NEW YORK -- CC Sabathia has admitted to being "hard-headed" about the bulky brace that was suggested to protect his right knee, but after the veteran Yankees left-hander enjoyed a run of success while wearing it late last season, he now expects it to be a companion through the remainder of his career.
"I'm definitely going to wear it off the mound," Sabathia said. "I'll probably do it sometime in the middle of January and see how it feels."
There is no denying that the wear and tear of 2,988 2/3 innings over 15 big league seasons has caught up with the 35-year-old Sabathia, who has been told that he is pitching with bone-on-bone arthritis in a knee that eventually will require replacement surgery.
Sabathia has accepted that reality, telling MLB.com late last season, "That's the price you pay." For now, with the brace on and a month in rehab for alcoholism behind him, he believes that there still are meaningful innings to contribute to the Yanks' rotation in 2016.
Sabathia's final five starts of 2015, all made while wearing the brace, raised those hopes. He pitched to a 2.17 ERA over that 29-inning span, limiting the Orioles, Rays, Mets, White Sox and Red Sox to a .224 average and a .647 OPS. Most importantly, Sabathia said that he was pain-free.
The knee brace was suggested to Sabathia last February as he returned from season-ending surgery, but he felt uncomfortable and opted instead to switch to a compression sleeve.
"I think it kept him from extending too far, his knee," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think that's when he'd get the shooting pain, and he would have to favor it. It kind of keeps him from doing that. That seemed to make a big difference."
The difference, Sabathia learned, is that the brace keeps the joints in his knee from rubbing when the leg hits the ground. That wards off jolts of pain and allows him to better repeat his delivery.
"As anyone, you hate to be where if you take a step and land on your leg [you're] ... not sure what's going to happen," Girardi said. "That's kind of hard to deal with. I think it gave him some peace of mind."
With seven starters vying for slots in a rotation that the Yanks would still like to upgrade, general manager Brian Cashman has said he isn't ready to guarantee Sabathia one of those spots, but they remain encouraged by those final five starts.
"Hopefully, he found that secret formula that allowed him to get full extension over the rubber to finish off his pitches with that new brace," Cashman said.
Sabathia is set to earn $25 million this season, and a $25 million vesting option will kick in for 2017 as long as he does not end 2016 on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury, does not spend more than 45 days in 2016 on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury or does not make more than six relief appearances in 2016 because of a left shoulder injury.
Because of that, the Yankees have plenty of incentive to find out if Sabathia can be a solid back-end starter to finish out his contract. If he can, the brace will have been a big reason.
"Just the confidence that I can go through my delivery and not have to worry about feeling anything; hopefully, I can just keep that up, and keep going," Sabathia said.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.