BY BOB KLAPISCH
Yankees lefty CC Sabathia’s ERA rose to 5.67 with another loss Thursday in Oakland.
If there was anything to be gleaned from Jorge Posada’s recent memoirs, it was just how cold and calculating Joe Girardi could be when the situation warranted. The manager has a reputation of loyalty to his veterans, but, as evidenced by the way he showed Posada the door, Girardi isn’t always blinded by nostalgia.
Yet, he maintains an unbreakable bond with CC Sabathia, which cost the Yankees on Thursday night in a 5-4 loss to the A’s. Girardi allowed the big left-hander to go out for the seventh inning, despite surrendering a two-run homer to Brett Lawrie in the sixth, tying the score at 3.
Sabathia never made it out of the seventh, as the last-place A’s went ahead for good. The former-ace’s ERA climbed to 5.67, which is no surprise to anyone who’s watched him decline over the last three seasons. Sabathia doesn’t throw particularly hard and his command on the corners is inconsistent. Yet, Girardi keeps waiting for Sabathia to either reincarnate as the 2009 version of himself or as a latter-day Andy Pettitte, able to throw a killer out-pitch in the middle of a rally.
So far, neither has happened, and it’s hard to believe it will. Sooner or later, the Yankee hierarchy, and Girardi in particular, will have to accept Sabathia’s decline phase for what it is. In fact, as much as the Yankees hoped in spring training CC wouldn’t get hurt in 2015, the real problem is that he’s stayed healthy.
Like most new millennium managers, Girardi’s strategy is data-driven. He’s well prepared in the late innings when games are on the line. Yet, Girardi seems oblivious to one glaring flaw in Sabathia’s profile: The left-hander can’t get through an opposing lineup a third time.
His ERA after the fifth inning is 7.62; from the sixth inning on, it inflates to 10.12. Sabathia has managed to keep his walks down, and, oddly, his strikeout ratio (7.6 per nine innings) is almost identical to what it was in 2009. But Sabathia is giving up a slew of base hits — more than 11 per nine innings — which suggests he simply doesn’t have the arsenal to get out of trouble anymore.
One talent evaluator said the other day, “It’s just too late in [Sabathia’s] career to turn into Pettitte or [Mike] Mussina. Those guys had deliveries that were consistent with finesse pitching. CC doesn’t.”
Sabathia still has that massive windup, an explosion of arms and legs coming at hitters in a fury, a reminder of the days when his fastball lived in the mid-to-high 90s. But now, with his four-seamer under 90-mph, that windup only serves to get in the way. There’s too many moving parts for precision, especially from a former Cy Young winner who was taught to crush hitters with blow-away heat.
So what’s to be done, if Sabathia can’t be counted in late innings? One solution is for Girardi to start looking to the bullpen after the second time through the order; turn Sabathia into a five-inning pitcher. It would be a blow to the big man’s ego, but a veteran’s pride didn’t stop Girardi from dropping Posada to the No. 9 spot in the order when it made sense.
The other option is to turn Sabathia into a long man, specifically to neutralize lefties. You can forget about that ever happening, though, since the Yankees are paying Sabathia $48 million through 2016. And unless he ends next season on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury, or doesn’t spend more than 45 days on the DL with a left shoulder injury or doesn’t make more than six relief appearances because of a left shoulder injury — then his contract rolls over for another $25 million in 2017.
Who knows, though, it’s possible Sabathia will benefit from Masahiro Tanaka’s return to the rotation on Wednesday. And Ivan Nova, recovering from Tommy John surgery, could make his 2015 debut in June, as well. The Yankees’ rotation might be sufficiently bolstered to keep them afloat in the East, but more importantly, push Sabathia to the No. 5 where he’s pitched himself to.
It’s a steep drop for a player everyone likes and respects. To his credit, Sabathia has never run from his failure; he faces questions every time he suffers a loss.
Surely, though, Sabathia’s confidence is down, as it becomes obvious he can’t win in the middle of the strike zone. The question, of course, is whether Girardi knows it and if he does, what he intends to do about it.