After 16 Big League seasons, CC Sabathia remains focused on what's in front of him
By Alfred Santasiere III
Yankees Magazine |
More than ever before, CC Sabathia knows exactly what he needs to do to find success on the baseball diamond -- even when he's away from it.
It's a Thursday afternoon several weeks before the start of Spring Training, and the 36-year-old Yankees pitcher is in New York City for lunch. Donning a black Los Angeles Kings cap and a Jordan Brand sweatsuit, Sabathia takes a seat at a table in a private dining room on the second floor. He peers out of a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks West 48th Street and Sixth Avenue, then turns his focus toward the menu. Within seconds of perusing the list of succulent seafood and hefty steaks and burgers, Sabathia makes up his mind.
"I'll have the grilled salmon," he said to the waiter. "And water with lemon."
Although choices like these are commonplace for the left-hander these days, that wasn't always the case.
For much of his 20s and early 30s, Sabathia had no problem eating what he wanted, and until a much-publicized stint in a rehab facility to combat an alcohol use disorder in 2015, drinking as much as he desired, as well. But all the while, he also did exactly what he wanted to do on the mound.
From the time he broke into the Majors in 2001 with the Cleveland Indians at 20 years old through the 2013 season, Sabathia was among baseball's best pitchers. He averaged 16 wins per season during that stretch, topping off with 21 victories in 2010. He won the American League Cy Young Award with Cleveland in 2007, and in his first season with the Yankees, he won 19 regular-season games before leading the charge to the 2009 World Series championship. In three postseason games leading up to the Fall Classic, Sabathia went 3-0 in three starts, while only giving up a combined three earned runs to the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
"If we were sitting here during that postseason, I would have ordered a steak and fries," Sabathia said. "Then I would have ordered another steak."
As obvious as it was to Sabathia then that he could dominate batters with the same ease that he could hold back Father Time, he's ever mindful of what he needs to do now to win more battles than he loses against both.
Beginning with a knee injury in 2014 that limited Sabathia to only eight starts that season, his productivity has not been what it was during his prime years. But he bounced back to make 29 starts in 2015, and after going 6-10 with a 4.73 ERA that year, he lowered his ERA to 3.91 while going 9-12 in 30 starts last season.
Sabathia will never brag about a nine-win season, but the year-round efforts he has made to put himself in a position to impact his team's success are as admirable as they are exhaustive.
Besides maintaining a healthy diet, which has enabled the 6-foot, 6-inch pitcher to shed several pounds and keep some weight off, his offseason regimen has never been so extensive. From the time the season ends through the new year, Sabathia works with a trainer five mornings a week and then adds a sixth day beginning in January.
"My routine has been pretty good the last few years," said Sabathia, who had arthroscopic surgery in October to clean up his previously injured knee. "I have a trainer based out of New York, and we do good work together. We have a good regimen, and being healthy lets me do a lot of things."
From a gym in his New Jersey home, Sabathia has worked hard to improve more than just his arm strength.
"We do a lot of balance work," he said. "We have our upper-body days, and before the holidays, I throw a football every day and then pick up a baseball in January. I do boxing to break up the workouts. We come up with different ways to be creative while still trying to get the best workout and get my body in the best shape."
From a pitching perspective, Sabathia had to counter the inevitable loss in velocity that so many of his contemporaries deal with in their mid-30s. With the fastball that once buzzed past hitters at 99 mph, Sabathia didn't need a strong repertoire of pitches to win consistently. But with his fastest pitches coming in 10 mph slower over the past few seasons, Sabathia knew he had to be more of a complete pitcher.
His former teammate and close friend Andy Pettitte inspired the first "new" weapon that Sabathia began to throw, and it accounted for about 30 percent of his pitches in 2016, according to FanGraphs.
"The cutter has been huge for me," Sabathia said. "Andy taught me that pitch, and I really learned how to throw it over the last few years. Just watching him late in his career as he tried to get guys out with different pitches helped me a lot. I'm in the same boat now. We have always had very similar stuff, so it's been easy for he and I to talk about what I need to do."
In addition to throwing an effective cutter -- a pitch that darts across the plate at an average speed of 89 mph -- Sabathia has also worked to improve his off-speed stuff.
"My change-up had been missing for a couple years," Sabathia said. "[Yankees pitching coach] Larry Rothschild figured out something that helped me throw it a lot better last year. I think that's a big key for me moving forward. My change-up has to be on, not just for a particular game, but for the entire season. If I can throw that pitch as well as I did at the end of last season, I think I will be able to win games consistently."
During the four seasons that Sabathia and Pettitte were teammates, up until Pettitte's 2013 retirement, the cutter was far from the only thing that the younger left-hander learned from the older southpaw.
Pettitte led by example, and so much of what he did influenced Sabathia.
"At first, I couldn't understand why he was getting to the ballpark at 2 in the afternoon on days he wasn't even pitching," Sabathia said. "He would get there that early just to prepare to throw in the bullpen at 5 o'clock. But as time went on, I realized that as much as anything else, that's why he was so good at the end of his career. It was hard to imagine anyone being more prepared or working harder."
