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With the help of some Yankees classics, CC Sabathia might be an All-Star again

DENVER -- CC Sabathia's mansion in Alpine, New Jersey, is around 18,000 square feet. Among other amenities, it includes an 18-seat home movie theater, where Sabathia, as big a sports fan as anyone, watches the NFL and NBA during the offseason.

It was in his home this winter where the roots of his 2016 success might have been sown. While Sabathia very publicly addressed his dependence on alcohol, acknowledging a trip to rehab and appearing on "Good Morning America" to discuss it all, he privately continued his mission to regain top form as a major league starter.

On many days this winter, the left-hander passed on the big screen in his theater for the intimacy of his tablet and some New York Yankees classics.

He would study how his good friend Andy Pettitte, as well as David Wells, would use their cutters to consistently beat batters. He wouldn't write down notes, but he would mentally take in when and to whom they used the pitch in their day and then apply that to similar hitters of today.

"I was just watching the way they used it," said Sabathia, who estimated he studied about 10-12 games.

Sabathia has finally been able to overcome the loss of his top fastball by turning to the pitch mastered by Mariano Rivera and used prominently by the likes of Pettitte and Wells.

On the mound in 2016, the cutter is the biggest reason the 35-year-old Sabathia might make his first All-Star team since 2012. He is using it more than in 2015, and batters are hitting it much less.

Entering Sabathia's start Thursday night at Minnesota, his ERA is 2.28, which would be good for fourth in American League if Sabathia had the innings to qualify.

(He has pitched 59⅓ innings -- largely because of a stint on the disabled list -- which leaves him 5⅔ innings short of qualifying for the race at the moment.)

Sabathia (4-4) has thrown his cutter a little more than 26 percent of the time this season compared to 14 percent last year. Batters have hit just .241 as opposed to .343 last season. They made solid contact nearly 15 percent of the time last year. This season, that number has dropped to less than 9 percent.

"The cutter is the great equalizer," Yankees third baseman Chase Headley said. "I hate cutters. It just changes everything."

For Sabathia, with the cutter diving in on right-handers, it sets up the outside of the plate for his changeup and for his two-seam fastball, which travels in the low 90s after touching the high 90s a few years back.

During spring training, there was nothing really to indicate that Sabathia would find his groove. Sabathia had a 5.51 ERA in 16⅓ innings and, despite his $25 million salary, the Yankees discussed leaving him out of the rotation.

Manager Joe Girardi said the deciding factors in choosing Sabathia over Ivan Nova were the way Sabathia has always competed and, of all things, because the fifth-starter spot would first come up versus the Detroit Tigers, against whom Sabathia had pitched well.

Even with a 4.81 ERA over the past three regular seasons, Sabathia remained a leader. He is probably the most popular Yankee in the clubhouse because of how he treats everyone in the organization.

As with any group in society, major league teams can have cliques, but Sabathia breaks through and brings them all together. For his 35th birthday last season, Sabathia invited the whole team to his house for a party that included comedians and a paintball game.

"If someone were to ask me, 'Who are the great teammates you ever had?' he is certainly on the list," Yankees setup man Andrew Miller said.

Headley added, "He's the same way with Alex [Rodriguez] as he is with me or a guy who hasn't been here a week."

Sabathia added a knee brace at the end of last season, which allowed him to finish strong, earning a 2.22 ERA in his final four starts.

On the final weekend of the season, on the eve of the wild-card game that pitted the Yankees against the Houston Astros, Sabathia admitted he needed to go to alcohol rehab. He had hidden his problem from teammates, saying he would lock himself in his hotel room on the road and just empty out the minibar.

It is counterintuitive to not think that, along with his reduced fastball and bad knee, his drinking problem could have been a factor in his fall from ace to unreliable starter.

"It is definitely easier now because I don't feel like I'm hiding anything," Sabathia said. "I can be my carefree self and sleep well at night."

His manager says he believes that shedding the secret battle has propelled Sabathia this year.

"I think that was the smartest thing he did, he took it head-on and didn't hide from the outside world," Girardi said. "He said, 'This is who I am. I need help for my family and my teammates.' He did it the right way."

The Yankees all believe Sabathia is an All-Star. They are biased. He is not only their teammate, but they love the big guy. Sabathia seems to be taking his jump from nearly out of the rotation to possible All-Star in stride.

"It would mean my kids could go to the Home Run Derby and hang out, but we are a long ways off from that," Sabathia said.

But, after all he has been through, wouldn't this one be even more special?

"They are all special in a different way," Sabathia said. "But, yeah, being 35, 36 in July, it would be awesome to be able to get that chance."