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Yankees Magazine

Yankees Magazine: Renaissance Man

CC Sabathia’s milestone strikeout was a testament to his reinvention
(New York Yankees)
June 5, 2019

The ballpark was new, but the feat was oh so familiar for CC Sabathia. The 19-year veteran had never pitched at Chase Field before April 30. Yet it was then and there, in the Arizona heat, that Sabathia etched his name into baseball’s record books. Facing Diamondbacks No. 8 hitter

The ballpark was new, but the feat was oh so familiar for CC Sabathia. The 19-year veteran had never pitched at Chase Field before April 30. Yet it was then and there, in the Arizona heat, that Sabathia etched his name into baseball’s record books.

Facing Diamondbacks No. 8 hitter John Ryan Murphy in the bottom of the second, Sabathia dealt a darting 1-2 change-up. As the pitch disappeared near the former Yankees catcher’s ankles, Murphy swung and missed. And with that, Sabathia marched into the 3,000 Strikeout Club, a prestigious collection of all-time hurlers that includes just 16 other names. After playing witness to other historic feats -- Derek Jeter’s and Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th hits, Mariano Rivera setting the all-time saves record -- Sabathia found himself on the receiving end of the congratulations.

Sabathia’s family, which had been flying cross-country (and even missing some school) in hopes of seeing history, raced toward the front row to offer congratulatory hugs. The Yankees hurried to do the same in front of their dugout. Gary Sánchez, who caught the historic pitch, clutched the milestone baseball in his hand as if it were the Holy Grail. Murphy, who was on the receiving end of 62 Sabathia strikeouts during their time together in New York, asked the left-hander if he wanted his signature on the sudden artifact.

As for the pitcher? Sabathia walked off the mound as if nothing special had occurred. He had been squeezed on a couple of calls that inning, and Sabathia’s displeasure with the home-plate umpire elicited more noticeable reactions than the strikeout itself. With the Yankees in a 1-0 hole after a home run by Wilmer Flores, Sabathia departed the bump with a business-as-usual expression on his face. Had it not been for his teammates and family, Sabathia may have just retreated to the dugout, grabbed his bat and helmet that had long been in storage, and walked up to the plate for his at-bat to lead off the third inning.

“Typical,” a laughing Sabathia said of the moment more than a week later, taking time to both lament the umpire and acknowledge how special it was to have his family in attendance. “That’s just my normal reaction, me walking off the mound. Just classic.

“I definitely enjoyed it.”

***

There was a time, a few years back, when it was nearly impossible to envision Sabathia reaching this stage in his career. Forget about 3,000 strikeouts, 250 wins and 3,500 innings; simply pitching effectively at age 38 seemed highly unlikely. Sabathia himself admits that he would have been out of the league had he not made significant changes.

The left-hander struggled mightily from 2013 to 2015. Plagued by diminished velocity and a barking right knee -- Sabathia later revealed that he had also been battling an alcohol use disorder -- he owned a 4.81 ERA, 83 ERA+ and 1.40 WHIP in 424 1⁄3 frames over that span. His 10.0 H/9 and 66 home runs allowed matched the eye test; he was getting clobbered when was healthy enough to pitch. Gone was the ace who overpowered opponents with high-90s gas throughout the first decade-plus of the 2000s. Instead, the former American League Cy Young Award winner was getting shelled regularly.

“I was banging my head against the wall four years ago, trying to do the same things I did throwing 98, [but I was] throwing 89,” Sabathia said.

Realizing he was no longer that flame-thrower capable of dominating hitters, Sabathia began to take a new approach. He implemented the cutter, and had to learn to trust that a new technique -- one that emphasized command, deception and seeking contact -- would pay off.

“Trying to get soft contact and moving the ball around was something that was foreign to me,” Sabathia said. “I was always just going straight ahead, being on the attack, and I kind of had to learn how to pitch. You have no idea if it’s going to pay off, but you can’t just keep doing the same thing.”

It took time to adjust his mentality on the mound. Throughout the transition, Sabathia sometimes felt a desire to pitch like his old self -- a natural inclination for an athlete as accomplished and competitive as he is. He would toss three or four innings using his new approach, only to try his luck at being a power pitcher again after a few strong innings. That’s when the hits and runs would come. It wasn’t until the end of the 2015 season, after Sabathia returned from a knee injury, that he fully committed to his new way of life. Sabathia shined down the stretch, recording a 2.86 ERA in nine outings over the last two months of the season. It was his best string of starts in years -- and a preview of what was to come.

From 2016 to 2018, Sabathia registered a 3.76 ERA, 116 ERA+ and 1.30 WHIP over 481 1⁄3 innings. While far from the ace or innings-eater that he had been during his Cleveland, Milwaukee and early Yankees years, he proved to be a more than serviceable mid-rotation arm and someone New York could count on in the clutch.

