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

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CC Sabathia

CC Sabathia

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 1990′s offense, and signing free agents just wasn’t working.  While Sabathia, a high school phenom, didn’t join the Indians in 1998, the big lefty was certainly fast-tracked to the majors. By 2001, he was a full-time starter with the Indians, and by 2007, he was the Cy Young award winner they had envisioned when they drafted him.  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 seasons that he put on the uniform with Cleveland across the chest.  The Tribe had spent the best part of every offseason hunting for an ace in the years leading up to Sabathia’s emergence, both home grown and via free agency.  Over the years, the Indians had placed Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, Jaret Wright, Charles Nagy, Jack McDowell, Chuck Finley and Bartolo Colon at the head of the Tribe staff with varying degrees of success. There were several solid seasons from many of the names mentioned, but none panned out to be a true ace, other than perhaps Colon.

All at one point or another were considered the “ace” of the Indians starting rotation, but 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 didn’t want or couldn’t handle the ace mantle, and that his best years would be with a starter ahead of him 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. He finished the year second in the rookie of the year voting to League MVP Ichiro Suzuki.

Here was the Tribe’s workhorse, their stopper, the ace that could 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 fought and clawed for everything he could in May and June, and saw 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 struggled.  His ERA crept up in every game pitched, and after his August 1st start, he was back to a  5.49, with a 6-9 record.  Then, for the first time, Sabathia became the pitcher the Tribe brass thought they had drafted.  Sabathia finished the year off by going 7-2, with a 2.54 ERA.  His overall ERA dropped 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 IP total.

The 2003 season was Sabathia’s tough-luck season, even though he made the all-star team for the first time.  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 bacame the mantra of Sabathia’s 2003 campaign, as he received the fifth worst offensive support in all of baseball.  Sabathia won four-of-five starts that May, and lowered his ERA to 2.92, far and away his best month of the season, going 4-0 with a 1.91 ERA.  He ended 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 had a fairly topsy-turvy May, but his ERA remained below 3.00.  His best month was June, going 3-0, and he maintaining his sub 3 ERA.  He was selected to his second all-star game, but really scuffled 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 all of baseball.  At 24, he was still learning how to become that ace that the Indians were searching for.  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.

The Indians fixed the bullpen in 2005.

Sabathia appeared to have two separate seasons that year.  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, with a 6-9 record.  Sabathia then exploded in August and September, winning seven straight starts, and 9 of 11.  with only have one no decision. His ended the season with a 15-10 and 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 was the opening day starter in 2006, but after only three innings, was pulled with a dreaded injured oblique muscle.  He was immediately placed on the DL, and didn’t make another start until May.  While Sabathia’s final record for the season ended up a marginal 12-11, in many ways, this was Sabathia’s best season up to this point.  That May, Sabathia was his dominant self, going 5-1 in six starts, with a ridiculous 1.20 ERA.  He was named the Major League 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, which was still a solid 5 2/3 innings.  During those games, his ERA never went above 3.43, or dropped 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 he simply just wore you down.

What he did in 2007 was nearly a foregone conclusion.

Sabathia’s entire 2007 season was a mirror of what he did in August and September of 2006.  The low-point ERA during that season was 2.14, which was after a couple of starts in mid-April.  His highest ERA of the season was barely a month after that, on May 11th, when it was 4.02.  From that point on, it never again rose above 3.81, or below 3.09.  He finished the year by winning 19 games, and led the league in innings pitched with 241.  He eclipsed the 200 strikeout plateau for the first time in his career, with 209 for the season.  From April 20th through July 5th, Sabathia never allowed more than one walk in any game.  The most walks he had in a game all season was three, in two separate starts.  He ended 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 won 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 was a make or break year for the Tribe and Sabathia, and it all was dependent on the Indians making another playoff run.

Like his rookie season, a lot was riding on Sabathia at the start of the 2008 season.  He didn’t seem to wear it well.  For the first time in his career, there was a doubt, and it appeared that outside talk and rumors were 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 if the Indians faltered.  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 righted the ship considerably, dropping his ERA over three points, and another point in June.  In the two months, Sabathia only made two starts under seven innings (6 and 6 1/3 innings), and went 5-4 during that stretch.

His record was mostly due to the Tribe’s lack of punch, more than anything. While he was pitching well, the Indians weren’t reciprocating.  Entering July, the writing was on the wall.  The Indians weren’t producing, and Sabathia wasn’t signing.  It was time for Mark Shapiro 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 a member of the Cleveland Indians came on July 2, 2008.  Sabathia got a no decision, but typical of his starts, he went 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 went 17-7 with a 1.88 ERA.

He was the best pitcher in baseball.

In eight years with the Indians, Sabathia went 106-71 with a 3.83 ERA.  He struck out 1,265 batters, and walked nearly 500.  He made three all-star appearances, and won 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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