When CC Sabathia hit the disabled list on May 11, the 33-year-old lefty sported a 5.28 ERA. At that moment, a case could have been made that the former Cy Young winner was hurting the team on a start-by-start basis.
Nearly two months later, his impending return is a major piece to New York's second-half puzzle. If vintage Sabathia can return with a healthy knee and command of a declining fastball, the Yankees can overcome a 41-42 start to make a postseason charge. If not, a $203 million payroll could be on the path to a losing season.
After Sabathia's last start, the Yankees departed Miller Park in Milwaukee with a 19-17 record. Since that moment, the team has gone 22-25 and lost ground in the AL East to both the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays.
As the first half of the season careens toward its conclusion, Sabathia's knee has healed enough to support rehab assignments and the path back to New York's rotation. On July 2, the former Yankees workhorse and ace threw 55 pitches for Double-A Trenton.
Despite poor results—3.2 IP, 5 R, 3 ER—Sabathia was encouraged by the outing, his health and progress since landing on the disabled list in early May, per Ken Davidoff of the New York Post.
“I felt good,” Sabathia said. “Secondary pitches weren’t that good, but my fastball felt like it was going up pretty good. I felt good health-wise, so I’m ready to go."
Unfortunately for the veteran, health status took a turn for the worse on Thursday. One day after the 55-pitch outing, Sabathia woke up with swelling in his knee. During an appearance on WFAN in New York, manager Joe Girardi suggested that the team will shut Sabathia down as they wait for the results of a new MRI, per David Lennon of Newsday:
Girardi just said on WFAN that Sabathia woke up today with fluid in knee and prob headed for MRI. Unsure what's next for him. #yankees— David Lennon (@DPLennon) July 3, 2014
For the Yankees, finding sustained health for Sabathia is now the most important thing. If he can return soon, his potential impact can still be significant.
The team will welcome back the veteran with open arms when he's truly ready to return. Even a diminished Sabathia is an upgrade over Vidal Nuno (5.42 ERA, 5.14 FIP) in a rotation currently tasked with carrying an offense that entered play on July 3 ranked 12th in the American League in runs scored, per ESPN.
Brian Cashman on his level of optimism regarding CC Sabathia's return: "So far, so good." #Yankees— Brendan Kuty (@BrendanKutyNJ) June 28, 2014
When dissecting how much of a difference Sabathia can mean to a postseason push in the Bronx, it's instructive to look at two factors: how the veteran was truly performing before hitting the shelf and a track record of success across the second half of seasons.
First, take a look at Sabathia's peripheral stats (expected fielding independent pitching, strikeouts, ground ball percentage) across his first eight starts this season. While an ERA over 5.00 is alarming for a pitcher making $23 million this season, it's not unfair to say that Sabathia was unlucky in April and May.
The following chart compares Sabathia's K/9, GB% and xFIP to some of baseball's most successful pitchers in 2014. Despite the poor ERA, the Yankees will soon welcome back one of the only starters striking out at least a batter per inning while generating a 45 percent ground ball rate.
As you can see, that group—aside from Sabathia—has enjoyed immense success across the first half of the season. Yet, within the numbers, some pitchers have been luckier than others. With a xFIP of nearly a run better than actual ERA, Strasburg has been unlucky. On the other hand, Arrieta's sub-2.00 ERA suggests luck has played a factor in his breakout campaign for the Cubs.
For the Yankees, Sabathia's numbers indicate a pitcher that has displayed the ability to generate strikeouts and grounders alongside the best in baseball—a signal that fortunes could change soon.
If a turnaround occurs, the second half of the year would be a fitting time for Sabathia's revival and boost to New York's rotation. Over the course of a 14-year career, Sabathia's ERA, winning percentage and strikeout-to-walk ratio have all been better in the second half of the year.
In fact, Sabathia's 3.49 career ERA in the second half ranks 12th among active starters with at least 400 innings during that portion of the calender, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). While some pitchers tend to tire out during the dog days of August and September, Sabathia has always thrived.
As Sabathia's rehab has progressed from pool work to jogging to tossing to rehab starts in Double-A, the veteran has kept tabs on his struggling teammates and admitted that the losses aren't easy to view, per Austin Laymance of MLB.com.
"It's been tough to watch, man," Sabathia said. "We've been just trying to grind. But it's always hard when you're not there. It's hard to watch on TV, it's hard to listen to, so hopefully I can get back as soon as possible and start helping the guys."
With the Blue Jays (47-39) and Orioles (45-39) winning, the road back to the postseason won't be easy for a Yankees team that missed out on October last season. Without a second-half surge, the perennial AL East contenders will be shut out of the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1992-93.
Is a healthy, productive Sabathia enough to push the Yankees into October?
Yet despite occupying the top two spots in the competitive AL East, neither Toronto nor Baltimore look like 95-plus win teams, opening the door for an improved Yankees team to get back in the race over the next few months.
If Sabathia returns as a healthy, productive and less unlucky pitcher in the second half, the Yankees could have enough to make another run at glory. If not, an expensive and aging roster is headed for a long and uncomfortable summer in New York.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs and ESPN unless otherwise noted and valid through the start of play on July 3. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.