Commentary

For CC Sabathia, less equals more

The Yankees' ace showed up to camp lighter -- because his employers asked him to

Updated: February 21, 2012, 12:16 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- When they reworked CC Sabathia's contract in October, the New York Yankees were sending their ace the following message: We want you. We love you. We need you.

But when they sat him down for a meeting at Yankee Stadium a few weeks later, they reworked the message, too: We want you. We love you.

But we need less of you.

Call it the Cap'n Crunch Intervention -- the day GM Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi and head trainer Steve Donahue met with Sabathia and told him for his own good that the time had come to hit the salad bar instead of the Viennese Table.

The Yankees, after all, had committed another year and a minimum of $30 million more -- on top of the seven years and $161 million they were already obligated to pay -- to keep Sabathia from opting out of his contract.

Now they wanted a commitment from Sabathia, whose performance fell off in the second half of last season. They weren't going to make it a contractual obligation, but more of a personal and professional commitment, and they weren't saying Sabathia's decline in effectiveness was necessarily a result of an increase in girth.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Kim Klement/US Presswire"Make mine a turkey -- mustard, no mayo!"

But there was no doubt that his ERA and his weight skyrocketed in tandem last season, and the Yankees aren't paying Sabathia by the ounce, but by the win.

"I can't tell you it did or didn't [affect Sabathia],'' Cashman said. "I just know we thought it was important enough to have the conversation because obviously in the second half he got bigger after the All-Star break.''

Sabathia also had some patella tendon soreness in his right knee, surgically repaired before last season, and he was admittedly put out by having to work in a six-man rotation in August and September.

But you also didn't need to put the big man on a scale to see that the weight loss he brought to spring training a year ago -- he claimed to have lost 30 pounds -- had been replaced, with interest, by the end of the season.

"You wonder, is it the excess weight, is it just the season, is it because he had that knee surgery?'' Cashman said. "No one has those answers. The best you can do is try to eliminate possibilities.''

So he, Girardi and Donahue laid it out to Sabathia: a lighter pitcher is, generally speaking, a healthier pitcher. Especially one with a history of knee problems whose next birthday will be No. 32.

They weren't asking for a lot -- no one wants to turn Pavarotti into a soprano -- and they weren't sending him to fat camp or anything like that.

They were just, you know, suggesting things that might end up safeguarding their sizable investment. And, Cashman said, Sabathia was receptive to the suggestions.

"The hard part is having those conversations,'' Cashman said. "The easy part is watching him follow through. I have full confidence that when you have honest dialogue, CC is the kind of person who will make the change.''

Much as he had last spring, Sabathia looked noticeably more svelte at his locker Sunday morning, the first day of pitchers and catchers in Yankees camp. This year, he's saying the weight loss is more in the 10- to 15-pound range, and this time it's for real.

"I just got to make sure I stay with Dana [Cavalea, the team strength and conditioning coach], do the right things on the road, make sure I eat the right things in the clubhouse,'' Sabathia said. "So that shouldn't be hard.''

In truth, it has never been easy for Sabathia, who at 6-foot-7 has always pitched at a weight higher than Sandy Koufax' lifetime ERA (2.76). He's just been allocated one of those wide-bodies that resist slimming no matter how many miles they run or second and third helpings they push away.

The Yankees issued Michael Pineda, the kid starter they obtained from Seattle in the Jesus Montero deal, the locker next to Sabathia's in the hope some veteran savvy and leadership would rub off on him. Perhaps they're hoping Sabathia's new-found dietary discipline will rub off, as well, considering Pineda, listed at 6-7 and 260, admitted to arriving in camp at 280 pounds.

But those are secondary benefits. The primary concern here is to make sure that Sabathia, who has won 59 regular-season games in three years as a Yankee, remains strong and healthy enough to win a few in October, too.

Sabathia was a keystone of the 2009 championship team, winning the ALCS MVP, but for the past two Octobers, his postseason ERA is 5.84 in six playoff games.

On paper the Yankees' rotation received a major upgrade this winter with the addition of Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to go along with Ivan Nova, a 16-game winner last year, and either Phil Hughes (18 wins in 2010) or Freddy Garcia as the fifth starter.

But it all starts and ends with the big man.

The message the Yankees sent Sabathia this winter was clear: We love you. We need you. And we want you.

But we want less of you in the uniform, and more of you on the mound.

Especially in October.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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