<
>

CC Sabathia's recovery will make him a better person, but not necessarily a better pitcher

play
Sabathia addresses rehab and the changes he's made (1:58)

CC Sabathia speaks with Britt McHenry about leaving the Yankees to enter rehab and how changes to his life have had a positive impact. (1:58)

TAMPA -- This season, CC Sabathia will have two constant companions: his sponsor. And his knee brace.

The first will help him through the emotional roller coaster of dealing with a life without alcohol.

The second will help him through the physical crucible of pitching with the pain of a degenerative right knee.

It was admirable and courageous for Sabathia to face his alcohol problem by checking himself into rehab at the end of last season. To help him through what is sure to be an ongoing ordeal, Sabathia will have frequent phone conversations with his sponsor, an alcohol counselor who has been working with him since Sabathia left the facility in November.

Those actions are likely to make him a better husband, father and man. But don't expect them to make him a better pitcher.

That is the job of the knee brace.

The Yankees really don't care which one of those factors makes the difference. They know they are a better team with an effective Sabathia in the rotation than, say, Ivan Nova or Bryan Mitchell.

But not one of the people directly involved in Sabathia's 2015 season can definitively point to alcohol abuse as the reason for CC's early-season struggles.

According the accounts of all the relevant people -- New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi and Sabathia himself -- the pitcher's drinking problem never seemed to affect his performance on the mound.

By Sabathia's account during a news conference at the Yankees spring training facility on Friday, the problem goes back at least to 2012, if not further.

In addition to the anecdotal evidence that, on the mound at least, Sabathia was a functional alcoholic, it is worth noting that as his off-the-field problems were coming to a head -- he had a near-brawl outside a Toronto nightclub in August and a reportedly three-day bender as the regular season was winding down in Baltimore the first weekend of October -- Sabathia was simultaneously turning in his most effective pitching of the season.

In his final nine starts of the season, beginning on Aug. 6, Sabathia went 3-2 with a 2.86 ERA. In his previous 20 starts, Sabathia had been 2-8 with a 5.54 ERA. And perhaps most tellingly, after having allowed 24 home runs in his first 117 innings of the season, Sabathia kept the ball in the ballpark throughout most of August and September, surrendering just four homers in his final 50 1/3 innings.

Little about Sabathia's 2015 season adds up logically, but clearly, the mounting pressures of a worsening alcohol problem had little-to-no adverse affect on his pitching.

If anything, he appears to have pitched best when his personal demons were at their worst.

The answer, or at least one answer, may lie in a much simpler place: the brace on Sabathia's right knee.

While he was in the midst of his late-season resurgence, Sabathia repeatedly credited his newly-adopted knee brace, an explanation that at the time seemed a little too pat.

Given another chance to assess his Jekyll-and-Hyde 2015 season on Friday, Sabathia again told the same story.

"When my knee starts hurting, I get to a point where my leg hyperextends and the brace kind of stops me from that, so I feel comfortable using it,'' Sabathia said. "I got a new, lightweight one that I started using at the end of the year last year and I really took to it. I'm excited about what it's done for me.''

Asked why it took him two-thirds of a miserable season to finally realize the benefits of supporting his troublesome knee, Sabathia was as direct and honest as he has been about his drinking problem.

"Just me being stubborn, I guess,'' he said. "I kind of felt like it was big and bulky. We got a new one at the end of the season that was lightweight and felt great. It's kind of changed the way I feel about going out and pitching with the brace."

Sabathia was just as definite that his excessive drinking -- which he says took place mostly in the solitude of his hotel room on the road -- was not to blame for his ineffective pitching early from April to August.

"I never showed up to my job or came to the field drinking alcohol or anything like that,'' he said. "I was just tired of binging the way I was. I didn't really feel good about where I was headed.''

Girardi echoed his earlier contention that he had never seen any signs of alcohol abuse from Sabathia, and his belief that it had no effect on the way he was pitching.

Still, both manager and pitcher agreed that if nothing else, Sabathia could benefit psychologically this season simply from being freed of carrying the burden of such a secret in his mind.

"I think it was a weight he was carrying around on his shoulders,'' Girardi said. "So I think it can have a huge effect. I didn't see a lot of effect on him as a pitcher but maybe we'll see something and say, 'You know what? Maybe it did have an effect, this year.' We just don't know.''

Girardi acknowledged, however, that Sabathia "was pitching as well as he had in the last two years when it all came to a head. So, it's hard to predict.''

Much has been made of the fact that for the first time since probably his rookie season, Sabathia may be fighting for a spot in a big-league rotation this spring. Some believe that because of his resume -- Sabathia won the AL Cy Young in 2007 and the ALCS MVP as a Yankee in 2009 -- and more likely, his paycheck (he is owed $25 million this year with an easily-vesting option for 2017 that calls for $25 million more), the competition is rigged and there is little Sabathia can do to not be one of the five starters the Yankees take north in April.

Without addressing the issue head-on, Cashman repeated what he has said all winter, that the best five starters coming out of training camp are the ones who will be in his rotation, regardless of name, reputation or price tag.

"I expect him to pitch well,'' Girardi said. "I expect him to kind of jump back into where he left off last year. You know, he pitched well for us at the end of last season, and those are our expectations.''

Sabathia knows he will have to adopt new habits this season -- video games and socializing with his teammates on the road rather than solitary drinking, for instance -- in order to keep his alcohol problem at bay. And he knows he will have the support of his family, teammates and employers to help him over the inevitable rough spots.

When it comes to pitching, Sabathia is less likely to rely on his human support system, and more likely to lean on the rubber and steel contraption supporting his right knee.

Alcohol may have nearly derailed him as a person, but the knee brace seems to have held him together as a pitcher.