The New York Yankees are known for staging Spring Training “Competitions” that are already clearly set in stone. Case in point? The battles for 5th starter in 2010, backup catcher in 2012, and closer in 2015. The Yankees are hosting another 5th starter’s battle this spring, but they insist that it is a true competition this time around. The competitors, CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova, are supposedly being assessed equally by Yankees’ brass, without any concern being given to contracts or history.
If that is truly the case, then who is the Yankees’ best choice to be their 5th starter? The answer may very much surprise you.
Old Reliable: CC Sabathia
Say whatever you want about the last 3 years of CC Sabathia’s career, but there is no denying that the big fella has been a great Yankee. His first 4 years in Yankee pinstripes were nothing short of epic, and he has always been a clubhouse leader and mentor.
But around 2013, the magic began to wear off for Sabathia. He struggled to maintain a .500 record or a sub-4.70 ERA that year, and his fastball velocity dropped for the first time. The following year was cut short by injury, but Sabathia only managed a 5.28 ERA in 8 starts while posting the worst rate stats of his career. He also began an alcohol addiction that he recently received treatment for.
Sabathia was physically healthy for all of 2015, but the results were hardly reminiscent of his glory days. While there were some true gems sprinkled in over the campaign that inspired optimism, Sabathia either dominated or got hammered in all of his starts, showing no consistency and finishing with a 4.73 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, and .797 OPS against.
Sabathia acknowledged making some changes over the course of 2015 that coincided with his strong finish (3.63 post-All Star Break ERA, 7.56 K/9). These included a more prevalent dosage of his cut fastball, an altered changeup grip, and the permanent usage of a knee brace.
These changes could turn Sabathia into a league-average 5th starter (see my related article from over the summer: overtimetkro.wordpress.com/2015/07/25/turning-cc-sabathia-into-a-5th-starter/). The Yankees are paying for an ace, but having Sabathia be a dependable starter every fifth day would be something that they would sign up for at this point in time.
But Sabathia has not had a league-average Spring Training in 2016, or even anything remotely close to it. He is 0-3 with a 5.84 ERA and 1.78 WHIP. While spring training stats are far from the be-all and end-all, they certainly don’t leave a good taste in the Yankees’ mouths.
Mr. Inconsistency: Ivan Nova
There isn’t a better word to describe Ivan Nova’s Yankee career than inconsistency. The big righty has had 2 very good seasons, 2 very bad ones, and 1 lost to injury. The Yankees don’t know which Nova will show up on any given season, or even any given day.
But Nova definitely has some plus stuff. His 93 mph fastball and sinker are solid pitches for him, his power 12-6 curveball is an immensely underrated pitch, actually one of the best strikeout pitches on this Yankee staff, and his slider is an offering that he has had success with when he uses it.
Nova is a very intriguing pitcher, one that is a free agent to be. If the Yankees can hone his stuff into a more consistent approach, then he has the potential to be a top-3 starter in the bigs. But that still hasn’t happened yet, and Nova is already 29 years old.
If Nova ever puts it all together, he can be a a real asset for these Yankees.
Nova is the popular pick to be the Yankees’ 5th starter by the fans, but that may not be the best choice for the 2016 Yankees.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Ivan Nova is a better pitcher than CC Sabathia at this point in their careers, but there are a couple of reasons why CC Sabathia should be starting the 5th game of the season instead.
First, no matter what the Yankees say, money and history definitely play a large part in this decision. The Yankees do not want to pay a long reliever $25 million. Thus, they will give Sabathia a chance to earn his money in the starting rotation. Flawed as that strategy may be, that’s the business aspect of sports.
The better rationale for starting CC and moving Nova to the bullpen is their stuff. Simply put, Sabathia’s repertoire is not a fit for the bullpen. Here’s what CC is working with right now: a 90 mph fastball, 90 mph 2-seamer, 82 mph slider, 83 mph changeup, 89 mph cutter, and a rare 77 mph curveball.
The average reliever nowadays throws 94 mph on their fastball and has a surefire offspeed offering to notch strikeouts. Sabathia’s 4-6 pitch arrangement is not a fit, and he surely doesn’t have the velocity to hack it in a relief role.
However, Ivan Nova fits that description to a T. He has a 93 mph fastball, and his curve and slider are elite strikeout pitches. In fact, Nova could either serve as a long man until he is needed in the rotation, or he could be converted into a short reliever.
For the money, the stuff, and the intangibles, CC Sabathia should and will be the Yankees’ 5th starter on Opening Day.