By Sweeny Murti
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It’s a lot of fun to watch CC Sabathia pitch right now.
I’m not sure if anyone would have ever thought of applying the phrase “crafty left-hander” to his 6-foot-6, 300-pound frame a decade ago, but it sure fits when you watch him right now.
This is a guy who went from throwing 65-70 percent fastballs his first few years in the league –averaging nearly 95 mph in 2005 — to now dotting corners with his now-90 mph heater a little more than 30 percent of the time.
Maybe you’re disappointed in what the last few years have done to that pitcher the Yankees signed way back in 2009, but this is what it looks like when a one-time power pitcher has almost 17 years and 3,200 innings under his belt.
There was a time when Sabathia was taking his steps towards the Hall of Fame. From 2007-’12, he went 110-46 (.705 winning percentage) with a 3.13 ERA, a 140 ERA+, one Cy Young Award (and four other finishes in the top five in the voting), plus the 2009 ALCS MVP and a World Series ring.
When he won his 200th game in 2013, Sabathia was only the eighth pitcher in the expansion era to win that many before age 33. The other seven — Don Drysdale, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Greg Maddux, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, and Tom Seaver — are all in the Hall of Fame.
It’s easy now to forget how great Sabathia was in comparison to his contemporaries, too. Six seasons in the league’s top 10 in WAR equals Hall of Famer Tom Glavine and is one less than likely Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. (Total aside, Mike Mussina had 11 such seasons! His plaque is coming one day.)
The health of Sabathia’s right knee is a big reason why he enters Friday’s start in Pittsburgh, almost four years after his 200th win, with a career total of only 225 victories. He could quite easily be past the 250 mark and in more of a HOF conversation if he didn’t have the misery of his 2014 and 2015 seasons on the ledger.
But here he is, confident his right knee is stable now, able to finish his pitches, and relying on an offspeed approach that consistently produces the softest contact in the league. He also feels as if he can compete this year and beyond. And why not? He’s currently 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA in three starts.
How long ago does 2012 seem to you? Do you even remember the last playoff game the Yankees won? Sabathia threw 121 pitches in a complete-game four-hitter, his second victory of the five-game ALDS win over the Orioles. How long ago was it? Five of the nine players in the Yankees’ starting lineup that night — Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Raul Ibanez, Nick Swisher, and Eric Chavez — are retired. And that’s not even counting Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, or Andy Pettitte.
Sabathia was the still-in-his-prime workhorse of that team, coming within one out of throwing two complete-game victories in that series. One night after Sabathia’s dominance in Game 5, Jeter broke his ankle. And the Yankees haven’t won a playoff game since.
Sabathia doesn’t want this season to be his last hurrah. But the roles sure have changed since he arrived in 2009. Now he’s the veteran towards the end chasing one more ring, asking his body to put it all together one more time and leaning on younger stars to do some heavy lifting.
Three starts into 2017, Sabathia is carrying his load. And it’s a joy to witness.
Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN