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Monday, February 13, 2012
25Q/25D: What do the Yanks need CC to be?



AP Photo/Michael DwyerHe's been great in the regular season, but CC Sabathia's ERA was over 6 in his past two playoff series.
25 Questions, 25 Days: Day 19

By just about every accepted yardstick, CC Sabathia was the definition of an ace for the 2011 Yankees. He led the pitching staff in wins (19), innings pitched (237-1/3), strikeouts (230), ERA (3.00) and WHIP (1.226). He was among the stingiest pitchers in the league when it came to surrendering home runs, and he was death against left-handed batters, who batted just .207 against him.

And he was one of the most durable and reliable workhorses in the league. Despite having had knee surgery in the offseason, Sabathia took the ball every five days and gave the Yankees an average of seven innings per start. And the Yankees rewarded him as such during the offseason, warding off his opting out of his contract by giving him an extension and a raise.

But for the last two postseasons -- Sabathia was extraordinary during the Yankees' 2009 World Championship run -- Sabathia has been something less than an ace, his ERA sitting at 6.30 in the 2010 ALCS and 6.23 in the 2011 ALDS.

Admittedly, Sabathia ran into some of the worst luck of his career in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS against the Tigers, when he was clearly out-pitching Justin Verlander, for two innings at least, before Mother Nature washed away the game.

It is not Sabathia's fault, of course, that the Yankees exited in the first round -- you can lay that one squarely at the feet of the offense, which lit up the board throughout the regular season but went dark when it was needed most in Game 5 of the ALDS -- but there is little argument that Sabathia was not nearly the pitcher in October that he had been for five of the previous six months.

The one exception, of course, was August, when Sabathia's numbers jump up so high they almost literally jump off the page. For that one month, the ERA skyrocketed, to 4.68. The percentage of line drives and fly balls that jumped off opponents' bats rose and the percentage of groundballs plummeted. For that month, opponents batted a healthy .322 off Sabathia. Most alarmingly, after having allowed just six home runs in the previous four months of the season, Sabathia allowed nine in August alone.

Some are inclined to blame Sabathia's weight, which noticeably increased during the season after he arrived at spring training reportedly 15-25 pounds lighter than his listed 290. But the likelihood is that Sabathia's girth had nothing to do with his August swoon; after all, like David Wells, he has always pitched in a state that would qualify as obese for most professional athletes but is normal operating condition for him.

No, the problem was clearly the six-man rotation he was suddenly forced into when the Yankees found themselves with a surplus of starters, Phil Hughes having been reinstated to the roster after an injury and a stint in the minors, Ivan Nova called up from Triple-A and A. J. Burnett still around.

Sabathia was vocal in his dislike of the extra day of rest and his performance reflected it, but apart from the fact that no one in the Yankees hierarchy seemed to have the stomach to bump Burnett from the rotation, there also seemed to be an effort to "conserve'' Sabathia for the postseason, an effort that paid off in diminishing returns.

This season, there would seem to be no so such cause for alarm. With the addition of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to the rotation, the assumed return of Nova to his 2011 form, and the (more optimistic) return of Hughes to his 2010 form, it looks as if there will be less pressure on Sabathia to be the anchor of the pitching staff during the regular season.

But as always, there will be renewed pressure once the slate is wiped clean and we begin the real season, the only one we are told that truly matters around here, in October.

The quandary for the Yankees, and specifically manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, is figuring out how to keep Sabathia happy during the regular season while making sure he is at his best in October rather than July.

The reigning World Champion St. Louis Cardinals certainly don't match up to the Yankees on paper and were no one's idea of the best team in baseball, even after they won it all. But what they had -- and what the Yankees lacked -- was a lights-out ace in the postseason in the person of Chris Carpenter, who shouldered virtually the same workload as Sabathia in the regular season but still had plenty of gas left in the tank to go unbeaten in October.

Now that the Yankees have given CC Sabathia some help in the regular season, that is what the Yankees need him to be next October. According to ESPN Insider Dan Szymborksi, the formulator of ZiPs Projections, Sabathia should be good for 218 innings, a 17-8 record and a 3.55 ERA in 2012, slightly down from 2011 but still plenty good enough. After all, the Yankees won 97 games, and the division, even with a diminished CC in the second half of last season.

It is the second season, the one that really counts, where they need the big man to come up huge.

Is that too much to ask? Let us know in the comments section.

Tomorrow: Who's team is this, anyway?