For Sabathia, who speaks with Pettitte several times a month, that example has allowed him to remain in the game.
"Watching the way he worked even though he had already accomplished so much changed my mindset," Sabathia said. "It changed who I was as a player at a time when I needed to make changes. I wouldn't be doing the things I obviously need to do if I hadn't been around Andy when I was still in my 20s."
Pettitte's willingness to lend his time to younger pitchers also made a lasting impression on a younger Sabathia.
"Andy was the best teammate you could have on and off the field," Sabathia said. "Being able to ask him anything was great. He had been through enough battles on the mound to have seen it all. So there wasn't anything you could ask him that he didn't have a good answer for."
These days, Sabathia finds himself in a similar role to the one Pettitte held a few years ago.
"Now, I'm the old guy," Sabathia said. "It seems like it happened overnight."
Just as it was with Pettitte in his latter years with the Yankees, Sabathia's value goes beyond the number of games he wins. Especially on a team filled with young players -- many of whom are on the precipice of stardom, or who found success soon after their Big League debuts -- having a mentor like Sabathia on the bench, in the clubhouse and on the road is that much more important.
While Sabathia maintains that he has not become an overly vocal teammate, he is mindful that there will be a fair share of current players looking to him for counsel in 2017.
"I want to help the guys as much as I can," he said. "I don't want to be there only for the pitchers, but also for the position players. I may not be able to help position players with what they need to do on the field, but I'm able to lead them by being a good friend, by listening to them and making sure they know I'm with them. I will be working hard every day, and we'll be trying to win together on the days I'm on the mound."
When he does talk to the team's young players, Sabathia doesn't shy away from discussing the many hazards that can take away from a player's ability, especially one in particular.
"Success can be a pitfall," Sabathia said. "It can really affect you when you're young and you come up and you have success right away. You can start thinking, 'This is easy,' but in reality, this game is not easy. It's very humbling. We all go through it at some point, where you kind of take your foot off the gas as a young player. Then you have to re-establish yourself again and figure out a way to be that great player that you can be. That's the thing that hurts more young players than anything else. We have a lot of young guys, and in order for us to win, we need them to be productive. I don't want them to ever get complacent."
Even though he piled up wins early in his career, Sabathia admits that he could have used his own advice.
"My first year I pitched really well," he said. "Then I came back that next year and I thought I would easily win 20 games. I had a bad first half, and then I had to regroup and figure out how to set myself on the right path."
Among his teammates, Sabathia is especially close with relief pitcher Dellin Betances, a tall, hard-throwing All-Star who reminds him of his younger self, specifically in terms of talent.
"Dellin and I always talk about how he needs to continue to work hard all the time," Sabathia said. "He's the best reliever in the game. He's been to three All-Star Games in the last three years. He's going to be dominant for a long time, but there is always room for improvement. There are things he can work on and get better at. If you have natural ability and you're willing to work hard, it's only going to elevate you."
Sabathia understands the various off-the-field pitfalls that exist for Major Leaguers. He's candid about the late nights he spent out on the town, especially early in his career. And he knows that the distractions that his younger Yankees teammates have are amplified in comparison to what he dealt with as a rising star in Cleveland.
"I wouldn't have been able to play in this city as a young guy," Sabathia said. "There's a lot of distractions here in addition to all of the pressure. This can be a tough town, and it's true that if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere. But you have to be disciplined, and you have to have the right people around you to handle this place."
As Sabathia finishes the modest-sized piece of fish on his plate, which was not accompanied by any side dishes, his mind wanders to the upcoming season.
"I'm looking forward to Spring Training and to Opening Day," he said. "It's fun when you're healthy and you don't have to worry about hurting yourself every time you throw a pitch. I really enjoy competing and trying to win games. I enjoy being a Yankee, being in the pinstripes and being in the Bronx. I really love that part of my life."
Of course, this being the final year on his contract, Sabathia has thought about life after the Yankees and even baseball. His time away from the game centers on his family, in particular his wife and their four young children, and because of that, he's not fretting the eventual end of his playing days.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I'm really excited about being with my kids a lot more than I am now. There are so many things that I want to experience with my family, and those opportunities can only come after my career."
Although he admittedly thinks about his post-career life, Sabathia has not revealed how much longer he wants to pitch. He talks openly about the fact that the upcoming season could be his final campaign in pinstripes, but that discussion doesn't make him feel sentimental. There are no tears, just the same matter-of-fact tone and ear-to-ear smile that filled the mahogany-paneled room since he walked into it earlier in the afternoon. And the longtime Yankee says that he doesn't plan to reflect on his time in the game until it's over, especially not this season. He has worked too hard to let anything distract him in the upcoming months.
"I'm not going to be taking it all in," Sabathia said. "I'm not in the mindset of thinking that I better enjoy every start because I may not have that many left. I won't be out there thinking about how much time I have left in baseball or anything like that. All I want to do is win, and that's all I will be thinking about. As far as thinking about my career and looking back, I'm not there yet. I'm still in the middle of trying to win every single game and helping this team get to the playoffs."
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.