Two weeks ago CC Sabathia made official what we’ve known for a long time now: 2019 will be his final season. Sabathia will hang up his spikes after the season because he wants to spend time with his family, and also because he no longer wants to pitch on his troublesome right knee. He’s accomplished pretty much everything a player could dream of accomplishing in this game. It’s time to go home and be a full-time dad.
Retirement is still nine months away, however, and Sabathia still has one more season to grind through. He turns 39 in July and, last season, he threw 153 innings with a 3.65 ERA (4.16 FIP), which is rock solid for a No. 4 or 5 starter. In fact, Sabathia was one of only 30 pitchers to throw at least 150 innings with a 120 ERA+ last season. As has been the case since his transformation into a cutter pitcher, he was again among the league’s best at generating weak contact. Some numbers (min. 150 innings):
Average Exit Velocity
1. CC Sabathia: 84.4 mph
2. Zack Wheeler: 84.7 mph
3. Chris Sale: 84.7 mph
4. Noah Syndergaard: 84.9 mph
5. Kyle Hendricks: 85.2 mph
MLB Average: 87.7 mph
Soft Contact Rate
1. Chris Sale: 27.4%
2. Noah Syndergaard: 25.3%
3. Jacob deGrom: 25.2%
4. CC Sabathia: 25.1%
5. Max Scherzer: 23.9%
MLB Average: 18.1%
Sabathia’s rate stats the last three seasons are indistinguishable from Cole Hamels’, who is three and a half years younger than Sabathia but will also be paid $20M this year. (The Cubs picked up his option.) The Yankees re-signed Sabathia for one year and $8M. That’s approximately what the Athletics will pay Mike Fiers this year and what the Padres will pay Garrett Richards to spend the season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
Beyond the on-field performance, Sabathia is an important clubhouse leader and mentor, and he will spend his farewell season giving back to the community. He’s going to honor members of the Boys & Girls Club in each road city the Yankees visit — specifically, Sabathia’s going to bring them to the ballpark for a game and a meet-and-greet — because he said he wouldn’t be where he is now without the Boys & Girls Club growing up. Pretty cool. Let’s preview Sabathia’s final season.
CC Sabathia is good
I am compelled to point this out again. I’ve had readers emailing me and random fans reaching out to me on social media all winter saying re-signing Sabathia was a mistake. I guess their memory only goes back to the ALDS? Must be a curse. Anyway, Sabathia’s last three seasons:
- 2016: 179.2 innings and 110 ERA+
- 2017: 148.2 innings and 122 ERA+
- 2018: 153 innings and 120 ERA+
Does Sabathia pitch deep into games these days? No, he does not. But he averaged approximately one fewer out per start than J.A. Happ last year, and it’s not like the Yankees need him to pitch deep into games consistently anyway given their bullpen. Let him go through the lineup two times …
- First Time Thru Lineup: .248/.314/.340 (89 OPS+) in 2018
- Second Time Thru Lineup: .208/.294/.376 (84 OPS+) in 2018
- Third Time Thru Lineup: .328/.376/.547 (135 OPS+) in 2018
… then turn it over to the bullpen from hell. Yes, Sabathia is 38 going on 39, and that makes him a risk for sudden performance decline, especially considering his offseason heart procedure. His arm is healthy though, and last year was year three of flustering hitters with cutters and changeups. This is not some “he made this adjustment in Spring Training and oh boy everything will be great now!” story.
The late career Sabathia experience features some starts in which he makes you wonder how he’ll ever get another out, some starts where he cruises through six innings on 80 pitches, and a bunch of starts where he’s pretty solid across five innings. He is the team’s fifth best starter — if the Yankees need him to be more than that, it’ll be because something’s gone wrong — and penciling him in for 140-ish league average innings is reasonable. CC Sabathia is Actually Good. Let’s not pretend this is Bartolo Colon throwing batting practice every five days for two years running now.
When will he be ready?
Sabathia is all but certain to begin the season on the disabled list. His heart procedure interrupted his offseason program and he was still behind when he reported to Spring Training. Sabathia will throw his first full bullpen session today, which puts him at least two and more like three weeks behind the other starters. He’s probably three weeks away from game action, and Opening Day is in four weeks, so do the math.
“We’ll keep him out probably first couple of weeks. Around March 1st, expect him to get back and start taking part in (fielding drills) and throwing his (bullpen sessions),” Aaron Boone said to George King two weeks ago. “He is doing a throwing program and conditioning program behind the scenes. With his knee we want to make sure physically he is in a really good spot before we start ramping him up.”
Also, don’t forget Sabathia has a suspension to serve. He was suspended five games for the “that’s for you, bitch” incident last year and we’ve heard nothing about the appeal. The appeal hearing has to happen sometime before Opening Day, though Sabathia essentially admitted he threw at Jesus Sucre intentionally, so there’s a chance it will not be reduced. The best case is maybe getting it reduced to four games instead of five. Point is, he has to serve the suspension. (The Yankees have to play with a 24-man roster during the suspension, which isn’t a big deal because Sabathia is a starter and doesn’t play between starts anyway.)
Even with the typically heavy slate of early-season off-days, the Yankees will need to use a fifth starter no later than April 3rd, the sixth game of the season, and again no later than April 10th, the 12th game of the season. It seems to me the Yankees will put Sabathia on the injured list on Opening Day, let him sit out the ten days, then activate him and let him serve the suspension. The day the suspension ends, he starts.
No matter the order, suspension then injured list or injured list then suspension, the end result is Sabathia missing at least 16 days and 13 games, and the Yankees needing to use a spot starter twice. Boone has mentioned Luis Cessa making early season spot starts though I doubt that is set in stone. Should Cessa have a rough Grapefruit League season, it could easily be Domingo German or Jonathan Loaisiga making those spot starts instead.
Anyway, back to Sabathia. Three bullpen sessions and two live batting practice sessions would put Sabathia on track to face hitters in a simulated game sometime during the week of March 11th, likely later in the week. Assuming all goes well — not the safest assumption, but the Yankees will deal with any bumps in the road as they come — Sabathia would have enough time to make four spring* starts before making his regular season debut at the end of those 16 days.
* Sabathia has done most of his spring work in simulated games rather than Grapefruit League games in recent years and I assume that will again be the case. Of course the Yankees will want him to face opposing hitters in a competitive setting at some point, so it won’t all be simulated games. I’d bet on Sabathia making a minor league rehab start with High-A Tampa while on the injured list in April. Maybe even two rehab starts. We’ll see.
It would take a minor miracle at this point for Sabathia to be ready for Opening Day. I just can’t see it. The Yankees aren’t going to push him. They don’t need him to be ready on Opening Day either. The Yankees can align their early season rotation in such a way that the spot starter makes his two starts against the lowly Tigers and Orioles, which is about as preferable as it gets. Right now, Sabathia’s on track to return in mid-April, about two weeks into the season.
“I think that’s getting too far ahead of ourselves right now,” Boone said to George King recently when asked for Sabathia’s return date. “I think first things first, get him on the mound, throw his side, then we’ll see how he progresses and see where we’re at. We may have to iron out something with that at some point, but we’re not there yet. He is doing well. He’s getting the strength back. Getting a little bit better. His arm feels great. He feels good. So I think the momentum’s going the right way.”
History in the making
Sabathia is poised to reach several big career milestones this year. He is four wins away from becoming the 13th left-hander in history with 250 wins, and he has a decent shot at getting the ten wins he needs to become one of the ten winningest southpaws in baseball history. An individual win or a season’s worth of wins don’t tell us much. Across an entire career, they speak to longevity and effectiveness, two traits that define Sabathia.
Also, Sabathia is 14 strikeouts away from joining the 3,000-strikeout club. He’ll become only the 17th pitcher in history with 3,000 strikeouts and the third lefty. Here is the all-time lefty strikeout list:
- Randy Johnson: 4,875
- Steve Carlton: 4,136
- CC Sabathia: 2,986
- Mickey Lolich: 2,832
- Frank Tanana: 2,773
Sabathia already holds the American League record for strikeouts by a left-hander. Soon he’ll become only the third lefty in the 3,000-strikeout club. Of the 16 pitchers with 3,000 strikeouts, 14 are in the Hall of Fame. Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling are the exceptions. Clemens will likely never get into the Hall of Fame. Schilling is on track to get into Cooperstown in a year or two.
As for the Yankees, Sabathia is three wins away from moving into the top ten on the franchise’s all-time wins list. He’s 141.1 innings away from moving into the top ten innings list and 185 strikeouts away from passing Ron Guidry and taking over sole possession of third place on the franchise strikeout list. That probably won’t happen, Sabathia isn’t a big strikeout pitcher anymore, but it’s not completely out of reach either.
We’ll no doubt talk more about Sabathia’s legacy after the season, once his playing career is over, but no matter what happens this year he is clearly one of the best starting pitchers in Yankees history, and he’ll deserves serious Hall of Fame consideration when the time comes. Joining the 3,000-strikeout club is always impressive and reaching 250 wins in this day and age means something. Sabathia should reach both milestones early this year.
* * *
Sabathia’s days as a workhorse ace have been over for more than a half-decade now, and if you’re expecting him to be anything more than the club’s fifth best starter, you’re expecting too much. Maybe he has a big 2008 Mike Mussina farewell season in him. That’d be cool. I’ll never forget Mussina saying he made the decision to retire before the season, and it allowed him to pitch with a clear head all year. Sabathia going out with a 2008 Mussina season and a ring would be an all-time great farewell season.