CC Sabathia, the New York Yankees’ onetime ace, is not the player he used to be, but he’s often good enough. A characteristic making-it-work moment happened in June, in a home game against the Boston Red Sox. The Yanks led the Sox 5-0 in the fifth inning, but Boston had a runner on third, so the left-hander offered Jackie Bradley, Jr., his best pitches. The first was the slider, a formerly swerving, missile-like thing that has now lost a little speed and gained and little loopiness; Sabathia tucked it into the bottom of the strike zone. The second was a fastball on the outside corner. If Sabathia had used that sequence and hit those spots in 2003, or 2007, or 2009, or 2011, the count would have stood no balls and two strikes. But on this evening in 2017, Bradley managed to hit a chopper up the middle, so Sabathia hopped off the mound, reached up, and snatched the ball with his bare pitching hand. TV viewers could hear the thwack of cowhide meeting palm. He checked on the runner at third, turned, and tossed to first for the out. He did all this with a proud but slightly put-upon bearing, the way some fathers fix faucets. It’s the way he usually looks these days. When trainers ran out to make sure he hadn’t hurt himself, he sent them quickly back to the dugout.
Sabathia is tied for the lead among Yankee pitchers with nine wins, despite missing three weeks with a hamstring strain, and he holds a 3.81 earned run average. These statistics don’t put him anywhere near the top of the league leaderboards whose first- or second-place spots he used to hold as a matter of course, but they nevertheless represent a triumph. From 2012 to 2015, Sabathia’s effectiveness waned every season. His fastball slowed, his breaking pitches lost their shape, and his bulk, once a suggestion of lordly dominance, seemed to have become a burden. The uptick, started last year and continued in this one, signals not a recaptured youth but an acceptance of age. The 37-year-old Sabathia works more carefully than he ever has, prizing aim and subtlety over speed, hunting ground balls instead of strikeouts. He combines a painterly approach—an awareness of what the subtlest movement, an inch’s dip away from the meat of the bat, can accomplish—with a sort of practical resignation: “Tonight wasn’t my best stuff.” Acknowledging that he will never again dominate gives him a chance to compete.
It has been a season of good news in the Bronx, starting with the Redwood-sized rookie outfielder Aaron Judge, who leads the league in home runs and has spurred the Baby Bombers to a relevance in the AL East that most prognosticators thought was a year or two away. Shortstop Didi Gregorius is enjoying the best year of his career, combining a quick bat and nimble glove; catcher Gary Sanchez, last season’s rookie phenom, has shaken off an early-season bicep injury to solidify the lineup. Of all the surprises, though, Sabathia’s turnaround is the pleasantest. He arrived in New York as an import in the winter of 2009, having signed what was then the most expensive pitching contract in history, and steered the Yankees to that year’s championship, so his struggles in recent seasons had been accepted by fans as a deferred cost. His re-emergence as a steady hand has done more than just stabilize an otherwise shaky starting rotation; it has linked what would otherwise be entirely distinct generations. With his old cohorts gone, Sabathia has a suddenly sentimental aura, the result of having slotted in next to Jeter, Mo, and A-Rod on hundreds of lineup cards. He is one of three Yankees on the present roster with a World Series ring won in New York.
In the scheme of his career, it should come as no surprise that Sabathia has found a way to work with new constraints: He has always filled any role thrust upon him entirely. In his mid-20s, with the Cleveland Indians, Sabathia was maybe the most feared pitcher in baseball, with a slider that could scare hitters twice: once when they swung at it and missed, again when it kept breaking and threatened to smash down on their toes. In 2008, the year before he signed with the Yankees, Cleveland traded him at the deadline to the Milwaukee Brewers, who needed help breaking a 25-year playoff drought. Indifferent to the possibility that too large an innings load might hurt his arm and affect his free-agent payday, Sabathia made a habit of throwing complete games on short rest, piling up strikeouts and sweating in sheets. In the last game of the season, he fired 122 pitches over nine innings to beat the Chicago Cubs, and the Brewers clinched their playoff berth. “It was his game. It was his year. It was his two months,” interim manager Dale Sveum said of his temporary ace. “He’s just a special human being.”
The contemporary Sabathia claims not to pine after his old triple-digit fastball or the days when he could carry a team to the postseason almost by himself. “This is a lot of fun, being able to pitch like this, thinking through games, setting guys up and trying to get called strikeouts and stuff,” he told the New York Times in March. “It’s a lot more fun than just going out there and kind of beating them with brute force.” One suspects that he’d still take his former gifts back, were he offered them, but there’s some truth to the sentiment. Sabathia will be a free agent at year’s end, and if he heads elsewhere in 2018, New York fans won’t remember only the savior, the Number One, the World Series hero. They’ll also miss the player who throws slower and works harder, who furrows his big brow, who inspires less awe but more admiration.