Entering what could be CC Sabathia‘s last season in pinstripes, the New York Yankees need him now more than ever.
There were many aspects of the questionable New York Yankees rotation that were debated all offseason. That includes who will round out the back-end, the importance of Luis Severino and how the organization can fix the enigma of Michael Pineda.
The only topic of discussion that didn’t involve concern was Masahiro Tanaka, who was essentially deemed as New York’s only reliable starter as the calendar turned to 2017.
Veteran left-hander CC Sabathia, however, was seldom talked about and had basically gone overlooked until pitchers and catchers reported to camp in February. That’s truly astonishing, as the southpaw, who’s coming off a career renaissance of a campaign, is arguably the most important starter on this mediocre rotation.
The former American League Cy Young award winner, coming off a two-year stretch in which he posted a 23-27 record with a 4.81 ERA while surrendering 66 home runs in 69 starts, brought us back to the old days in 2016 as he went 9-12 with a 3.91 ERA — his lowest since 2012.
He also finished second in the majors with a soft contact rate of 24 percent, according to FanGraphs.
It’s also apparent that the 36-year-old kept the team treading water in the American League Wild Card race for as long as they did. From August 23 to September 29, Sabathia posted a 2.37 ERA over eight starts and only surrendered 41 hits over 49.1 (.227 BAA).
But, that was last season and while this year is all about the transition from old to new in terms of player development, remaining competitive is still a focal point. For that to happen, the Yankees need Sabathia to echo the season that altered the back-end of his career from daunting to hopeful.
Anything less, like the three-year stretch preceding last year in which Sabathia owned the third-highest home run rate (1.40) in the league, the desire to compete will become a far-fetched fantasy.
In order to recreate what happened, Sabathia will have to come out of the gate answering one major question: was his success with his cutter an anomaly? How he answers this will have a significant bearing on success.
Sabathia, who no longer touches 95 mph as he once did on a regular basis, practically substituted his four-seam fastball with a cut fastball in 2016, as his use of the four-seamer dropped from 28.3 percent in 2015 to 1.96 percent while his use of the cutter spiked from 0.6 percent to 31.6 percent, according to Brooks Baseball.
His batting average against dropped from .300 off the fastball in 2015 to a mere .224 off the cutter last year. The opposition’s slugging percentage off the cutter in 2016 was also 100 points lower than the fastball was two years ago.
The effectiveness of this increased usage should not be in doubt and an encore presentation the mirrors the adjustment made by New York Yankees legend Andy Pettitte could uphold the rotation that seems contains little-to-no stability.
If 2016 was an absolute anomaly, then New York will be out of luck and that’s why Sabathia is so critical to this team. Manager Joe Girardi knows what he has in Tanaka, is used to seeing the human head-scratcher Pineda and presumably won’t see a game-changing season from the fourth or fifth spots. Or, at least, won’t be able to substitute what Sabathia gave them in 2016 with any youngster if he’s a complete washout this year.
Again, it is a rebuild and the organization will cheerfully accept the mentorship that the 16-year-veteran brings to the young core, but if the Yankees plan on fighting for a Wild Card spot or compete in the AL East, they’ll need another quality season from Sabathia.