This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue.
At 6’7” and almost three bills, CC Sabathia has always been huge. Now shedding pounds, he has made an equally massive transformation. A breakdown of the numbers that redefine the Cy Young contender.
Opponent OPS in the second half of last season
After 11 years as an innings eater known for getting stronger as the game (and season) went on, Sabathia needed just one August outing in Minnesota last season to realize he was carrying too much weight. Before the first pitch, he says, he was “completely gassed” by his usual 43-pitch pregame bullpen session. Though he ultimately managed to go seven innings and get the win, he was hammered for four runs and 10 hits, the fourth straight outing he’d yielded nine-plus knocks. After that, “I wanted to make sure I didn’t feel like that again,” he says. Across the board, Sabathia’s second-half stats proved what he already knew: His ERA was nearly a full run higher than in the first half of the season. His opponents’ OPS rose to .763 from .605. Shortly after inking his ace to a contract extension following the season, Yankees GM Brian Cashman sat Sabathia down in the team’s training room. “Felt like you got a little big this year,” Cashman told his southpaw. “We want to make sure you’re healthy.” So did Sabathia.
Percentage increase in the number of big league hurlers over 250 pounds since the 1990s
Sabathia’s girth is at the vanguard of a huge—pardon the pun—trend. Less than three years into the latest decade, we’ve seen 53 pitchers who weigh at least 250 pounds (including Sabathia) appear in a game, according to baseball-reference.com. In the previous decade, just 61 hurlers cracked the 250 mark. In the 1990s, only 11 pitchers weighed that much. In the 1970s and ’80s, zero pitchers were that size. The supersizing of pitchers may ultimately produce dozens more great careers like Sabathia’s. Royals closer Jonathan Broxton, for instance, is a 300-pounder and a two-time All-Star and could be the most sought-after reliever at the trade deadline. The Marlins’ Heath Bell, the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen and the Twins’ Matt Capps all weigh 260 or more and have already reached double digits in saves. As for starters, Carlos Zambrano (275) and Bartolo Colon (265) have been, like Sabathia, rotation regulars.
Sabathia’s Body Mass Index late last season
When the Indians drafted Sabathia out of high school in 1998, he already weighed 250 pounds. By the time he reached the majors less than three years later, the 20-year-old lefty was approaching 300. Cleveland team president Mark Shapiro rode his ace about the dietary perils of noon wake-ups and midnight dinners. But no matter the course of action (after the 2003 season, Shapiro helped the lefty hire a personal chef for the winter), poundage was a persistent problem, fueled by indifference. Says Sabathia, “Being fat never really bothered me.” He lost weight, gained it back, tried different diets that didn’t last. In 2010, Sabathia had surgery to repair a tear in his right knee that he blamed on his weight. And yet by last season (right) he eventually tipped the scales at 315, the most he’d ever weighed, with a BMI that qualified him as “morbidly obese.”
Number of wins during Sabathia’s 12-year career
In 2001, after jumping straight from Double-A to the majors, Sabathia won 17 games, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting and helped the Indians win the AL Central. In the decade that followed, he averaged 16 wins a season and was an All-Star five times. Even with his sagging second half last year, he finished with 19 wins and was fourth in the AL Cy Young race. His stamina has been even more impressive: He’s had 23 straight starts of at least 100 pitches. “People don’t realize what an elite athlete CC is,” says Shapiro, who watched Sabathia win the 2007 Cy Young as a member of the Tribe. But as he has moved up the career wins list (through June, his 185 W’s were fifth among active players), he’s also aged into the obvious question: How long can even a freakishly durable man his size last? As it happens, on June 27 he was placed on the 15-day DL because of a strained left groin. The Yankees say the injury has nothing to do with his weight; Sabathia is scheduled to return after the All-Star break.
Drop in Sabathia’s body-fat percentage since the wake-up call
“My kids are the most important thing in my life,” says the 31-year-old father of four (Carsten, 8, Jaden, 6, Cyia, 3, and Carter, 1). This season, he has dropped 26 pounds—he’s down to 289—two inches from his waistline (from 44 to 42) and 6% in body fat (from 24 to 18). “I want to be around for my kids for a long time,” he says. These days he’ll have a six-egg-white omelet with turkey bacon for breakfast, salad with tuna for lunch and a lean piece of fish for dinner. He drinks water and Gatorade instead of guzzling Dr Pepper. “He’s finally committed to improving his body,” says Yankees strength coach Dana Cavalea, who spent the first road trips of 2012 dialing up 9 a.m. room service to ensure that CC—and his metabolism—got an early start. Now Sabathia orders for himself. “I know what’s good for me,” he says. And that’s bad for hitters.
Additional reporting by Doug Mittler