C.C. Sabathia: Just How Big a Problem?


Everything about C.C. Sabathia is big, so I guess it’s natural that his flaws are also big. After Saturday’s disastrous outing with a 10-4 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway, Yankees fans must be worrying that C.C.’s big flaw could be fatal.

You may have thought that Sunday’s Daily News cover, “Big Floppy,” was unfair to the man who is still the favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award this year. After all, Sabathia is now 16-6 with a 2.81 ERA. If he continues at this pace, he probably will win the Cy Young. But he is now 0-4 against Boston this season with an ERA of 7.20. That leaves him — ready for this? — 16-2 with a 2.11 ERA against the rest of the American League.

To put this in perspective, against the Red Sox he’s a rookie just called up from Columbus; against all the other teams in the league, he’s Sandy Koufax in his prime, or, more precisely, he’s challenging the memory of Ron Guidry in 1978, when he finished 25-3. What C.C. lost Saturday wasn’t the edge on the Cy Young but the edge being voted the Most Valuable Player. And aside from the starts against Boston, that’s what he’s been his season.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, this Boston albatross hasn’t been hanging around his neck for his whole career but just popped up for no apparent reason this year: in five starts against the Red Sox prior to 2011, Sabathia was 4-1 with an ERA of 3.04.

Because he’s been so successful so far, Sabathia’s weight and conditioning haven’t been an issue, but it’s hard to believe that a pitcher so … well, how do you avoid the word “fat” when the guy is listed as 290 pounds but looks at least 305, with nearly all that concentrated between his knees and Adam’s apple? How much longer till this extra weight starts to put a strain on his arm?

The Yankees’ announcers never address this question, as if it would hurt C.C.’s feelings. How refreshing it was when Ralph Kiner was a regular broadcaster for the Mets and didn’t hesitate to raise such issues about any player. I remember in the early 1980s when the Pirates had John Candelaria, who, like Sabathia, was 6-7. The Pirates usually listed Candelabra’s weight as around 220-230, but once the season started it was obvious he was much heavier — 250-260, I’d say. I can’t remember the year, but one season he came back from a month-long injury and had obviously put on 20-25 pounds. Kiner didn’t mince words. Steve Zabriskie, I think it was, was doing the game with Kiner and was a bit embarrassed, responding, “Well, you know, he’s had a knee injury and hasn’t been able to work out.” “Does he eat with his knee?” Kiner shot back.

Through much of his late career, Kiner was kind of like the ditzy uncle who you only see a couple of times a year but when he’s at the Thanksgiving dinner table doesn’t think twice about saying out loud what’s on everyone’s mind.

On Sunday afternoon’s Braves game, Kiner was on the air with Ron Darling, who obviously gets a kick out of doing a game with Uncle Ralph. Kiner went through a list of major league sluggers who haven’t hit for much power this season. But, Darling commented, “Some of these guys hit for average.” After a pause, Darling added, “But you like home runs, right?” “Yeah,” said Kiner, “I like home runs. You hit a home run, you get at least a run.”

Kiner also loves to shoot holes in perceived baseball wisdom. “These stolen base hot shots,” he remarked, referring to the fastest runners on both the Braves and Mets. “If they’re so good at stealing bases, just let them steal. I never figured out why it was considered smart for a batter to swing at a pitch he didn’t like in order to ‘protect’ the runner? If the runner is good enough to steal, why does he have to be ‘protected’? They always talk about how many bases so-and-so steals, but they never tell you how many outs the batters had to sacrifice to help them get those stolen bases.” Point taken.

And here’s another: “One of the worst things they ever did to relief pitching was invent the ‘save’ category. If they hadn’t done that, managers would bring in their best relief pitchers at the point in the game where he could do his team the most good. Casey Stengel used to do that, and so, a lot of times, did Leo Durocher. Now you’re paying the relief aces for saves, and you can only bring them in in save situations where your team is already ahead. They show you how many games a relief pitcher saves, but they never tell you how many games a team loses because a manager didn’t use his best reliever in the toughest situation.”

And so ancient wisdom meets Bill James-type modern analysis. We could use more of that, and frankly, we could use a lot more Ralph Kiner, who’s 88. If he slips up and says something offensive — you know, something non-PC — now and then, I’m sure we can cut him a little slack. I’m even more sure Ron Darling is fast enough on his feet to cover for him.