Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia has a long road ahead of him that will begin on February 18, when pitchers and catchers of the New York Yankees return to training camp to kick off the preliminary months of spring training. Sabathia will embark upon not only a journey of mental and physical rehabilitation but also a two-month-long battle for his job.
At the end of last season, Sabathia announced his decision to check himself into an alcoholic rehabilitation center after a notably weak 2015 season. Though shocked, fans and and the Yankees’ organization were respectful of his willingness to take control of his disease, and, in turn, begin to rebuild his pitching prowess.
This article from ESPN details the showdown brewing in Tampa, in which 2007 CY Young award winner Sabathia will duke it out against the likes of the frequently-demoted Ivan Nova, among a few others. The article also cites statements by Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman, who will turn a blind eye to Sabathia’s impressive “resume,” ignoring the fact that he hasn’t been scrutinized and tested for ability since his impressive first season.
Sabathia is just one of the many sports giants to have his past records all but discarded in his later years–a phenomenon which begs the question of how much an athletic resume is really worth in today’s sports world.
Take recent Super Bowl champion quarterback Peyton Manning–after his worst start ever and an injury that took him off the field for over a month, many vetted their support for the continuing starts of Manning’s backup, Brock Osweiler, in the postseason. Fans based their opinions on what they saw–Osweiler went 4-2 this season, allowing the Broncos home-field advantages as well as proving his ability to the future of the Denver Broncos. In Manning, fans did not see a resume sporting a Super Bowl win, over 12 seasons with 4,000+ yards and a laundry list of records including, but not limited to, most passing yards in a season and most career passing TDs. Fans saw an aged, deteriorating quarterback unable to survive a season replacing a young, reliable quarterback who very clearly carried the Broncos into the 2015-2016 playoffs.
Resumes were irrelevant–at least in terms of athletic ability.
But to Bronco’s head coach Gary Kubiak, Manning’s resume mattered not because Manning would be able to replicate the ethereal statistics of seasons’ past but rather because his knowledge, commanding respect and experience evidenced by this resume are unparalleled.
Peyton Manning did not win the Super Bowl on his own–and in no way was the Super Bowl, or any game in the postseason, a shining beacon of his athleticism. But Manning adapted, had an incredibly talented defense behind him and the mindset to work with the physicality that he possessed.
He didn’t need the physical elements of his resume to win a Super Bowl.
The question of deteriorating veterans is, thus, unanswerable–because Manning won the Super Bowl, no one is questioning Gary Kubiak’s decision. But if the Broncos had faltered, supporters of Osweiler would be positioned comfortably and loudly on their soap-boxes. If a veteran succeeds in their “old age,” the resume serves as an I-told-you-so mechanism. But if the veteran falters, the irrelevancy of the past becomes a very appealing argument.
Brian Cashman has made it very clear that in the case of Sabathia that resume is irrelevant. If Sabathia posts better numbers, higher velocity, a more sound motion and more dynamic pitches than Ivan Nova, then he will win his start.
But that doesn’t mean Sabathia needs to repeat the past.
PItchers, unlike many athletes, have the unique possibility of adapting to their deteriorating athleticism via a change in their pitching strategies. In 2014, Sabathia began working to widen his pitching repertoire by learning to throw a cutter (a pitch most famously attributed to the deadly likes of the Sandman) in an attempt to compensate for declining velocity. And while this specific development has yet to improve his performance–as evidenced by his 2014 and 2015 season statistics–it is hitherto unpredictable what tricks to freshen strategies Sabathia has up his sleeve.
Sabathia’s numbers will likely never again rival those on his resume, and the pitches he throws might be vastly different from those he began with. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t still win the fifth spot in the Yankees’ rotation.
Thus is the evolution of the veteran–they don’t need their resumes to prove their strength. Sometimes all they need is a to take a cue from Charles Darwin and adapt.