By John Perrotto
TAMPA, Fla. --- Most people lose 40 pounds and the compliments come in from every corner. Yet when New York Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia arrived at spring training 40 pounds lighter than at the end of last season, he was pilloried all over social media.
"I tweeted out a couple of pictures of myself and I just couldn't believe the reaction from some people. I actually had to just laugh," Sabathia said. "I mean, losing weight is a good thing. I didn't do it to make myself worse. I did it to make myself better."
In fairness to the fans, it is initially jarring to see Sabathia standing at his locker in the corner of the Yankees' spring training clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field. He looks more like the precocious kid who quickly became the ace of the Cleveland Indians' staff a little more than a decade ago, winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2007 before becoming too expensive to stay on the shores of Lake Erie.
At his heaviest during his 14-year career, Sabathia weighed 315 pounds. He is at 270 now, and said he wouldn't mind dropping even a few more pounds from his 6-foot-7 frame.
Sabathia, as was widely reported last week when he reported to camp, was motivated to lose weight by the death of a 45-year-old cousin because of heart disease 15 month ago. The loss caused Sabathia to rethink his weight and conditioning and to ponder how the possibility of eventually battling obesity could leave his wife a young widow and his three children without a father.
From a baseball standpoint, Sabathia is hoping less weight will equate to better performance. He had his worst season in 2013, going 14-13 with a 4.78 earned run average in 32 starts. The win total was Sabathia's lowest since joining the Yankees prior to the 2009 season, and the ERA was the worst of his career.
"I'm getting older," the 33-year-old Sabathia said. "I could pitch with the extra weight when I was younger, but I think I'm giving myself a chance to pitch a high level for a longer time by being in better shape."
However, Sabathia's weight loss has created plenty of consternation for armchair pitching coaches. His average velocity fastball was a career-low 91.3 mph last season, according to FanGraphs, and has gone down steadily since it peaked at 94.1 during his first season in New York. Thus, it is easy to expect that Sabathia's fastball will continue to lose steam this season as he will be putting less weight behind it, though recovering from offseason arthroscopic elbow surgery also surely had something else to do with his diminished velocity.
Sabathia isn't buying the theory than less pounds equal less miles per hour. He said he feels he has had good zip on the ball during early throwing sessions this spring. Furthermore, Sabathia is confident he can still be a No. 1-type pitcher even with a diminished fastball. He watched left-hander Andy Pettitte go 11-11 with a 3.74 ERA in 30 starts last year in his age-41 season despite having a fastball that averaged 89.0 mph.
In fact, Sabathia points out that he has quietly gotten away from being a pure power pitcher since helping the Yankees to their last World Series title in 2009. He has thrown four-seam fastballs less than half the time in each of the last four seasons, mixing in more sinkers, sliders and chageups.
"I watched Andy do his thing for a number of years here and he didn't blow hitters away," Sabathia said. "You're going to lose a little bit off your fastball as you get older. Aging is just a fact of life. But this is my 14th year in the big leagues and I think I've learned a lot of about pitching over the years. You don't need a 95-mph fastball to succeed. You can get hitters out with other pitches, too."
The Yankees are going to need Sabathia to pitch better than he did last season, when they missed the postseason for just the second time in the last 19 years. They hope he can return to his former No.1 status, especially since they are paying him as an ace with salaries of $23 million both this year and next, and $25 million in 2016. There is also a potential $25-million vesting option for 2017.
The advanced statistics say that Sabathia is poised for a bit of a rebound as his xFIP was 3.76 last season, more than a run lower than his ERA. Meanwhile, scouts have mixed opinions on what 2014 holds in store.
A scout from American League team who watches Sabathia calls him a "wild card." "I just don't know where he goes from here," the scout said. "Part of me says I see him bouncing back and part of me says he could flame out very quickly. The lack of velocity is troubling to me and his command isn't as good as it used to be. That being said, I like the fact that he's gotten in shape. That can only help, especially when you get older. We'll see what happens. It's hard to predict. He really is at a crossroads of his career and could go either way."
Meanwhile, a National League scout believes Sabathia made a mistake by losing so much weight, saying "I'm a big believer that you see so many oblique strains today because players are too lean. You need some fat in your belly. It serves as a shock absorber for the core muscles. You look at when he has been at his best and it was when he was at his heaviest. I know that goes against the way people in baseball think today, but some guys are just better when they carry more weight."
When told of that scout's assessment, Sabathia shrugged his massive shoulders and smiled.
"People used to get on me for being too fat," he said. "Now people are getting on me for being too thin. I guess you're never going to please everybody."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.