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The continued importance of CC Sabathia

At one point in his Yankee career, CC Sabathia was the most important pitcher in the starting rotation. From 2009-2012 Sabathia pitched to an ERA in the low threes. The first three years he finished top five in Cy Young voting. The fourth year he ended the season with his best strikeout to walk ratio ever. He was their ace, and he was crucial to their run of playoff appearances.

Sabathia is obviously no longer an ace. Or a number two pitcher. Or even really a number three or four pitcher. But he’s arguably the most valuable number five pitcher in baseball. Let me explain why.

Sure his numbers are pretty solid for a number five guy. Most teams would take a pitcher with an ERA around 4.00 to round out the back of their rotation, even if his FIP is hanging at an unsightly 5.28. Once he reinvented himself a few years back after a rough three-year patch from 2013-2015, he’s been a serviceable back end starter for the past several seasons.

But that’s really a smaller piece of his overall value. Last night presents the perfect example. In the top of the 6th inning, the Yankees were trailing 3-1 to those pesky Rays. They’d blown a 9th inning lead the night before, giving the Rays the motivation they needed to get back in the AL East race. Through 5.1 innings last night, it was looking like the Yankees were destined for another loss.

Here’s where Sabathia comes in. He’d pitched fine. Three runs across six innings. He did his job of keeping the Yankees in the game. Like I said earlier, that’s only part of his value. The rest of it came from what happened after getting a called strike three against Avisail Garcia.

Was this feud warranted? Eh, probably not. Garcia very briefly stared down Sabathia. The pitch was outside. Didn’t seem like anything. But Sabathia is the wise and fiery veteran. He knows the exact situation the Yankees are in.

You see, coming out of the All-Star break the Yankees offense hadn’t looked all that great. A number of starters, from Luke Voit to Didi Gregorius to Gary Sanchez were all going through minor slumps. In fact, dating back to the last two games against the Rays before the break, the Yankees hadn’t scored more than four runs in a game. It wasn’t a terrible slump, but the offense was just sort of chugging along in first gear.

Sabathia knew this. And over the past few years he’s taken it upon himself to fire up this team when they start to look sluggish. Cue last night’s moment. Did he need to get into Garcia? No, but he knew this team needed to wake up or they were at risk to coughing up yet another game to a Rays team that has so far refused to fall out of this race. Plus he has recent history with the Rays dating back to last year, when he famously plunked a Ray in retaliation and then yelled into the Rays dugout “That’s for you!” before tossing out a couple more expletives. It was the perfect opportunity.

So last night as he walked off the mound he stared back. And he yelled. Then he yelled some more. And he tried to get over to Garcia yet was (somehow) held back by Gregorius. It was enough to get the benches clearing. And enough to wake this team up.

What happened then? In the 6th inning, still trailing 3-1, the offense started to stir.

DJ LeMahieu launched a home run to right field. There was another hit in the 7th. What followed in the 8th sealed the deal. Torres worked a walk, followed by a strikeout from Brett Gardner and a lineout from LeMahieu. Then it was a series of clutch two-out play. Aaron Judge launched a go-ahead two-run home run into right field, Voit singled, Sanchez doubled, Edwin Encarnacion was intentionally walked, and then Gregorius ripped a grand slam, leading the Yankees to an 8-3 victory.

Now you can argue that it all had nothing to do with Sabathia’s fiery exchange, but I’d continue to disagree with you. He’s an incredible clubhouse value and holds fierce respect from his teammates. “He keeps us locked in,” said Aaron Judge. “And he can fire us up when we need it and we needed it tonight.” That quote pretty much sums up this article. He motivates this team when they need it.

After the game, Sabathia chalked it all up to a misunderstanding. Proof that it probably wasn’t all that big a deal. Though he also added, “I’d like to say they responded well,” when referring to his teammates. “They were fired up.”

In that brief moment in the game, he knew he had an opportunity to wake this team up. So he took it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is where Sabathia’s real value rests.