In the last twenty years, arguably no free agent signing meant more to the New York Yankees than CC Sabathia. Signed in the winter of 2008 to a 7-year, $161M contract, Sabathia immediately became the ace the Bombers sorely needed. In a four year span, the big lefty was a workhorse:
That’s money well spent. The thing with aces — and Sabathia was the unquestioned ace of the Bombers — is we expect certain things for them. We want a lot of innings at an above-average clip. We want the reliability. There’s almost a John Wayne quality to an ace, right? They ride into town and settle down all the kerfuffle. An ace toes the rubber in a tense situation and quiets the opponent.
Sabathia had those moments in pinstripes. In Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS against a feisty Baltimore Orioles team, as that era of Yankees’ teams was petering out, the big man grabbed the game by the throat and never let go:
Complete game, nine strikeouts, two walks and four hits. Yankees win.
In many ways, that night in October of 2012 was the last time CC Sabathia was CC Sabathia. In 2013, the strikeouts fell, the walks climbed and his ERA nearly touched five. In 2014, knee trouble kept him to just 46 MLB innings.
Sabathia’s 2015 ended up being a turning point for his career. I don’t particularly care about how well he did or did not pitch, and neither should you. What matters is how the season ended; Sabathia checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation facility. It was a brave thing to do. The team supported it, the fans supported it.
Given that he’s healthy now, it isn’t much of a surprise that Sabathia has developed into a strong back of the rotation starter. His career has arced nicely. No, he doesn’t go deep into games and he certainly lacks the velocity he once carried, but Sabathia is clever and developed a nifty cutter. He generates a healthy amount of weak contact (as a result of that cutter) and doesn’t work himself into trouble. He successfully transformed himself after losing ticks off his fastball. Not everyone can pull it off.
Sabathia’s posted sub-4 ERAs each of the past three seasons and can be safely relied on to deliver in big moments. No, you can’t ride him for 8 innings and 130 pitches like you might, say, Justin Verlander, but he can get you a clean 5 or 6 innings. Considering the heavy artillery sitting out in the Yankees’ bullpen, that’s more than fine.
Sabathia announced in November that 2019 will be his last season. One last rodeo for the Big Man. There will be time in the years to come to discuss his Hall of Fame candidacy (I think it’s pretty darn strong at first glance), but without question, he was a great pitcher in the biggest moments.
As teams discuss the merit of spending high dollar on premier free agents, Sabathia should be one of the first names mentioned as an example of it working out.