"Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical". The confusingly genius words from the late Yogi Berra are fondly recited all over the baseball world. Sure, it is another piece of evidence of the quirky and lovable uniqueness that embodied Yogi, but if we really stop and listen to those comically wise words, we can hear the truth ringing loudly.
The mental aspect of baseball can never be overlooked. Just ask CC Sabathia, who is currently enjoying a return to dominance in the form of a 2.28 ERA, including a league leading 0.71 ERA since the calendar flipped to May. His most recent start was perhaps his best, twirling seven shutout frames against the Detroit Tigers.
When pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa in February, Sabathia found himself at a crossroads. He was 35 years old with a degenerating knee, and in jeopardy of being shunned from the starting rotation, despite being owed $25 million for the final year of his $122 million deal.
Heavy emphasis was put on Sabathia's knee and declining velocity, and rightfully so. His last productive season was back in 2012, before the trips to the DL began accumulating. Those concerns were nudged to the back-burner when Sabathia announced he was entering rehab prior to the 2015 playoffs to receive help for his struggle with alcohol. His personal demons along with his seemingly failing health only furthered the uncertainty. Now it was about more than just baseball. Would he be mentally and spiritually ready for Opening Day?
Fast forward to the present day, where Sabathia's name can be heard in conversations regarding Comeback Player of the Year, and even All-Star. How did we get here? Sure, a case can be made for the friendly knee brace that prevents Sabathia's knee from buckling, or the major drop-off of fastball usage, as the thrower has effectively become a pitcher.
Maybe more importantly, the thrower aggravated by personal demons has become the pitcher free from the shackles of his own mind.
Perhaps the alleviated pressure on Sabathia's knee is dwarfed by the weight lifted from his shoulders when he announced his personal struggles, and finally let others into the torment he was experiencing. Maybe the strive to reinvent himself as a pitcher sprouted from the desire to reinvent himself as a man. A man once deteriorating inside found a new appreciation for life, and for the game.
So when Sabathia arrived at camp with his rotation spot in limbo, he took the challenge in stride and expressed a sense of humility, one that is vital for a man seeking recovery. In his revealing piece published on The Player's Tribune, Sabathia confessed that the toughest words he has ever uttered were "I need help". Surely these are tough words to voice when you are convinced the problem can be handled on your own, despite loads of evidence pointing to the contrary.
Sabathia's ability to accept help spread beyond that treatment center in Connecticut, and onto the diamond. Despite his average fastball velocity dropping south of 90 mph back in 2014, he still utilized the pitch over 50 percent of the time. This season, with his average velocity almost identical to 2014, he uses his fastball with a frequency below 35%. Why the change now? It could be linked with Andy Pettitte's assistance in finding Sabathia a solid cutter, of course. It could also have a lot to do with CC's willingness to change, another principle echoed in the recovery world.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to craft new ideas onto a closed mind. Sabathia needed his honest admission about his struggles to help open his own mind to a new way of life without alcohol, and eventually a new way of pitching without his once overpowering fastball.
As a person also in recovery, it has been exhilarating to witness Sabathia's improbable path to redemption. When you are struggling, you are implored to continue to believe that things will get better. Sabathia's numbers in April led fans to believe we were to expect nothing more than a continued decline. A month and a half later, and the status quo could not be more different. All that has remained the same is Sabathia's continued dedication to his new way of pitching, which has helped him evolve from a possible bullpen spot to the anchor of the starting rotation.
In his Player's Tribune piece, Sabathia voiced his excitement for the 2016 season, expressing he was "excited to approach the mound...in focus and with an even greater appreciation for my team and the sport." Sometimes it takes almost losing everything to realize how meaningful it is, and suddenly a spark of willingness ignites a desire to do whatever it takes to keep it, even drastically changing yourself.
When I was struggling, I would hear pleading cries of "I want the old you back." What I have come to realize is despite getting better, they were not met with the old me again, rather someone new entirely. A new man with a new outlook, but most importantly, a better man. That's what I see when Sabathia takes the mound. His commitment to change has saved his career, like it saved his life eight months ago.
I have been taught to take the principles of recovery into all areas of my life, not just to keep me sober, but to improve as a man. Recovery is everywhere you wish to apply it. I find a deepened appreciation for my sober lifestyle when I see CC Sabathia live recovery everywhere, including the pitcher's mound.
Before giving all credit for Sabathia's turnaround to the physical adjustments, let's not look past the change in mentality that allowed those physical changes to be possible. No physical change can occur without a mental acceptance of the need for change. That turnaround may have started for Sabathia when he admitted his need for a lifestyle change back in October.
Mechanics and physicality of baseball is vital for success, but it only makes up half of the game. Let's not forget the remaining ninety percent. Thankfully for the Yankees, Sabathia hasn't.