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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #28 CC Sabathia

The future Hall of Famer ranks among the organization’s premier aces.

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees, Game 1 Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Name: Carsten Charles “CC” Sabathia
Position: Pitcher
Born: July 21, 1980 (Vallejo, CA)
Yankee Years: 2009-19
Primary number: 52
Yankee statistics: 307 games (306 starts), 134-88, 12 CG (2 SHO), 1918 innings, 3.81 ERA (112 ERA+), 3.92 FIP, 1700 K, 21.0 K%, 7.1 BB%, 31.6 fWAR, 29.4 rWAR

Biography

Randy Johnson. Steve Carlton. Lefty Grove. Tommy John. Clayton Kershaw. The left-handed ace is baseball’s semi-mythical creature, a type of player rarely available either in free agency or on the trade market, and when one is available, every contender goes all-in trying to bring him aboard their roster.

Over the 120+ years of the Yankees franchise, the Bombers have had a long tradition of left-handed aces. From Whitey Ford to Ron Guidry to Andy Pettitte, many of the greatest Yankees teams have been headlined by a southpaw starter anchoring the rotation.

Over the course of his career, CC Sabathia was the archetypal left-handed ace. His 66.5 fWAR ranks 11th all-time among southpaws, right behind Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, and his 3093 career strikeouts trail only Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton among left-handed pitchers. It is all but a guarantee that a plaque will be waiting for him in Cooperstown when he is eligible for the Hall of Fame next year — and in all likelihood, that plaque will contain a Yankee hat.

Early Life

From his youth in Vallejo, California, CC Sabathia was a dominant athlete, no matter what sport he tried. As the power forward on a stacked Vallejo High School basketball team, he lost just two games his senior year and made a serious bid for the California state title. On the football field, he dominated as a pass rusher and a tight end; he was recruited by both UCLA and the University of Hawaii as a football player. It was on the diamond, however, that Sabathia truly shined. He was named Baseball America’s No. 2 prospect in Northern California and a second-team All-American prospect for his performance both on the mound (6-0, 0.87 ERA, 107 K, 67 innings as a senior) and at the plate (.563 average, 10 home run, 80 AB).

During his senior year, Sabathia signed a letter of intent to continue as a two-sport athlete at the University of Hawaii, playing both baseball and football. He never made it to campus.

Cleveland Ace

With the 20th overall selection of the 1998 MLB Draft, Cleveland selected Sabathia, signing him to a $1.3 million contract to get him to forego his commitment to Hawaii. Although one of the youngest players selected at just 17-years-old, Sabathia immediately showed that the stage was not too big for him, striking out 35 batters in 18 innings in rookie ball. Inspired by his performance, Cleveland’s front office decided to push their young lefty through the system.

Mahoning Valley Scrappers Photo by: Tom Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

In CC’s age-18 season, he stormed through three levels, reaching High-A Kinston, and in 2000, he reached Double-A — and played for the US Olympic team in the qualifying rounds — at the age of 19.

Despite not having pitched an inning above Double-A, Sabathia cracked Cleveland’s rotation with a big spring in 2001. Just three years removed from high school, he made his major league debut on April 8, 2001, allowing three runs on three hits in 5.2 innings. He built upon that to put together a rookie campaign that established him as an up-and-coming star. Despite a middling 4.39 ERA (102 ERA+), he finished seventh in the AL in strikeouts (171), fourth in K/9 (8.53), and first in H/9 (7.44). More importantly, he came up big when it mattered most, with manager Charlie Manuel saying, “It seems like every time we need a big win, C.C. [sic] is standing on the mound and he gives it to us.”

In most years, that rookie campaign would be enough to win Rookie of the Year honors. Unfortunately for him, he was up against AL MVP Ichiro Suzuki, and well, it’s hard to vote against a guy who had 242 hits, 56 stolen bases, hit .350, and accrued 7.7 rWAR. In fact, the only first-place vote Sabathia received came from a voter who believed that Ichiro’s professional experience in Japan meant that he was not actually a rookie. Nonetheless, to be the runner-up to Ichiro was not at all a bad thing.

That October, Sabathia got his first taste of the postseason, notching his first playoff win by stifling the Mariners lineup for two runs across six innings in Game 3 of the ALDS. Unfortunately for him, the Mariners lost that battle but won the war, taking the Divisional Series in five games. While it would be six years before Sabathia returned to the postseason, the left-hander credits that game with proving to himself that he could show up and perform when the stakes were highest.

