On performance alone, CC Sabathia probably would have liked to finish his career on a better note. To date, Sabathia has a 4.99 ERA and 5.72 FIP in 106 1/3 innings. As great as his renaissance has been over the last few years, it wasn’t going to last forever. Time finally caught up to CC, though his knee let him down too.
Regular season numbers aside, Sabathia can still finish on a high note. A World Series title would take the cake, though recording some big outs in October en route to a championship would be even sweeter. However, it’s not easy to figure out how (or if) Sabathia fits into the team’s October plans. The Yankees have been coy about the postseason pitching staff, though it’s pretty obvious that the bullpen will be key. Given what we know, it seems like there are four options for CC come October:
- Game four starter
- Game four follower / bulk innings
- Lefty specialist / Long relief
- Left off
Let’s examine each possibility, shall we?
Game four options
James Paxton, Luis Severino, and Masahiro Tanaka will assuredly start the first three games of the Division Series. If game four is necessary, the Yankees can go one of two ways: use a traditional starter or an opener.
If the Yankees ride the bullpen hard in games one through three, they may have to go the conventional route, especially if Chad Green has thrown a bit already. That’s where Sabathia becomes a possibility as a starter. And basically, it comes down to this: do you want to start Sabathia or JA Happ?
Happ’s been good this month (1.06 ERA in 17 innings), but his body of work in 2019 is no better than Sabathia’s. Now, Happ probably has a better shot to go deeper into a game, especially with Sabathia’s knee condition. Still, Sabathia’s big game reputation and surprisingly still good Statcast metrics (87th percentile exit velo, 89th percentile hard hit percentage) make him a better bet for my money. Ultimately, there’s probably no right answer, because it’s hard to count on either getting through opposing orders multiple times.
On the other hand, a fairly well rested ‘pen sets up well to use Green as an opener with Sabathia following. This is the ideal scenario: Carsten Charles wouldn’t have to face the top of the order right away and wouldn’t need to throw more than two or three more innings. Considering his substantial dip in results once hitters see him a second time, Sabathia stands to benefit here.
If this is something the Yankees are considering, I’d expect them to try it once before the regular season ends. Sabathia’s only relief appearance ever was in the 2011 ALDS.
In the bullpen
The Yankees have southpaw relievers in Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton, but neither are lefty specialists. Tommy Kahnle is the go to guy before the 8th to retire tough lefties, though he’s by no means a specialist as he handles righties too. You don’t see LOOGYs too often anymore, but with such a big pitching staff in the playoffs, it’s a little easier to carry one. Sabathia makes for a good fit:
- Vs. Lefties: .200/.273/.456, .279 xwOBA
- Vs. Righties: .286/.350/.532, .318 xwOBA
If the season ended today, the Yankees would face the Twins in the first round. They have a number of lefties in the lineup, namely Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario. If the Yankees are going to be extremely reliant on the bullpen next month, Sabathia might be able to steal an out in a middle inning against one of Minnesota’s left-handed hitters.
Elsewhere in the American League, Cleveland wouldn’t be a favorable match for Sabathia; their big bats are all switch-hitters or righties. Tampa Bay has Austin Meadows and Ji-Man Choi. Last but certainly not least, Houston’s rookie slugger Yordan Álvarez swings from the left side.
Just because Sabathia could find a role in the bullpen as a specialist doesn’t mean he couldn’t be used in another way. Since he’s built up as a starter, he can mop up innings as needed too. Hopefully in a big blowout favoring the Yankees, of course. That would allow Boone to save his best guys for the next game. Or, even better, have Sabathia on the mound to close out the World Series with the game well in hand and no more games thereafter. We can dream.
Anyway, Sabathia in relief is contingent on his comfort in that role. For instance, I wonder how quickly he can be ready on short notice for a left-on-left matchup. I assume that there’s a lot that goes into getting his bad knee ready to pitch, which is something easier to time as a starter. Relief work can come at a moments notice, so this would be tricky.
The Yankees could carry 13 or 14 pitchers on the postseason roster and still not have room for Sabathia. Steven previewed this the other day, though that was before Domingo Germán’s placement on administrative leave under the league’s domestic violence policy.
At this point of his career, Sabathia probably isn’t one of the best 13 or 14 pitchers in the Yankees’ organization. So, it shouldn’t come as a complete shock if he’s not on the October roster, though I don’t expect it to happen.
Even if Sabathia is excluded, he’ll still be in the dugout and clubhouse every step of the way. That’s perhaps more important than anything he can contribute on the mound now, anyway.