While both were inevitable, the impending closures of RAB and CC Sabathia’s career still seem hard to fathom. Both have been fixtures for Yankee fans for over a decade now and 2020 and beyond will be strange without them for those of us that have known nothing but. Sabathia’s tenure with the Yankees has had three distinct sections: four years of excellence, three years of awfulness, and three plus of reinvention. When I looked that up, I could’ve sworn the bad period of his time here was longer. We were so used to Sabathia being so good for so long–before and during his time as a Yankee–that his struggles felt interminable.
They felt so interminable that in late June of 2015, I wrote a rather fatalistic piece about Sabathia’s struggles to that point. The opening:
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).
And the closing:
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.
At that point, and given the rest of the year, that sentiment made sense. But it turned out to be the wrong sentiment altogether. That wasn’t the end of Sabathia, but a new beginning. He did turn himself into an Andy Pettitte style pitcher, relying on a cutter and location to get hitters out instead of raw stuff. He’s leveraged that into consistently weak contact against him and since 2016, including his two starts this year, he’s had a 3.68 ERA. His innings totals–like his pitch speed–have dropped off, but he found a new way to be effective.
All of that speaks to the immense talent that Sabathia has as a pitcher. There are few pitchers that would be able to do what Sabathia has done to change himself, even if they wanted to (which I assume all of them would). When J.A. Happ jokingly asked CC about pitching to the corners during CC’s post game a week or so back, I thought of the difference between the two of them. Happ–never a flamethrower, but nonetheless effective–will likely have a harder time adjusting to aging because he’s starting from a lower level than Sabathia. That’s relatively speaking, of course, since Happ–like all professional athletes–is better at baseball than any of us will ever be at anything. Sabathia, though, is just that much better. Every MLB player is driven and motivated to succeed in many ways. But few have the talent to make it come true in more ways than one.
In closing, this brings me back to the song I referenced in that June 2015 post. The line I paraphrased is as follows: “Growing up means watching my heroes turn human in front of me.” And, again, at the time, that made sense. But I should’ve been paying attention to the next line of the song: “And the songs we wrote at eighteen seem shortsighted and naive.” It was right there in front of me and I was too shortsighted and naive to think CC would turn it around. Well, he did and endeared himself to Yankee fans more than he already had.