In 2017, when the Yankees needed a win after a loss, there was no one better than CC Sabathia.
Playing in his age-36/37 season, Sabathia became old reliable when the club needed him most, and carried the performance into the club's surprising postseason run. Sabathia's lengthy transformation into a finesse pitcher has been completed, however, will his body hold up, and how much longer can will his impact be a positive one?
From 2013-15, Sabathia pitched to a 4.81 ERA in 424 1/3 innings. Knee injuries mixed in with an inability to fully acclimate to the necessary changes surrounding his pitching methodology hampered his performance. However, dating from September 2015 through 2017, Sabathia has demonstrated he can be effective enough to hold down the back end of the Yankees' rotation.
Sabathia turned in the lowest ERA (3.69) in five years in 2017, however, there was disparity between some of his peripheral statistics from his turnaround 2016 season. His new pitching repertoire allowed him to continue evading hitter's bats as he allowed just 8.4 hits per nine innings of work. Sabathia's strikeout rate (7.3 K/9) continues to wane, but he throttled back the free passes (3.0 BB/9) in 2017.
Lastly, he allowed more home runs per nine innings than he did in 2016 (1.3 HR/9 up from 1.1 HR/9). The home runs are an issue he has been unable to avoid over the last several seasons.
Considering Sabathia's age, innings pitched and the numerous surgeries on his right knee his health in 2018 will dictate his production. His 2017 season was shortened by two stints on the disabled list; one for a strained left hamstring, and the other for inflammation in his surgically repaired right knee. Sabathia has spent at least one time on the disabled list in each of the last six seasons with hamstring, groin, and right knee issues being the most common injuries.
Despite an effective knee brace, Sabathia seems to understand that the right knee can fail him once more, which might signal the end of this career. As such, Sabathia is once again working hard in the offseason to strengthen his body for the long haul of the season.
One way the Yankees may aid Sabathia, is to consider skipping his turn in the rotation in certain ballparks. By this, we mean contemplating avoiding games on the turf fields against American League East opponents in Tampa Bay and in Toronto. This could alleviate extra wear on Sabathia's knee, and go well toward maximizing his stamina through a potential postseason run.
Sabathia will also be managed in-game, but for reasons other than health. Regardless of how well he is pitching in a game, once he reaches the 76-pitch to 100-pitch mark, batters begin to make better contact against him. The slash line against Sabathia jumped to .264/.347/.552 after his 75th pitch in 2017 (.292/.358/.500 in 2016), which is very telling about the diminished returns late in his outings.
This places a good deal of pressure on Sabathia to come out of the gate on top of his game. If Sabathia cannot find his location or lacks feel for a certain pitch (or pitches), chances are it will not get better after the 75th pitch. This will certainly affect the number of innings the Yankees can expect in 2018.
We have to figure Sabathia will have at least a couple of stays on the disabled list, and the occasional skip in the rotation will be in order. Bearing that in mind, plus shortened starts, it is my estimation that he will make 22 starts in 2018, amounting to 116 innings (about 5 1/3 innings per start). In those starts, I'll project a 4.10 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 3.2 BB/9, 7.3 K/9 and 1.4 HR/9.
Based on Sabathia's recent history, these are reasonable and respectable estimates for a 37-year-old that will turn 38 just after the All-Star break.
The uncertainty of his ability to provide length - both on a game-to-game basis and over the course of the season - is one reason the Yankees continue to eyeball the starting pitching market. Some might ask why sign Sabathia to a $10 million deal if they believe he's going to be limited?
The reason is simple: The production Sabathia can provide when healthy has once again become predictably solid, and combined with his leadership in the clubhouse, he represents a worthy member of the roster.