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Sabathia Could Still Contribute in the Bullpen

SB Nation

SB Nation

There is an old saying that goes, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

The phrase perfectly sums up where CC Sabathia is at in his career. Once the New York Yankees ace and one of the game’s most reliable workhorses, that string of words is now an ode just as much to the 34 year old’s declining performance as it his waistline.

The southpaw was repugnant once again on Tuesday night, this time allowing six earned runs (two homers) in 4 2/3 innings of work to a Philadelphia Phillies lineup that ranks in the bottom-five in every major offensive category. Sabathia failed to make it past six innings of work for the seventh straight start as his ERA ballooned to 5.65.

Unfortunate, Sabathia’s production this year – or lack thereof – is no fluke. He has not been an effective big league pitcher for three years now. Since 2013 he has accumulated a sub-.500 20-24 record, 5.o7 ERA, 1.401 WHIP and 10.2 H/9 and 1.4 HR/9 ratios. He has been worth -0.4 Wins Above Replacement the last three seasons and has surrendered 391 hits in 344 2/3 innings over that span. Both are statistics that makes one ask, “That CC Sabathia?”

Yes, that CC Sabathia. The guy has been bad for a while and there is no way around it… Or is there?

On Wednesday Ivan Nova will make his long awaited return to New York’s rotation. The recovered Tommy John patient will get the nod as the Yankees try to avoid a sweep at the hands of the lowly Phillies.

For now, the Yanks will go with a six-man rotation, but only until the conclusion of their series with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that runs through July 1. After that, someone has to be the odd man out.

Regardless of how he does, it appears Nova is in the rotation to stay. The same goes for Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and yes, even Nathan Eovaldi. The Yankees are committed to his development as a starter and as a guy that that allows 11.8 H/9, gets only 6.4 K/9 and pitches to contact 80.4 percent of the time, Eovaldi would make for an inadequate relief option. That leaves Adam Warren and Sabathia.

As undeserving as it may be, Warren will likely be the recipient of a bullpen demotion, yet handing Sabathia a starting rotation pink slip would save the Yankees and the pitcher the embarrassment of him having to take the mound every five days.

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The argument for Warren’s removal is well-documented: He has done it before, and with success. The 27-year-old pitched to a 2.97 ERA in 69 appearances as a late-inning reliever last year, recording 0.5 HR/9 and 8.7 K/9 ratios in 78 2/3 innings. In short, he was a tremendous part of the team’s pen.

But that was last year.

The time in question is now, and right now Warren is proving to be one of the Yankees’ better starters, going 5-4 with a 3.62 ERA in 13 starts. His K/9 ratio (5.8) is down from last year, but that was to be expected, as he only first showed hard stuff as a reliever pitching minimal innings. While he is no power pitcher as a starter, Warren is getting the job done while others, like Sabathia and Eovaldi, are not. Warren has limited his opponents to less than four earned runs in his last eight starts and is now starting to go deep into ball games, pitching past the sixth frame in six of his last seven outings. The competition is hitting a modest .240 against him, still good enough for the second best mark among Yankees starters behind Tanaka.

To look at the situation from another angle, it would have been a bad idea, yet not insane, to take Warren out of the pen in 2014. In 2015, the same applies to stripping him of his role in the rotation. Do certain aspects of it make sense? Yes.

Is it the right move though? No, not when Sabathia is failing to provide any value as a starter. Which begs the question: What value does he actually have?

The answer is as a lefty specialist.

No, that is not crazy. It is not to forget all of Sabathia’s accomplishments as a starter and it is not to add insult to a player that has had more than a few directed his way recently. It is not to kick him while he is down.

Rather, it is a way that Sabathia could get back to helping the Yankees win ballgames. Will it happen? It seems like a hard no given Warren’s experience, the $23 million owed to Sabathia this year and the fact that it would be a major blow to the ego of a pitcher that was once a regular Cy Young contender. Oh, and manager Joe Girardi may have shot down the idea as well following Tuesday’s loss.


Put that all aside though and humor the idea for just a minute, especially if you happen to be Girardi.

Not to beat the dead horse, but it has long been established that Sabathia no longer has what it takes to be a mediocre starting pitcher in the majors, let alone a good one. However, there is a chance for him to contribute as a specialist.

Right-handed batters are what keeps Sabathia up at night. This year they are putting up a .332/.374/.580 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line against him, all frightening numbers. Sabathia has already been lit up for an American League high 17 home runs, but 16 of those dingers have come off right-handed bats. All of that indicates that righties are seeing the ball out of Sabathia’s hand better than their lefty counterparts, as does the fact that all 17 of the hurler’s walks this season have been to righties.

Lefties though?

Lefties cannot touch the guy. Yes, Sabathia has had a much smaller sample size to work with (298 righties faced to 84 lefties), but with an opponent’s slash line of .193/.202/.256 the big man looks like his old self facing left-handed hitters. Sabathia has struck out nearly 30 percent of left-handed batters faced this year, a drastic difference to his 18 percent mark against righties.

If Girardi would listen, the numbers would speak for themselves. As a reliever the skipper could use Sabathia so that he is only facing one half of the plate, an idea that, at least on paper, could help all involved.

Another thing that supports the Sabathia-to-the-bullpen idea is his solid 8.0 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 ratio. As a reliever pitching in short spurts, he could improve on both of those numbers while also cutting back on the hits and contact he allows if he if he is only pitching to lefties. His velocity is down this year, but going out there for only a few batters at a time would allow him to go all out on his heater.

Again, this is nothing but a pipe dream for some Yankees fans who have seen Sabathia take the mound time and time again to little avail. When it comes to paychecks he is a king and Warren is a peasant. It may not be the best thing for the Bombers, but the money they pay Sabathia will play a large part in how this limited six-man rotation dwindles down to five.

Essentially, it all boils down to the fact that they pay him to be a starter. So, they will pay him to be a bad one rather than see if he can be a good reliever, hurt their rotation and, well, continue to pay.

The only difference is, in that scenario, the Yankees will continue to pay on the field as well.


All stats were obtained from Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs.

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