CC Sabathia And The Abyss

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CC Sabathia went to see Dr. James Andrews, and the news came back good: there was no structural damage to the knee. At the same time, it also came back bad: his meniscus is healthy, then, which means that this Sabathia, the slim Sabathia with the 5-something ERA, is just what he appears to be. There is no medical fix for a big guy with a degenerative knee condition.

This means that Sabathia, so rich and so recently great, is now a junkballer, with the junk often returned to sender. It hasn't been pretty, but now that he's on the DL, it's on pause, at least.

In perhaps premature retrospect, it's mostly just cool he lasted this long. Sabathia at his best was one of the most fun pitchers to watch, even in his premature pinstriped dotage, despite how multiply unflattering those pinstripes were. Sabathia was on the Yankees through an uncomfortable period during which they employed likable players, which sadly continues to this day: Ichiro is a force beyond baseball; Mariano Rivera was beyond reproach, and even Curtis Granderson was a perfectly likable player that happened through no fault of his own to be a Yakee. This offseason the team signed Carlos Beltran, who is indisputably rad. Sabathia has been more fun than any of them.

At his best, there is the exquisite Sabathian game, noted for its all-around power greatness: the fastball, sinker and angry slider. Power-chord rock. Now: nibbling and strikeouts and balls over the fence. It's the new Beck: slow and wearyingly deliberate, a work of talent and time, crescendoing only after waits and calculations. That leadoff walk and bunt single didn't bring up Mike Trout in two batters, did it? That's how it happens. You can feel it coming and then it does, and it's hit hard.

Then: total resignation. If Sabathia doesn't look as happy to be throwing a baseball anymore, it's probably because of his mopey home run faces. But his sudden gauntness deprives his face of a certain life as well.. Maybe he can't get by only on a new diet. Maybe the stuff is just gone, or the torquing mechanisms in his body has indubitably torqued out. If he's not hurt, there is a simple fact to face: CC Sabathia, by some measures the best pitcher of his generation, needs to change. Quickly, at that.

***

I want it to happen, but it seems unlikely, given his geophysical status, Sabathia is already an outlier in modern career innings pitched by any reasonable measure, but the end is still always one pitch away, and this is doubly so with age.

It's unfair, honestly. Hitters can last a long time on mastery of the strike zone. They can do it between injuries, and even do it effectively part-time. But everything is harder on the mound, which is why one good pitcher atop of it can dominate nine players at the plate, and why baseball will survive this and every other supposed crisis of pitching injuries. It's scary, but the game is stronger than any UCL. Still, if we're breaking Faberge eggs, dammit, we'd better damn sure be making omelettes.

CC, for his part, has never cracked until now, even after he went egg-whites-only. Sure, he's had trouble before. He's always had trouble with Boston, but he ought to have; the Red Sox are generally very good, and he still authored dominating performances often enough against Boston that it all more or less worked. He did it against the rest of the league, too, and wasn't so bad on his so-so days, either. It went on like this for something like 200 innings per year. As it would, of course, until it stopped working that way. This may be where we are now, you and me and CC and everyone else.

Those days, the good days, are likely past. There are some pitchers that age gracefully, and while Sabathia started losing it at a relatively young 32, he was also a full-time starter at 20, when he pitched 180.1 innings—a floor which he hasn't approached in almost a decade, but which he might well break this year. Sabathia's current disabled list stint isn't going to help, but it's not final and it's only May. It's entirely possible that Sabathia pitches out the year, and even looks a bit like himself in the process. But I'll make a bet: If he doesn't go back on before the end of the year, I'll eat those egg yellows. Waste not, want not and such. It'll go good with the (grand) salami.

Maybe I'm wrong, or I'm just a pessimist. Maybe he'll have a John Lackey-like resurgence, and get back the future. Sabathia has been great, and it is never good business to count out immortals.

But Sabathia is not really an immortal, not more than any other baseball player is. The end is always coming, and in this case it is literally coming in at 88 miles per hour, fast to us on the outside but slow and fat to the people with the bats in their hands. We might as well hope for the man on the mound who would like nothing more than to revisit the past; it would be fun to go back there with him.

But the men in the batter's box will or won't remind him that there is no going back. Sabathia is part of the present, but the future is always uncertain. It soon may not exist. We never see it coming until it is hanging there, string-straight and hittable, right over the plate.

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