<
>

Velocity? CC's health is far weightier pursuit

TAMPA, Fla. -- Friends, Romans, Yankees fans, let us now praise CC Sabathia, not bury him.

It says something about the skewed priorities of sports fans that a guy can take positive steps for his health and well-being and be criticized for it.

Because to judge by the reaction to some of the offseason photos of the new, streamlined Sabathia, you’d think that a guy's responsibilities to a baseball team -- and his fans -- are more important than his responsibilities to his wife, his kids and himself.

(Selfishly, I will admit that Sabathia's weight loss kills my favorite nickname for him: Chubby Chucker. But that is small potatoes compared to a guy's future. I’ll come up with something else.)

The truth is, the last thing anyone should do is criticize Sabathia for dropping 40 pounds over the past two seasons. He has deep personal reasons for doing it, having been affected by the sudden death of a cousin from a heart attack at age 45 two years ago.

In fact, it would probably be a good idea for a lot of the people knocking him now for having the nerve to get in shape. I’m even planning to visit a salad bar in his honor tonight.

Because let’s face it, we want our athletes to be in great shape -- unless, of course, they prove they can win games even when they're not.

And in some respects, that is what is behind the CC backlash, the knowledge that this guy was a stud pitcher when he caused the scale to spin three times, and then not so much last year, when he topped out at around 275.

But excessive cellulite does not translate to exceptional velocity. Ron Guidry, all 155 pounds of him, could throw a ball through a concrete wall. David Wells couldn't break a pane of spun sugar.

And we have no idea if Sabathia's weight loss has anything to do with the fact that over the past three seasons, his fastball has cooled down from around 95 mph to around 91-1/2.

If anything, it has more to do with the workload. Sabathia has been among the top six AL pitchers in innings pitched in five of his past seven seasons, and led the league twice. Since he began his career in 2001, only three pitchers -- Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and James Shields -- have thrown more innings or faced more batters than Sabathia.

So it is probably to his benefit to have shed a significant amount of weight, if only to reduce the stress on his already-stressed knees -- he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in 2011 -- and his left elbow, which underwent a clean-out before the 2013 season.

But between workload and age -- Sabathia will turn 34 in July -- it is only inevitable that most pitchers will lose some velocity. The human body only has so many bullets to fire. And even if the blazing fastball never comes back -- Sabathia admitted, "I hope so, we’ll see" when asked if he thought the weight loss would improve his velocity -- there is no reason to believe a pitcher as skilled and resourceful as CC will not be able to make the necessary adjustments to be a winning pitcher again.

“I don’t think it matters," Sabathia said about pitching with a fastball a couple of mphs short. “I’m pretty confident in my ability, and know what I can do. So, I’m coming in this year feeling good, and good to go."

Sabathia thinks his problems over the past couple of seasons have been stamina and a tendency to go away from his changeup, which was his put-away pitch when he first came to the Yankees as a free agent in 2009.

“I just got away from it," he said. “It happens. And you don’t realize until it's too late."

Plus, this season there may be less pressure on him to carry the club, with Hiroki Kuroda returning and Masahiro (24-0) Tanaka joining the Yankees from Japan. Even though he is still, nominally, the ace of the staff, and is the odds-on favorite to get the ball on April 1 for the season opener against the Astros in Houston, the days of the Yankees having to ride CC like a horse seem to be over.

That, too, is a good thing, for them and for him.

So before we kill CC Sabathia for taking steps to keep himself alive, let’s give him a chance to show us that less can be more. Less of him might translate to more pitcher.

And if nothing else, it translates to a much healthier man.

That’s something no one can criticize. Or should, anyway.