Over the next three seasons, Cleveland failed to post a winning record. While Sabathia himself was one of the team’s few bright spots, earning a pair of All-Star nods and posting a 4.03 ERA (109 ERA+), he had yet to establish himself as the dominant pitcher many knew he could become.

2006 would herald the arrival of CC Sabathia, the lefty ace. Despite making just 28 starts, he pitched 192.2 innings and struck out 172 batters. He led the league with seven complete games, including a pair of shutouts. He was even better in 2007: behind a 19-7 record, 3.21 ERA, and a league-leading 241 innings and 5.65 K/BB, Sabathia won his first and only career AL Cy Young Award, earning a few down-ballot MVP votes in the process. Unfortunately for him and his team, his regular season success did not extend to the postseason — he surrendered 15 runs in 15.1 innings that October. Even so, heading into a walk year, Sabathia firmly established himself among the game’s elite.

Knowing that Sabathia would likely walk in free agency, Cleveland set out to make the most of their final year with their hefty lefty. Unfortunately, they stumbled out of the gate and never recovered. With their hopes of a postseason berth slipping further into the rearview mirror, Cleveland put up a “For Sale” sign, and found a buyer in the Milwaukee Brewers. On July 7, 2008, they traded Sabathia to the Brew Crew for Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson, and a player-to-be-named-later that would eventually become Michael Brantley (yes, the same Brantley that would become a Yankee Killer with the Astros).

Sabathia and his wife Amber took out a full-page ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer thanking the Cleveland organization and fanbase for their time there.

“You’ve touched our lives with your kindness, love and generosity. We are forever grateful!”

The ad cost him $12,870. I have absolutely no idea why this particular fact is not only widely known, but included in every single article that mentions this full-page ad, so I will not break from tradition. In the event that you, dear reader, write an article about this, make sure to include this fact.

Milwaukee Legend

Sabathia spent just four months in Milwaukee. Nonetheless, he is a Brewers legend. When you look at his numbers, it’s easy to see why. CC made 17 starts for Milwaukee, and he gave them 130.2 innings — that’s more than seven innings per start. He allowed just 24 earned runs, good for a 1.65 ERA, and struck out almost a batter per inning. He spun seven complete games, including three shutouts. Despite spending half the year in the AL, Sabathia finished the year leading the National League in complete games and shutouts (he also led the AL in shutouts with two, becoming the first pitcher in history to accomplish the feat.

Those numbers, elite as they are, don’t tell the whole story. He came close to a no-hitter on August 31st, and the one hit he allowed was a play that realistically could have been ruled an error. As the Brewers chased down a Wild Card berth, Sabathia took the ball on short rest all throughout September, including three straight starts to end the season, in order to will the Brew Crew into the postseason for the first time since 1982. Although the Brewers saw their season end after the NLDS and watched Sabathia walk in free agency, Milwaukee fans recognize who was responsible for ending their postseason drought. To this day, CC receives a warm welcome every time he visits the city.

World Series Champion

As Sabathia and the Brewers danced in the playoffs, the New York Yankees had their first quiet October in a decade and a half, having missed the postseason with 89 wins and a third-place finish in the AL East. Everything that could have gone wrong that season went wrong, and with an aging core, the Yankees needed a quick retool. The pitching staff in particular needed sorting: the young arms in the rotation had floundered in 2008, and future Hall of Famer Mike Mussina had bid adieu. Fortunately for the Yankees, the 2008-2009 free agent class was filled with starting pitching, and the biggest name on the market was Sabathia.

Baseball - C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett Unveiling Photo by Anthony Causi/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After attempting to trade for him at the deadline but opting not to because he wouldn’t grant the team an opportunity to negotiate an extension first, the Yankees put on a full-court press to bring Sabathia to the Bronx that winter. Rather famously, Brian Cashman left the winter meetings, held in Las Vegas that year, to personally meet with Sabathia and his family in his home. That level of commitment — plus a record-breaking seven-year, $161 million contract — worked like a charm. After the Randy Johnson experiment had backfired and Chien-Ming Wang’s promising career was derailed by injuries, the Yankees finally had their first bona fide ace since Roger Clemens.

