Tuesday, December 14, 2010

All-Aught Indians--#1 Starter--CC Sabathia (2001-2008)

CC Sabathia had a lot on his shoulders when he was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Indians in 1998.  The Tribe had been looking for an ace to go along with their vaunted offense for the better part of five seasons.  While Sabathia, a high school phenom, wouldn't be joining the Indians in 1998, the big lefty was certainly fast-tracked to the majors, should he match the potential that made him a first round selection.  By 2001, he was with the Indians, and by 2007, he was a Cy Young award winner.  No, Sabathia wasn't the answer to the great Indians run in the 90's and early 2000's, but he certainly was everything the Indians thought he would be, and more.  The All-Aught Indians Ace is CC Sabathia.

There likely aren't words in an article that can express what Sabathia meant to the Indians over the eight season that he put on the uniform with Cleveland across the front.  The Tribe had spent the best part of every offseason hunting for an ace in the years leading up to Sabathia's emergence.  Sure, there was Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, Jaret Wright, Charles Nagy, Jack McDowell, Chuck Finley and Bartolo Colon attempting to lead the Tribe staff.  While all would at one point or another, be considered the "ace" of the Indians starting rotation, none seemed to relish or run with the title.  Some either lacked the talent, the head or simply were too far past their prime to contribute the way the Indians were looking for.  Colon was close, but he always left the impression, while with the Indians, that he was a 1b, and that his best years would be with a starter in the #1 role.

If only CC Sabathia had come seven years sooner.

Sabathia entered the fray for the Tribe in 2001, the last year of their eight year run as one of the best teams in baseball.  The hefty lefty went 17-5, and while his statistics were certainly a product of good offensive production (his ERA was never south of 4.00 that season), the signs were all there for his future with this club.  His first big league season saw him go 180 innings, while striking out 171, and walking 98.  There certainly were control issues, but Sabathia was still learning how to pitch.  He was not only the youngest player on the Tribe's roster, but the 20-year-old was also the youngest player in all the majors.  Here was the Tribe's workhorse, their stopper, the ace that would finally line up the Tribe starters.  Of course, by the middle of 2002, the team was dismantled, and Sabathia was the light at the end of a long tunnel of rebuilding.

Sabathia started off the 2002 season looking like the ace many thought he would be.  After three starts, he was 2-0 with a 2.79 ERA.  Unfortunately, Sabathia's season, like the Tribe's as a whole, went south quickly.  By the end of April, Sabathia was 2-3 with a 6.82 ERA.  He would fight and claw for everything he could in May and June, and would see his ERA drop in eight of ten starts.  At the end of June, he had lowered his ERA to a respectable 4.70, to go along with a 6-6 record.  His last June start, on the 28th, was a big one for me with regards to Sabathia, as it was the day that Colon was traded.  Sabathia was officially the ace of the staff.  How did he respond?  He went 7 2/3 innings of one run ball, getting his sixth win.  In his next six starts, he would struggle.  His ERA would rise in every game pitched, and after his August 1st start, he was back up to 5.49, with a 6-9 record.  Then, for the first time, Sabathia became the pitcher the Tribe brass thought they had drafted.  Sabathia would go 7-2 for the rest of the season, with a 2.54 ERA.  His overall ERA would drop over a point during that time period, ending the season with a 13-11 record.  For the first time in his career, he'd pitch over 200 innings, with 210.

2003 was Sabathia's tough-luck season, even with an all-star season.  He started off the year without a win in April, going 0-2.  The catch-22 of that scenario was that there really wasn't a bad start in the bunch, as he walked out of the month with a 3.79 ERA.  This would become the mantra of Sabathia's 2003 campaign, as he would receive the fifth worst offensive support in all of baseball.  Sabathia would win four of five starts that May, and lower his ERA to 2.92, far and away his best month of the season, going 4-0 with a 1.91 ERA.  He would end the season with a 13-9 record, and a 3.60 ERA.  He led the team in wins for a third straight year, and was clearly the best pitcher on the team, and getting better.  Remember, he was still only 23-years-old.

I suppose 2004 was an off-year for Sabathia.  He made only three starts in April because of an injury.  Still, he was 1-0 with a 1.71 ERA.  He would have a topsy-turvy May, but his ERA would remain below 3.00.  His best month was June, going 3-0, and maintaining his sub 3 ERA.  He would be selected to his second all-star game, but would really scuffle for the rest of the season.  He ended the year with an 11-10 record, and a 4.12 ERA.  With the emergence of Cliff Lee, there was talk that Sabathia may not be the best pitcher on the staff.  Still, there were stretches where he looked like the best in baseball.  At 24, he was still learning how to become an ace.  Take into account that his final record reflected 6-blown-wins.  He left six games with a win in hand, only to have an atrocious bullpen blow the lead.

In 2005, Sabathia appeared to have to separate seasons.  The first half of the year saw the lefty continue to scuffle, as his ERA steadily rose .92 at the end of April (with a 2-0 record), to 5.27 at the beginning of August, and a 6-9 record.  Sabathia would then explode in August and September, winning seven straight starts, and 9 of 11.  he would only have one no decision, and his ERA would again shrink over a run in less than two months.  He would end the season at 15-10, with a 4.03 ERA.  While Sabathia was still waiting to put together an entire season of quality, he was continuing to showcase months of dominance at a time.  In six September starts, Sabathia went 4-1 with a 1.45 ERA.

Sabathia would start on opening day of 2006, but after only three innings, was pulled with an injured oblique.  he'd be placed on the dl, and wouldn't make another start until May.  While Sabathia's final record for the season would end up 12-11, in many ways, this was Sabathia's best season up to this point.  In May, Sabathia was his dominant self, going 5-1 in six starts, with a ridiculous 1.20 ERA.  He was named pitcher of the month for May.  In August and September, Sabathia really showcased what has made him a special pitcher.  He made 11 starts during the stretch run, and only one game saw him pitch less than seven innings, a 5 2/3 of an inning outing.  During those games, his ERA would never rise above 3.43, or drop below 3.22.  He was locked and loaded...the stopper that he was meant to be.  When Sabathia was on the mound, you knew what you were going to get.  He now knew how to pitch, and was making every start a quality effort.  He could overpower you, outpitch you, or simply where you down.  2007 was a foregone conclusion.

Sabathia's entire 2007 season was a mirror of August and September of 2006.  His low ERA would come on April 15th, when it was 2.14.  His highest was on May 11th, when it was 4.02.  From that point on, it would never rise above 3.81, or below 3.09.  He would win 19 games that year, and lead the league in innings pitched with 241.  He would eclipse 200 strikouts for the first time, with 209 for the season.  From April 20th through July 5th, Sabathia never allowed more than one walk in a game.  The most walks he had in a game all season was three, in two separate starts.  He would end the season with a 19-7 record, and a 3.21 ERA.  His 209 K's looked good up against his paltry 37 walks.  Sabathia would win the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in baseball.  While he struggled in the playoffs, Sabathia was clearly the key to the Indians making a World Series run.  He was entering a contract year.  It would be a make or break year for the Tribe and Sabathia.

Like his rookie season, a lot was riding on Sabathia at the start of the 2008 season.  He didn't wear it well.  For the first time in his career, there was no doubt outside talk was getting to him.  Many were berating him for his weak performance for the Indians in the post-season.  There was also a bunch of discussion regard whether or not Sabathia would be dealt.  There was also the matter of nearly 250 innings pitched.  Sabathia crawled out of the gates, going 1-4 in April, with a 7.88 ERA.  It was that bad.  In May, Sabathia would right the ship considerably, dropping his ERA over three points, and another point in June.  In the two months, Sabathia would only make two starts under seven innings (6 and 6 1/3 innings), and would go 5-4 during that stretch.  His record was mostly due to the Tribe's lack of punch, more than anything.  Entering July, the writing was on the wall.  The Indians weren't producing, and Sabathia wasn't signing.  It was time to make a deal.  At the time, Sabathia was only 6-8 overall, but was leading the league in K's and K's per 9.  He already had three complete games.  His last start as an Indian came on July 2, 2008.  Sabathia would get a no decision, but typical of his starts, he'd go eight innings, striking out five, and walking only two.  On July 7th, Sabathia was traded to the Brewers.  How good was Sabathia in 2008 with the Indians, and ultimately the Brewers?  Over his last 31 starts, Sabathia would go 17-7 with a 1.88 ERA.

In eight years with the Indians, Sabathia went 106-71 with a 3.83 ERA.  He'd strike out 1,265 batters, while walking nearly 500.  He'd make three all-star appearances, and win one Cy Young award.  Sabathia was also allowed to leave the Indians without having to choose another team, as many had before him.  In a very classy move, Sabathia took out a full page ad, thanking the city of Cleveland for his eight fantastic seasons.

Sabathia has since signed a mammoth deal with the New York Yankees, now has a World Series ring (but not a victory), and has moved on to "bigger and better" things.  But, for eight seasons, Sabathia's vast talent resided on the North Coast, and the team was always the better, for it.

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