We don’t know when the actual end will come. On Friday night, CC Sabathia lasted just three innings against Oakland, his knee once again forcing him off the mound. Sabathia was pitching well too – a rare enough occurrence in what’s been a mostly forgettable final season from the elder statesman. He’ll go to the IL, and there are very legitimate questions about whether he’ll see time on the playoff roster, and then he’ll be gone, set to retire at the close of the season.
Scott Boras, rather memorably, once said that careers are not about whether you can beat baseball, it’s how long you can go before it beats you. We’ve seen the greatest players in history beaten up by the game, replaced by other greatest players in history, who go through the same thing. You need only remember Derek Jeter getting 630 plate appearances in 2014 while struggling to post a 75 wRC+, or, of course, you just had to watch CC in 2019 to understand how baseball will eventually break your favorite player.
The joy of Sabathia’s career renaissance has been his ability to outperform his metrics. He threw junk and guys hit it, they just didn’t hit it with any authority. CC showed an ability to control contact quality, and that kept his real run prevention well below league averages. That soft contact has disappeared, dropping 20% year over year from 2018, and as that’s gone away, so has the run suppression:
His talent for inducing just the right kind of contact is gone, and now that he’ll be sidelined for the third time this year. It’s not that much of a stretch to say that the career of CC Sabathia may have ended Friday night, five weeks ahead of plan.
It’s hard sometimes to remember just how great CC was at his best. I think this happens a lot with aging greats; Albert Pujols has been a Bad Contract almost as long as he was the best player in the game. When CC was the CC of old, he was so good:
In his peak from 2009-2012, his first four years with the Yankees and his time as the anchor of a pitching staff of three division winners and of course a World Series champion, Sabathia was as good and reliable as you could get in baseball. His workhorse status is matched by precious few contemporaries; the dots closest to that CC-sized triangle are Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez.
CC was the ace that any fan would want, and then he wasn’t, and he’s taken us along a journey that highlights the best of player development - if you think PD is just for players on farm teams, I think you’ll miss quite a lot about what front offices are trying to do with the players already on their MLB rosters. Sabathia is an example of that, a veteran superstar who had to relearn everything about the game he’d played his whole life.
We don’t know if the end has come for CC just yet. The Yankees almost certainly have something up their sleeves for his final days in pinstripes, and nobody honors baseball history like the Yankees do. However, if you take anything from his last month with the team, it should be an appreciation of how great the stars of today are.
I’m someone who has always struggled with baseball history - I don’t particularly care for debates about whether Babe Ruth really did call his shot or reminiscing about a World Series that happened before I was born. If that’s how you choose to be a baseball fan, go for it, it’s just never been my thing.
What has been my thing is loving what baseball is right now, and this is what I want people to take away from Sabathia’s final month in MLB. The Yankees are blessed with young talent that can count members among the best players in the game. Baseball beats everyone eventually, and there will be a time where the sadness we feel about the end of Sabathia’s career will be felt about the end of Aaron Judge’s career, or Gary Sanchez, or Gleyber Torres.
Appreciate the stars you have now. Love the four or five years a player spends at the peak of their performance. And let’s hope that CC has one more start in his bones before he hangs up those Jordans.