TAMPA — CC Sabathia excitedly talked with a glint in his eye about a couple of spring-training encounters with former AL MVP Miguel Cabrera in the early innings of a Tuesday spring-training tie against the Tigers as if they were the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.
Of course, there was a time as recently as a few years ago when Sabathia certainly would not have concerned himself at all with the sequence of pitches he’d need to throw from one at-bat to the next to retire even the top hitters in the game.
“Oh no, I didn’t give a s–t about sequences. You were gonna get what you were gonna get, just the fastball and the slider,” Sabathia boasted on Tuesday.
This CC no longer is that CC, of course, but both Sabathia and the Yankees are fully comfortable with the alterations he has made both physically and mentally in recent seasons to transform himself from the consummate power pitcher earlier in his career to a so-called crafty lefty — and one that fully earned another spin in pinstripes following a resurgent 2017 campaign.
“It’s been fun to watch, because a couple of years ago, in my old job (as an ESPN analyst), that was the question: Could he make that transition?” said Yanks manager Aaron Boone, a former teammate of Sabathia’s more than a dozen years ago with the Indians. “You don’t know until you see it. But there’s no question that he has made that transition and I think you’re seeing him now being really comfortable.
“I think he’s a great athlete, so for being such a big guy, he’s so repeatable with his delivery that I just think he’s gotten now really comfortable with how to pitch with the stuff he has. … It’s been neat to see him make this transition.”
To wit, during Cabrera’s initial at-bat in Tuesday’s first inning, Sabathia set him up with a two-seam fastball and a cutter before getting the righty slugger to roll over on a changeup for a ground out to shortstop. The next time, the six-time All-Star lefty offered a different combo, and got Cabrera to bounce out to second.
CC Sabathia looks to continue his success after a bounce-back 2017 season for the Yankees.
“Obviously, he’s a good hitter and you can’t throw the same pitches,” reasoned Sabathia, who allowed only a solo home run in four innings. “He can’t see the same pitches a bunch of times. So you have to figure out the sequence to get him out.
“I think you’re always still learning and trying to figure things out, but I feel pretty comfortable with the stuff that I have now.”
Just as Sabathia has credited former teammate Andy Pettitte with advice on how to make that transformation, Sabathia has spoken to ex-Yankee Phil Hughes, who has been forced to reinvent himself with lower velocity following Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery, similar to Matt Harvey with the Mets.
After tossing four strong innings (one run) against the Yanks on Monday night, Hughes cited the 37-year-old Sabathia as his example of the mindset he needs to grasp to also make such a transition.
“It’s cool, it’s funny. Obviously I played with Phil for a long time and he’s one of my friends. It feels good for him to say that, and he looked good (Monday), so hopefully he can keep it going,” Sabathia said. “We’ve talked about it. Last year, I went out to dinner with him and we talked about it. It is what it is. You’ve got to try to trick them with the stuff you’ve got.”
Sabathia tricked hitters well enough last year to finish 14-5 with a 3.69 ERA over 27 starts, before posting a 2.37 ERA over four representative outings in the AL playoffs.
Ex-Yankee starter Phil Hughes credits Sabathia with helping him in his return from surgery.
(B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images)
During the regular season, the former Cy Young winner also produced a 9-0 mark with a 1.71 ERA in 10 starts that followed a Yankee loss.
All of those numbers earned him a one-year, $10 million deal for 2018 — even if that represented a 60 percent pay cut from the $25 million he made in each of the past two seasons.
Sabathia expects to make two more starts before taking the ball in one of four games to open the season in Toronto, the site of the mishap he had with his braced right knee last August in which he strongly contemplated retirement.
The Yanks are glad that he didn’t call it a career then, and so clearly is Sabathia, who firmly believes he still can improve on last year’s bounce-back success.
“Of course, you always feel like you want to get better, with my cutter, be a lot more consistent, figuring out sequences a little better. So there’s always something to work on,” Sabathia said. “But I felt great today. I told somebody if I feel like I felt today all year, I feel like I’ll be pretty good. So that’s encouraging.”
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