Unsurprisingly named the Opening Day starter, Sabathia’s first start in pinstripes mimicked his first career start, as he took on a Baltimore Orioles team in the midst of a rebuild. On this particular day, the O’s had Sabathia’s number, tattooing him to the tune of six runs on 4.1 innings — not a good first impression. Fortunately for the Yankees, that slow start to the season, which did become a bit of a trend, was just a blip on the rada. Sabathia dominated the majority of the season, finishing the year with a league-leading 19 wins and finishing fourth in the AL Cy Young vote, although the slow start prevented him from getting his fourth All-Star nod.

All-Star Games and Cy Young Awards, however, Sabathia already had on his shelf. What he lacked was a ring. With the Yankees coasting to the playoffs with 103 wins, 2009 represented his best shot at adding to his trophy case, and boy did he make the most of it. The lead man of the Yankees’ unusual three-man rotation, Sabathia had one of the most dominant postseason runs in recent memory. He stifled the Twins offense in Game 1 of the ALDS, allowing just two runs in 6.2 innings to secure a 7-2 victory. Against the Angels in the ALCS, Sabathia started Games 1 and 4, allowing just one run in eight innings in both starts; his sheer dominance would result in him being named the ALCS MVP.

Sabathia’s one loss of the postseason came in Game 1 of the World Series, as former Cleveland teammate Cliff Lee outdueled Sabathia in a battle of the aces. Although Sabathia allowed just two runs in seven innings, the Yankees were able to scratch just one ninth-inning run off the Phillies ace. Four days later, however, he had the opportunity for redemption, as he allowed just three runs on seven innings as the Yankees notched their third straight win in Game 4.

A few days later, Sabathia was getting ready to pitch a winner-take-all Game 7, but the Yankees showed Pedro Martínez who his daddy was one last time, Shane Victorino hit a weak groundball to second base, and the Yankees were once again champions of baseball.

The Yankees would not parlay that immediate success with the start of another dynasty, but that was through no fault of Sabathia. Over the next three seasons, he was on the shortlist for best pitcher in baseball. In that span, only four five pitchers — Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, Félix Hernández, Clayton Kershaw, and Roy Halladay — accrued more fWAR than his 15.4, and only three pitchers — Hernández, Verlander, and James Shields — provided more innings than he did.

The Yankees were so confident in the performance of their ace that, rather than give him an opportunity to exercise an opt-out in his contract after the 2011 season, they signed him to a two-year extension that kept him in pinstripes through the end of the 2017 season. Rather amusingly, Sabathia himself broke the news via Twitter:

That October, Sabathia carried the Yankees on his back through the ALDS, shutting down the Orioles lineup for 8.2 innings of two-run ball in Game 1 and spinning a complete game masterpiece to send the Yankees to the ALCS for a date with the Detroit Tigers.

Unfortunately, CC — like the rest of the Yankees — fell flat on their faces that series; the Tigers lineup tagged him for six runs in 3.2 innings to complete the sweep and end the Yankees season...and their window of contention.

Cracks in the Foundation

Why were the 2013 Yankees a bad team? Was it the injury bug that saw Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Travis Hafner, Kevin Youkilis, Francisco Cervelli, and Michael Pineda all hit the shelf? Was it the fact that the team consisted of a collection of has-beens and never-weres that would have excelled in MLB The Show 2008 but not in Major League Baseball in 2013?

Although the answer to these questions is a resounding “yes,” Sabathia did not help. His fastball velocity dipped from 94 mph to 91, and while he continued to be a workhorse, his ERA and WHIP ballooned to 4.78 and 1.370, respectively. Sabathia himself blamed his performance and velocity loss to his weight loss the previous winter. After crash-dieting in the winter of 2012-2013 to slim down after a cousin died from heart disease, Sabathia had arrived to spring training noticeably lighter, but in hindsight, he didn’t believe that he came “ready to play.

2014 would prove even worse, as Sabathia posted a career-worst 5.28 ERA in just eight starts. Knee surgery ended his season, one that required multiple follow-up surgeries through the rest of his career and which will, one day, require a total knee replacement.

The majority of 2015 was more of the same. For the first five months of the season, he posted a 5.27 ERA in 24 starts, allowing opposing hitters to slash .297/.342/.484 against him. One knee brace later, however, and suddenly Sabathia started looking like the Sabathia of old, albeit with less of an ability to work deep into ballgame.

Across his final five starts of the year, his ERA dropped to 2.17, and hitters slashed just .224/.320/.327. So long as the Yankees could get through the Houston Astros in the Wild Card round, they’d have a hot Sabathia and a promising rookie in Luis Severino to pair with ace Masahiro Tanaka, giving the Yankees their best postseason rotation in years.

Unfortunately, the dreams of that rotation never panned out. Sabathia had a more important battle to fight.

My Toughest Out:” CC’s Battle with Alcohol Addiction

On October 5, 2015, CC Sabathia issued the following statement through the Yankees (text from Tweet transposed below in case Twitter/X collapses):

“Today I am checking myself into an alcohol rehabilitation center to receive the professional care and assistance needed to treat my disease.

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. It hurts me deeply to do this now, but I owe it to myself and to my family to get myself right. I want to take control of my disease, and I want to be a better man, father and player.

I want to thank the New York Yankees organization for their encouragement and understanding. Their support gives me great strength and has allowed me to move forward with this decision with a clear mind.

As difficult as this decision is to share publicly, I don’t want to run and hide. But for now please respect family’s need for privacy as we work through this challenge together.

Being an adult means being accountable. Being a baseball player means that others look up to you. I want my kids — and others who may have become fans of mine over the years — to know that I am not too big of a man to ask for help. I want to hold my head up high, have a full heart and be the type of person again that I can be proud of. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

I am looking forward to being out on the field with my team next season playing the game that brings me so much happiness.

Since this day, Sabathia has spoken time and time again about his battle with alcoholism, emphasizing that admitting to himself that he had a drinking problem and needed help was a scarier proposition than pitching in the World Series, undergoing surgery, or anything else he had done in his life. He had battled with alcohol addiction for years, initially recognizing that it was a problem in 2012, but not truly understanding the need for help to get sober until he spent the weekend in Baltimore binge drinking in his hotel during the final series of the 2015 season.

If you have the chance, I encourage you to read Sabathia’s reflection on his disease and his time in rehab, published in The Players’ Tribune during spring training in 2016. No, let me rephrase that: if you haven’t read it, make the time to read is, as his own words can tell his own story about this much better than anyone else’s can.

Welcome to the Renaissance

Fresh out of rehab, Sabathia began a career renaissance in 2016. Recognizing his days as a power pitcher were over, Sabathia reinvented himself as a command pitcher who generated soft contact. According to Statcast, he ranked within the top one percent of the league in average exit velocity in 2016 and 2018, and within the top six percent in 2017.

Although no longer able to go deep into games, CC was a reliable “five and fly” guy, a reliable starter capable of providing 4-6 quality innings before handing it off to the bullpen to finish the job. Just as importantly, he continued to serve as the unofficial captain of the pitching staff, helping Jordan Montgomery develop into the pitcher he is today, and the team enforcer, as evidenced by his famous confrontation with the Tampa Bay Rays.

After his long-term contract ended following the 2017 season, Sabathia signed a pair of one-year deals to remain with the Yankees. Ahead of the 2019 season, he announced that the season would be his last. Despite two stints on the IL — including a stretch to start the season on the shelf due to offseason heart surgery — Sabathia provided the injury-laden #NextManUp Yankees with just over 100 innings across 23 starts, and while he was a far cry from the dominant pitcher he had been in his prime or even the solid mid-rotation guy he had been the previous three seasons, those innings were of vital importance for a team that was forced to employ an opener on more than 20 occasions.

True to his status, Sabathia received a bit of a farewell tour, although not one as hyped up as Mariano Rivera’s or Derek Jeter’s. He was invited by the league as a special guest to the 2019 All-Star Game, held in Cleveland and hosted by the team that drafted him. Sabathia threw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the game and made a mound visit in the ninth inning as a “pitching coach” with his teammate Aroldis Chapman closing out the game for the AL.

In many respects, I think that this All-Star Game experience is what prompted MLB to add Special Selections, players named to the All-Star Game to celebrate their career achievements. The first two were Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, who were expected to retire soon thereafter.

There are two moments from the 2019 season that, in my mind, encapsulate the entirety of Sabathia’s career. On April 30th, he became just the third left-handed pitcher (and 17th overall) to record 3,000 career strikeouts, fanning former batterymate John Ryan Murphy.

