions of leaving. After taking meetings with the Los Angeles Angels and Toronto Blue Jays, Sabathia agreed to a one-year, $10 million deal with the Yankees on December 16th.

“CC feels there’s unfinished business to attend to,” his agent Kyle Thousand explained. He returns to a juggernaut club, one that recently imported Giancarlo Stanton and will feature a full year of Sonny Gray. Now the 2018 Yankees have a stopper, a big game pitcher ready for another deep playoff run. They also have an all-time great Yankee, one who draws closer to Monument Park with every pitch.

Andrew’s rank: 49
Tanya’s rank: 57
Community rank: 43.80
WAR rank: 58.5

Season Stats

Year Age Tm W L ERA FIP G GS SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP ERA- FIP- rWAR fWAR
Year Age Tm W L ERA FIP G GS SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP ERA- FIP- rWAR fWAR
2009 29 NYY 19 8 3.37 3.39 34 34 1 0 230 197 96 86 18 67 7 197 9 0 5 73 74 6.2 5.9
2010 30 NYY 21 7 3.18 3.54 34 34 0 0 237.2 209 92 84 20 74 6 197 7 1 8 75 82 4.6 5.1
2011 31 NYY 19 8 3 2.88 33 33 1 0 237.1 230 87 79 17 61 4 230 7 1 2 71 69 7.5 6.4
2012 32 NYY 15 6 3.38 3.33 28 28 0 0 200 184 89 75 22 44 2 197 8 1 4 80 78 3.5 4.7
2013 33 NYY 14 13 4.78 4.1 32 32 0 0 211 224 122 112 28 65 5 175 4 1 7 118 100 0.3 2.6
2014 34 NYY 3 4 5.28 4.78 8 8 0 0 46 58 31 27 10 10 0 48 4 0 2 137 122 -0.6 0.1
2015 35 NYY 6 10 4.73 4.68 29 29 0 0 167.1 188 92 88 28 50 3 137 6 1 5 117 112 1.0 1.2
2016 36 NYY 9 12 3.91 4.28 30 30 0 0 179.2 172 83 78 22 65 1 152 9 1 2 92 97 3.0 2.6
2017 37 NYY 14 5 3.69 4.49 27 27 0 0 148.2 139 64 61 21 50 1 120 5 0 5 84 99 2.8 1.9

References

Arangure Jr., Jorge. (2013, April 7) His Velocity Down, Sabathia Faces Reality but Doesn’t Give In to It. New York Times https://nyti.ms/2EQtpGA

Baseball Reference

Curry, Jack. (2008, July 8) Looking to Postseason, Brewers Trade for Sabathia. New York Times https://nyti.ms/2EEdlaG

DiComo, Anthony. (2017, Dec 16) Pinstripes suit CC! NY has 'unfinished business'. MLB.com https://www.mlb.com/news/cc-sabathia-agrees-to-deal-to-return-to-yanks/c-263667888

Faber, Charles H. Baseball Prodigies: Best Major League Seasons by Players Under 21 (McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers: Jefferson, NC).

FanGraphs

Hoch, Bryan. (2015, Oct 6) Sabathia leaves Yankees to enter alcohol rehab. MLB.com https://www.mlb.com/news/cc-sabathia-enters-alcohol-rehabilitation/c-153360006

"Indians' Sabathia Filling Tall Order." The Washington Post, Aug 19, 2001.

Jones, Carolyn. (2009, Nov. 28) Vallejo's love affair with CC Sabathia. SFGate http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Vallejo-s-love-affair-with-CC-Sabathia-3279966.php

Kepner, Tyler. (2001, Oct 14). Mariners short-circuited by indians' power surge. New York Times

Matthews, Wallace. (2014, Feb 14). CC finds weight loss frets 'hilarious'. ESPN http://www.espn.com/new-york/mlb/story/_/id/10456605/cc-sabathia-says-shed-extra-offseason-pounds-carry-weight-new-york-yankees-rotation

Mazzeo, Mike. (2017, Aug 19). CC Sabathia contemplated retiring after going down with latest knee injury. New York Daily News http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/cc-sabathia-contemplated-retiring-latest-knee-injury-article-1.3424037

“Sabathia gets better of Beckett to win A.L. Cy Young Award” (2007, Nov 14). New York Times

“Sources: Yanks, Sabathia agree to deal” (2008, Dec 11). ESPN http://www.espn.com/mlb/news/story?id=3759182

Witz, Billy. (2015, May 29) CC Sabathia Has a Big Heart for Home, New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/30/sports/baseball/cc-sabathia-has-a-big-heart-for-home.html