As he took questions from the media, Ron Guidry — Mr. Louisiana Lightning himself — interrupted to ask Sabathia about having some jambalaya on Saturday or Sunday.
“Saturday,” Sabathia answered.
“I feel like cooking,” Guidry replied.
The former Cy Young winner and current pitching instructor walked away.
“That’s not vegan, either,” Sabathia joked.
The veteran left-hander is in the twilight of his career, entering his 18th season in the big leagues and 10th with the Yankees. Only Brett Gardner has been with the club longer, and only Adrian Beltre, Bartolo Colon and Jason Grilli played last year and began their major league careers before Sabathia. It’s hard to believe it was back in 2001 when a young Sabathia and Colon headlined the Cleveland Indians’ rotation.
A few years ago, Sabathia’s career appeared in jeopardy: He made just eight starts in 2014 because of a knee injury and then went 6-10 with a 4.73 ERA in 2015. After that season, he underwent treatment for alcohol abuse, later writing on The Players’ Tribune website, “Nothing scared me more than saying these three words: ‘I need help.'”
He has remade himself the past two seasons, adapting to his decreasing velocity by throwing fewer fastballs and more of everything else. In 2009, his first year with the Yankees, he threw his fastball 59 percent of the time and it averaged 93.9 mph. That was back at the beginning of the big spike in pitcher velocity, and Sabathia was still among the hardest-throwing starters in the league.
Last season, he threw his fastball just 26 percent of the time while averaging 90.6 mph, which was his highest radar reading since 2013. Now, he throws more sliders and cutters than ever along with his changeup. The slider remains his favorite wipeout pitch, holding batters to a .185 average last year with a 35 percent strikeout rate. It’s not an overpowering package, but he made it work with a 3.69 ERA.
In one regard, Sabathia is just happy to have a job, returning to the Yankees on a one-year, $10 million contract. He sees everything that has happened this offseason and admits he’d be “panicking” if he were still unsigned.
“When I was a free agent [before], you got paid off what you did,” he said. “Now guys are getting paid off what they can do throughout that contract, so it’s just a different landscape in baseball. The GMs are getting younger and smarter and want to get more value out of the player.”
Sabathia wasn’t complaining about what has happened, and maybe it’s easy for a player who has made over $240 million in his career to not be concerned about his fellow major leaguers, but that didn’t seem like the case, either.
“I don’t know what you do — maybe shorten the years to free agency, make it four years instead of six so guys have a chance to be in their 20s going into free agency instead of 30,” he said.
That makes sense, especially with the way front offices now manipulate service time to essentially get seven years out of a player before he hits free agency. Good luck getting the small-market owners to agree to that idea, however, and even that wouldn’t necessarily help the middle- or lower-tier veterans find jobs.
For now, Sabathia’s concern is getting the Yankees back on top. New manager Aaron Boone, a teammate of Sabathia’s in Cleveland for two seasons, is happy the big guy is still in pinstripes.
“He’s on a short list for me of guys I have so much respect for,” Boone said. “Over the course of a career, you play with a lot of superstar players, which I throw CC into that category, and he’s as grounded, as down to earth, as regular a dude [as there is].”
Sabathia is looking forward to playing for his old friend. He remembers Boone sitting on the bench and dissecting strategy during games.
“He was really good at it. He always had that manager mind,” Sabathia said. “I knew he’d be good on Sunday Night Baseball just because of that. He was funny, but he went along with the game. I’m excited for people to get to know him like I know him.”
While Sabathia no longer carries the brunt of staff ace — that title now belongs to Luis Severino after his third-place finish in the Cy Young voting — he has become one of the leaders of the team.
“One of the messages I gave him over the winter was, ‘I know you’re great at it already, but I want you to feel the freedom to pour into guys, to breathe into guys, as much as you need to. You have that clout about you,'” Boone said. “I think he touches a lot of guys in there just with his professionalism and willingness to be a mentor.”
One of those young teammates Sabathia can help mentor is Dillon Tate, a pitcher in his first major league training camp. The Yankees acquired Tate — the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft, by the Texas Rangers — in 2016 for Carlos Beltran. He has a big arm and a bright future.
“That’s one of the exciting things about being here,” Tate said, “being around the veterans like CC and picking their brains for a better understanding of how I can make myself a more complete pitcher. You feel like your game is elevated just being around better players.”
Sabathia understands the role of clubhouse leadership. He pointed to the impact Todd Frazier made with the Yankees late last season and said he’ll make a big impact in the clubhouse for the New York Mets this year.
“I think people should pay attention to that,” he said.
Sabathia remembered that Josh Bard — now the Yankees’ bench coach — caught his first Opening Day start, in 2003 against the Orioles. The box score from that game is a blast from the past, with names such as Ellis Burks and Karim Garcia and B.J. Surhoff and Jeff Conine.
Fifteen years later, Sabathia is still going strong. No, he’s not the flamethrower with the 95 mph fastball any longer, and he’s not going to log 200-plus innings. In some ways, he’s just another guy on the Yankees — but one of the most important.