To paraphrase The Wonder Years, growing up means watching your heroes turn human in front of you. This process is never easy in sports. Professional athletes have this marvelous–and marvelously frustrating–habit of making what they do look incredibly easy, like they could do it forever and ever, as naturally as anything you and I do. Then, the cliff shows up. Sometimes the decline is slow and gradual. Other times, the player pulls a Wile E. Coyote and looks down, plummeting dramatically. For CC Sabathia, and we Yankee fans who’ve had to “grow up” this season, it’s been a combination of those things. Sabathia’s performance has dropped off considerably, but it’s been going on for two and a half years now. Watching Sabathia, someone we’ve loved and revered for so long, go through this has been painful (granted, I’m sure it’s 100 times more painful for him).
2015 for CC has been a bit of a microcosm of his long decline: things go bad in a hurry, but those bad things tend to be drawn out in one excruciating inning. In five of his 15 starts this year, we’ve seen CC be anywhere from “great” to “alright, okay, fine” in parts or majorities of games, only to have One Bad Inning rear its disastrous head and ruin the start for everyone (appropriately enough, this happened to my softball team and me on Friday night).
In start number one against the Blue Jays, Sabathia surrendered five runs total; four of them came in the top of the second inning. During his matchup with the Mets, the fourth inning was his downfall. After recording outs on two of the first three batters, Sabathia then surrendered a run-scoring triple, a run-scoring single, and a two-run homer, leading to four of the seven runs he gave up. It’s worth noting that after the run scoring, he gave up another hit–a single to former teammate Curtis Granderson–before recording the third out on a lineout by John Mayberry, Jr.
Things were more or less normal for the next few starts until number seven on the year against the Rays. CC didn’t give up a lot of runs that game–four–and the Yankees won, but of the runs he gave up, three of them came in one inning, the seventh. Back-to-back homers by Logan Forstyhe and Joey Butler started the inning before CC got an out, gave up a double + error, followed by a sac fly to plate the third run of the inning. The Yankees were ahead 9-1 going into the inning, so this didn’t matter a ton, but was still indicative of Sabathia’s one-inning-struggles this year.
Sabathia looked great in his next start after the Rays game, but then came the dumpster fire that was the game against the Rangers: 2.1 innings, 6 runs–all in one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad third inning. CC was charged with those runs thanks to five hits, a walk, and a wild pitch. Let’s not relive that inning any further.
Last but not least, let’s look at his most recent start–one in which I was in attendance for–against the Phillies. He gave up six runs in this game, five of them coming in the fourth inning thanks to two homers, one each by Cameron Rupp and Miakel Franco. I want to focus specifically on the homer to Rupp because, continuing this theme, it encapsulates Sabathia’s struggles in one three pitch at bat. Here is the location chart, thanks as always to Brooks Baseball. Brooks labeled all three of those pitches as changeups. The one Rupp hit into the Phillies’ bullpen is in a location that a Major League hitter can’t help but drive out of the park, and it speaks to everything that’s happened to Sabathia since 2013: he’s lost location and he’s lost the effectiveness on pitches that once helped him get a ton of outs.
I won’t pretend to know what the answer is for Sabathia because I’m not sure there really is one. He’s not the same type of pitcher that Andy Pettitte was, so an Andy-Style reinvention probably isn’t going to happen. This One Bad Inning Syndrome doesn’t scream “Make me a reliever!” either. But running him out there every fifth day has already been bad and probably won’t get better. Since 2013, we’ve had to watch CC turn from hero to human; I’m not sure if we’ll ever see him as a hero again. Growing up sucks.