Sometime between now and the end of July the Yankees have to make some decisions about the makeup of the team, and what they are going to look like, to make a push for the playoffs. A big part of those decisions is around the starting rotation. Everybody knows that CC Sabathia has been something of a question mark this season. Maybe everyone would be better served if he considered a move to the bullpen.
Now I know what you're thinking. I say the word bullpen and you hear the word demotion. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact I think his numbers say that he would do better coming out of the bullpen instead of trying to start and go at least six innings. In his first 16 games in 2015 he ERA is north of 5 and his opponents' batting average is a hair under .300. There doesn't seem to be any pattern to indicate specific weaknesses except one: his performance early in games vs his performance in later innings.
The first time through the lineup, hitters are batting .250 against him with an OPS of .694 - pretty respectable. After that, the batting average jumps to .325 and the OPS jumps to .925. That's significant. Consider that most major league starters are expected to go through the lineup 3 times and you realize that this spells trouble. Let's look at pitch counts. If you accumulate all of his stats for the first 25 pitches of each game he's pitched this season, opponents' batting average is .234 and their OPS is .698. Again, not bad. But from pitch 26 on, again Sabathia's numbers fall off a cliff. Opponents batting average climbs to .321 - almost 80 points higher - and the OPS goes to .897 - almost 200 points higher. Major league starters typically go a minimum of 80 - 100 pitches per game, so the problem becomes obvious.
Now consider that most relievers pitch 25 to 40 pitches per game and they rarely see a hitter twice. Also, consider that relievers don't have to worry about saving good pitches for the next time they face any particular hitter. He will always be throwing his best stuff in any given at-bat. It opens up a lot of possibilities if Sabathia is open to the idea. All the scenarios which include trading for starters like Johnny Cueto and bringing up rookies like Luis Severino take on a new dimension.
Dennis Eckersley faced a similar challenge at the end of his career. Or rather, what he thought was the end of his career, until he reinvented himself. Same goes for John Smoltz. After the 1986 season, his 12th in the majors, Eckersley was dumped by the Cubs. You couldn't blame them - in 32 starts he only had six wins. Then Oakland picked him up and converted him into a reliever. A year later he led the American League with 45 saves and came in second in the Cy Young voting. A guy who looked like he was done turned into a premier closer and ended up pitching for 12 more seasons, with a Cy Young and an MVP in 1992. John Smoltz switched from starter to closer for four seasons. In that time, he accumulated 154 saves and came in third in the Cy Young voting in 2002.
All that to say that a switch to a reliever role is not a demotion. It's all in what you do with it, and the numbers show that CC Sabathia could do a lot with that. There are just a few mental hurdles that he, the fans, and the Yankees need to get over. First there's that $23M price tag for this year and $25M for 2016. He would be the most expensive relief pitcher in franchise history. Get over it. You paid what you paid and you got 6 years of starts out of him. For several years, he anchored the staff, and his resume includes a World Series win for us. The price tag itself won't make him a better starter, and maybe your best play is to make him a reliever and get as much value as you can in that role.
The other mental hurdle is being able to recognize that he really cares and that he is doing his best and it is just not working. You can see it in the grimace on his face when he says he can't play at that level anymore. You can see it when he barks at an umpire and gets ejected for arguing a bad call. You can see it when he's the first one charging from the dugout after a pitcher throws at Alex Rodriguez. Believe me - he cares. He wants to win badly and to be a contributing member of the team.
It is painful to watch the end of a hero's career when you can't live up to past expectations. Not everyone gets to have a farewell tour in their final season. It becomes especially aggravating when it's not the final season of your contract and you haven't declared that you're done. Besides, I'm not convinced that he is done.
CC - we love you and will root for you till the end. Just think about it.
--Ike Dimitriadis, BYB Senior Staff Writer
My blog is: Shots from Murderer's Row
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