Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 28, 2015

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sabathia?

Early in The Sound of Music, the enormously successful Broadway musical starring Mary Martin which begat the prodigiously successful Hollywood movie starring Julie Andrews, the abbey’s nuns contemplate what to do about Maria, their young and often wayward novitiate. Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi and the rest of the Yankees brass may not have broken into song about CC Sabathia just yet, but there’s no doubt that New York desperately needs to figure out what to do about their aging and usually ineffective former ace.

Simply put, as the 2015 season nears its halfway point, Sabathia is one of the worst pitchers in the Great Game. After missing most of the 2014 campaign due to injury and undergoing knee surgery last July, the Yankees were hoping that Sabathia would show at least some signs of his former self. Instead his ERA, ERA+ and home runs allowed per nine innings are all the worst of his career. His numbers for hits allowed per nine innings, WHIP, and Fielding Independent Pitching (a measure of pitching performance that removes the factors of defense, luck and the sequence of events in a game) are second only to the same statistics in his injury-marred 2014 season.

Given those facts it’s no surprise that Sabathia ranks near the bottom in numerous pitching categories. Of 51 qualified pitchers in the American League at the start of this weekend’s play, he ranked 48th in ERA, 46th in WHIP and 49th in batting average against.

His most recent outing, last Tuesday against the woeful Phillies at the Stadium, was typical. Sabathia held Philadelphia to one run through the first three frames, though he couldn’t manage a single clean inning in the process. Then in the 4th the roof caved in. With one out Andres Blanco doubled to left. Cameron Rupp, who had not homered all season, put Sabathia’s third pitch over the fence in left, wiping out a 3-1 New York lead. After a ground out Ben Revere and Cesar Hernandez both singled, then Maikel Franco cleared the bases with a blast into the right field seats, putting the Phillies ahead 6-3. Three batters into the 5th inning Sabathia was done for the night. He did not exit to a standing ovation, especially since the outing raised his home ERA to 8.80.

All in all the most surprising thing about his 3-7 record is that he’s somehow managed to win 3 games; although the fact that New York averaged better than 7 runs scored in those contests may have had something to do with the results. Meanwhile Sabathia is the most expensive player on the Yankees roster. He’s making $23 million this year, more than even good old A-Rod, and his contract calls for a $25 million salary next season and a matching number under a 2017 option that vests unless he comes down with a shoulder injury.

Those are daunting numbers, and they no doubt help explain why the Yankees keep giving Sabathia the ball every fifth day. But salary considerations aside, at some point other factors should be given greater weight. Factors like winning baseball games, for instance. New York has been a streaky team from Opening Day, but so far they have managed to have a few more hot streaks than cold ones, and as this is written they sit in a tie for second place in the AL East, just a half-game behind Tampa Bay. The Yankees and Orioles would be the two AL Wild Cards if the season ended today.

Of course the season still has more than three months remaining, and New York’s current standing is helped by the fact that their division, once arguably the toughest in the game, is decidedly middling this year. The Rays leading record of 42-35 would not put them atop any of the other five divisions. The Yankees are in turn just a half-game ahead of the Blue Jays, so second place could easily become fourth. Or a sustained period of solid play could move them back into first and even allow the Yankees to open some daylight over the rest of the AL East.

Starting pitching as a whole has not been New York’s strong point so far this year, though that just means there is even less flexibility to ride along with a struggling Sabathia and hope he works things out. That’s especially true given the lack of evidence that he’s going to be able to do so.

It could well be that Sabathia is simply breaking down. He has been one of the great workhorses of the modern era throughout his career. In an age when pitchers are handled with supreme care and pitch counts and innings worked closely monitored, Sabathia’s career numbers show an average of 226 innings pitched per 162 games. He crossed the 200 inning threshold seven straight times from 2007 through 2013.

At age 34 he is listed as 6 feet 7 inches and 285 pounds, but in truth his weight has fluctuated significantly since coming to New York prior to the 2009 season. He has often carried more than the listed number of pounds out to the Stadium mound. Given the workload and the weight, the degenerative condition in his knees is scarcely surprising.

CC Sabathia led the league in wins as he helped the Yankees claim their 27th World Series title in 2009. He did the same the following season and earlier this year passed the 2,500 strikeout mark. He had a great career before coming to New York and he’s earned the respect and gratitude of Yankee fans since coming to the Bronx. But those same fans are interested in winning this season as well. Given that the current edition of the Bronx Bombers is decidedly less impressive than the 2009 juggernaut, there is little room for sentiment in the daily decisions about who plays.

The return of Ivan Nova from Tommy John surgery, heralded by an impressive performance the day after Sabathia’s latest debacle, gives the Yankees a surfeit of starters. The assumption is that means Adam Warren is headed for the bullpen after his next outing this week. But while he is no ace, Warren has been markedly better than Sabathia. If Cashman, Girardi and the rest of New York’s decision-makers are thinking clearly, the answer to their CC problem is out there beyond the wall in right-center field.  Pulling all that money and a former Cy Young winner out of the rotation will be hard.  Then again, in The Sound of Music, everything worked out for the best after Maria left the convent.


  1. Sabathia has had an excellent career, but he seems to have hung around, as most players do, a bit too long. I think it’s time for the Yanks to move on.
    Nicely done,

    • Thanks Bill. Yes it’s a story that permeates every sport. One could easily start a blog dedicated solely to stories of players who fail to recognize when the time has come to walk away and be kept very, very busy.

      Thanks again,


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