As much as this slog of a Yankees season has become a race against time, starring Aaron Judge’s healing right wrist and featuring Aroldis Chapman’s healing left knee in a supporting role, count it also as a race against the tank.
Front and center in this storyline: How much is left in CC Sabathia’s tank?
The Yankees’ oldest player looked near-empty on Saturday afternoon, lasting just 2 ¹/₃ innings against the checked-out Blue Jays in a close-but-no-cigar, 8-7 loss that released the boo birds early at Yankee Stadium and, following Miguel Andujar’s seventh-inning grand slam that turned it into a one-run game, let down the loyalists, extended their funk to 8-10 in their past 18 games and assured that they wouldn’t gain ground on the A’s in the race to host the Oct. 3 AL wild-card game.
The late dramatics didn’t spare Sabathia from the loss, nor did it eradicate the greater questions concerning him after he gave up five runs on seven hits, including three homers, while striking out two and walking none. If the Yankees can overcome the A’s in that loser-goes-home postseason opener — a contest for which the 38-year-old isn’t a realistic candidate to start — can they count on anything from their big lefty in October?
Aaron Boone answered that question with a “Sure” — what would the point be of voicing anything to the contrary? — yet his more telling response following this game arrived when asked about his level of concern over the team’s de facto co-captain (with the also-struggling Brett Gardner).
“A little bit with the inconsistency, just finding his cutter,” Boone said of Sabathia. “Because obviously that cutter is so important to him. I feel like the slider the last couple of times has been better. I feel like he’s flashed a good cutter but still just struggling to find that real good consistency where he talks about driving it in. When he’s good with it, he can elevate it and he can really get that crispness in on the hands of righties.”
“Yeah, the cutter just has not been there like it was early in the season,” Sabathia agreed. “Just one of those things. Just keep working at it and hopefully get it back.”
Sabathia threw 20 cutters out of 50 total pitches against the Jays, as per Brooks Baseball’s Pitch f/x tool, and they averaged 87 mph, a notable drop from the 89.1 mph average from his first 26 starts (thanks, FanGraphs). Toronto right fielder Randal Grichuk hit his second homer of the day, a solo shot in the third inning, off a cutter that stayed up and out.
“It didn’t feel like I was throwing the ball to the catcher. I just felt like I was kind of getting in there,” Sabathia said.
He owns a 9.28 ERA in 10 ²/₃ innings pitched over three September starts, and the problem with September small samples is you have fewer opportunities to prove their smallness and redeem yourself. The schedule calls upon Sabathia, a free agent after the season, to start twice more in the regular season, the first assignment coming next weekend against the historically bad Orioles at the Stadium — the perfect opportunity to fix the cutter and his status.
The Yankees will require a fourth starting pitcher in the playoffs after J.A. Happ, Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka. Would they choose the crafty, beloved Sabathia? Or the up-and-down yet harder-throwing Lance Lynn?
After Boone said “Sure” to the question of whether he’d feel comfortable giving the ball to Sabathia in the playoffs, the manager added, “And I feel like he’s close enough where there’s no question he’s been inconsistent his last few times out, but I think we’ve seen enough with his stuff that he just needs to find it on a more consistent basis, obviously. … Hopefully we’ll see that improvement, but you know he’s a guy that obviously the moment of the postseason’s not going to affect him at all, and you hope you can bring out the best in him.”
Can Sabathia find more in the tank? The answer could determine not only his 2019 fate, but the Yankees’ October 2018 fortune, as well.