Then, working out of the bullpen in Game 4 of the ALCS, Sabathia suffered a subluxation of the left shoulder. Unable to continue pitching and with tears in his eyes, CC walked off the mound one final time. As Aaron Judge would say after the game, “He got everything out of that arm.” At long last, his body — balking for years — had finally given out on him.

Every athlete always says they want to “leave it all out on the field.” CC did exactly that — he gave the Yankees faithful every ounce of quality baseball that ever existed in his left arm.

Retirement and Post-Playing Career

In his retirement, Sabathia has not left the game of baseball at all. He and Ryan Ruocco continued the podcast they began in 2017, R2C2, for six years, as it ultimately came to an end in July 2023.

In 2022, CC joined MLB’s Commissioner’s Office, working “in areas concerning the future of the sport: player relations, diversity, equity and inclusion, social responsibility, youth participation and broadcasting.” Sabathia is a regular fixture at baseball events in general and at Yankee Stadium in particular, and likely will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Hall of Fame Black Baseball Initiative Announcement Press Conference Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

And, as it turns out, his baseball career isn’t exactly over just yet. This May, the Hall of Fame will be honoring the Negro Leagues by hosting the Hall of Fame East-West Classic: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues All-Star Game. Guess who has signed up to pitch one last inning?

That’s right — just a few months before he will be added to the Hall of Fame ballot, CC Sabathia will take the mound in the state of New York one more time.

Staff rank: 29
Community rank: 32
Stats rank: 36
2013 rank: 50

References

Adler, David. “CC Sabathia named special assistant to Commissioner.” MLB.com. April 6, 2022.

Baseball Almanac — CC Sabathia

Baseball Reference — 2001 Awards Voting

Baseball Reference — CC Sabathia

Baseball Savant — CC Sabathia

Bloom, Barry M. “Knee-replacement surgery in CC’s future.MLB.com. September 21, 2015.

Blum, Ronald. “Baseball Hall of Fame to have retired players in May 25 tribute to Negro Leagues All-Star Game.” Associated Press. December 5, 2023.

BR Bullpen — CC Sabathia

Castrovince, Anthony. “All-Star FAQ: All you need to know on rosters.” MLB.com. July 2, 2023.

DiComo, Anthony. “Pinstripes suit CC! NY has ‘unfinished business.’” MLB.com. December 16, 2017.

FanGraphs — CC Sabathia

FanGraphs — MLB Pitchers, 2010-12

FanGraphs — Left-handed Pitchers, career

FanGraphs — Left-handed Pitchers, American League career

FanGraphs — Yankees Left-handed Pitchers, career

FanGraphs — Yankees Pitchers, 2009-19

Future Hall of Famers.” National Baseball Hall of Fame. Accessed January 7, 2024.

Hale, Mark. “CC’S H.S. HOOPS SQUAD LOADED WITH BIG SHOTS.New York Post. June 20, 2009.

HALL OF FAME WILL CELEBRATE BLACK BASEBALL WITH EAST-WEST CLASSIC GAME DURING MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND.” National Baseball Hall of Fame. Accessed January 8, 2024.

Hoch, Bryan. “CC taken off Yanks roster, ending storied career.” MLB.com. October 18, 2019.

Hoch, Bryan. “Sabathia leaves Yankees to enter alcohol rehab.MLB.com. October 6, 2015.

Klemish, Dawn. “Where it all began: MLB to honor CC at ASG.MLB.com. July 9, 2019.

Matthew, Wallace. “CC finds weight loss frets ‘hilarious.’” ESPN News. February 14, 2014.

Norton, Tyler. “Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #50 CC Sabathia.” Pinstripe Alley. January 3, 2018.

Sabathia, CC. “My Toughest Out.” The Player’s Tribune. March 8, 2016.

Sabathia takes out ad in paper thanking Cleveland fans.” ESPN.com. July 30, 2008.

Schwartz, Jon. “Yankees Magazine: The Take And The Give.” MLB.com. October 3, 2018.

Tennis, Mark. “Vallejo On My Mind.” CalHi Sports.com. February 1, 2021.

Under the Grapefruit Tree: The CC Sabathia Story

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29. Roger Maris
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