We all know the story. CC Sabathia was terrible last season. He was coming off of elbow surgery, he lost some weight, and the velocity went with it. He finished the season with a record just one game above .500 (14-13) and pitched to a 6.04 ERA in the season half of the season.
Just as much as people questioned Derek Jeter's ability to comeback from an ankle injury that caused him to miss almost all of the 2013 season, Sabathia's ability to still be a reliable pitcher for the Yankees was in question.
Sabathia needed to come into the spring and show that he could still pitch, even if the velocity wasn't there.
His first couple of starts weren't very impressive, but he's seemed to have been turning a corner lately. Sabathia tossed four shutout innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates Thursday; he threw seven shutout innings against the Pirates on Friday, and five shutout, no-hit innings against the Miami Marlins in Panama before that.
For those of you care about this sort of thing, Sabathia never broke 90 on Thursday, and didn't hit higher than 92 mph all spring.
“Velocity is overrated in baseball,” former Yankees and current Pirates catcher Russell Martin told Chad Jennings Thursday. “Throwing hard is not being good. Being good is being good. Greg Maddux was good and he didn’t throw hard. Throwing hard is not the reason (Sabathia) was good in the first place. Being able to pitch is why he was good.”
And he's right, you know. Pitching is not about how hard you throw, it's about how well you throw.
In the past couple weeks of spring training, Sabathia has been pitching, not throwing, much better than we've seen from him last season, and even in his first couple of spring outings.
Sabathia admitted to reporters Thursday that he left spring training last year not feeling good about himself and the year that he might have on the mound. Well, he was right about his feeling, and it should be safe to say that he's going into his Opening Day start against the Houston Astros with a whole new vibe.
By comparison, he's leaving Florida this year with a 1.29 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP. Last spring he had a 5.40 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP.
“I just didn’t have the stuff last year," he said. "We keep talking about last year, last year. My stuff wasn’t the same. I wasn’t as strong. I didn’t have any life on my fastball. I just wasn’t the same guy. We’ll see this year.”
At this point, it's pretty much a fact that Sabathia, who is making his sixth straight Opening Day start for the Yankees, can't be, and won't be, an ace for the Bombers. Those days are pretty much over, especially now that the rotation has young studs like Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova, and even Michael Pineda.
Sabathia is no longer the guy in the rotation that is going to win 18-19 games, pitch to an ERA below 3.00, and get guys to swing and miss often with his fastball. The Yankees are still paying his money to be an ace, but he's probably not going to live up to those contract numbers anymore.
But what Sabathia can be this season -- and I thought that this was a pretty good comparison -- is a guy like Andy Pettitte. Sabathia can still be the crafty lefty that Pettitte very much was. He doesn't need the high velocity, but being able to just throw strikes, and get hitters to swing and miss on breaking pitches and well spot fastballs is going to be good enough for Sabathia to be a pitcher that the Yankees can still count on this season, and down the road.
“Pitchers often lose their velocity but they gain in other areas,” Martin said. “They gain in command. They gain in savvy. He’s going to be fine.”
What Martin said Thursday is basically what I've been trying to tell you guys here. I had my doubts about Sabathia coming into camp, just like I do with Jeter and Mark Teixeira. But after seeing the way he was able to throw the ball in his last couple of starts this spring, most of those doubts have flown out the window.
I don't think that Sabathia will end up having a better season than Tanaka and maybe even Hiroki Kuroda, but assuming he can pitch most of the season the same way he did in his final three spring starts, I feel pretty confident that he'll pitch like the No. 2 starter we can only ask him to be at this point.