He still is as he pitches his way through his final season. Some would argue that he’s tougher to face now than he was back in the day.

“The easier at-bat is the old CC,” said Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Jones, who has faced Sabathia more than anyone else, going 26-for-100 with 14 strikeouts in 108 plate appearances. “Just 1-0, 2-0, you knew what you were getting. It ain’t nice, but it’s going to be a 96-97 mph fastball, well located. It might be up and in, might be down and away. You don’t know, but you’re gonna get a heater. Now it’s chess. You never know what CC’s gonna throw. He’s going to be on the hands with the cutter. He might back-door the cutter. He might start you up with a breaking ball. Hitter’s count, he’ll throw that change-up with big fade. He pitches. That’s what makes him even better.”

***

No matter who you ask, the answer is the same: The milestones that Sabathia has achieved, his longevity in the game -- none of it would have been possible had he not remade himself into a different pitcher.

“Heck no,” said Andy Pettitte. “There’s no way.” The former Yankees hurler’s career evolved in a similar way to Sabathia’s, and the two formed a brotherly relationship, becoming kindred spirits as Pettitte adjusted to retirement. Pettitte even took time out of coaching his high school baseball team so he could watch Sabathia’s 3,000th strikeout on his phone. “He had to fail. Nobody wants to fail. He had to struggle and he had to fail for a few seasons there and not have the success that he had had before.”

As Pettitte, or just about anyone in baseball, can attest, rare is the pitcher who spends nearly two decades in the game without shaking things up. Sabathia’s struggles were not unique, but the way he came out of them on the other end stands out.

Brian McCann can vouch for that. Not only did he catch Sabathia during his transition period, but he also spent years receiving another evolutionary member of the 3,000 Strikeout Club, Hall of Fame Braves pitcher John Smoltz.

“Certain guys in this game, regardless of if he was throwing 98 or 88, have the ability to make adjustments,” said McCann. “Those are the great ones. [Sabathia] is a Hall of Famer.”

Based on his resume, Sabathia indeed makes a strong case to be enshrined in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown someday. Only two other members of the 3,000 Strikeout Club, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, have not been inducted, and while there will surely be debate among the writers when Sabathia appears on the ballot, those interviewed for this piece were unanimous: Sabathia belongs in the Hall of Fame.

“It’s a huge number. It’s one of those numbers in baseball that if you’ve grown up a fan of the game, you know what 3,000 strikeouts means,” said Sabathia’s manager (and former teammate) Aaron Boone. “To be just the third left-hander, it’s one of those longevity qualifiers that makes you a Hall of Famer. I think he’s a Hall of Famer anyway. But he’s just had such an awesome career as far as being a dominant pitcher, being a Cy Young candidate and winner, an ace in the sport. And then, being able to reinvent himself late in his career to become a different pitcher, that has allowed him to still be really good at his craft.”

But the big guy, himself, won’t weigh in.

“It’s not for me to consider,” Sabathia said. “I don’t vote. That’s for the writers to do. All I can do is just play as hard as I can and leave everything out there. Whatever the numbers are, people will vote on them and figure it out from there.”

Getting Sabathia to examine his Cooperstown credentials, his historic strikeout and his impending retirement is no easy task. He’ll answer questions about each, though the introspection that one might crave is not always there as the veteran remains focused on the task at hand -- winning one last World Series before he hangs up his spikes. The one aspect he did open up about, however, was becoming just the third black pitcher in the 3,000 Strikeout Club.

“That means the most; more than anything,” Sabathia said. “Representing the African American community, obviously I know what the [demographic] numbers [in baseball] are, being low. If a kid can see the coverage and see me doing this and maybe want to take an interest in the game, that’s the coolest part about it.”

There will come a time when Sabathia chooses to reflect on the rest of his accomplishments in greater depth, but that day has yet to arrive -- publicly anyway. No matter how many times Sabathia is asked about 3,000 or all the big days inevitably awaiting him, he will oblige the reporter doing his or her job, but he refuses to get caught up in looking at the big picture just yet. For a little while longer, he still has to worry about pitching every fifth day.

“It’s cool,” Sabathia said of 3,000 strikeouts, though not enough for him to be 100 percent sure where the milestone baseball ended up. “I don’t have any crazy perspective on it or anything. It’s just one of those things right now where I’m just worried about the next start.

“It’s a lot to unpack, but I haven’t had a chance to yet.”

Sabathia can leave that to his legions of admirers. The Hall of Fame debate may go on, but after evolving from a power pitcher to something more refined, this strikeout artist has cemented his place in history.

Gary Phillips is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications