NEW YORK — In many ways, CC Sabathia represents something of a cautionary tale for the Red Sox and David Price, a reminder of the forces of erosion that diminish the productivity and durability of power pitchers as they roll through their 30s.
Yet on Saturday, after New York pounded Price and the Red Sox in an 8-2 victory, the Yankees lefthander could also offer a measure of reassurance to his Boston counterpart and the team that signed him.
After all, few can relate more precisely than Sabathia to what Price is experiencing at the start of his career with a new team. Signed to a record-setting seven-year, $161 million contract (which, like Price’s deal, included an opt-out after the third year) after the 2008 season, Sabathia initially proved unable to pitch to the expectations that came with it. Through six starts, he was 1-3 with a 4.85 ERA; the Yankees were 2-4 when he took the ball.
On his way off the mound following his sixth start, according to an account of the outing from Peter Abraham, then of the Journal News, Sabathia hurled his glove and cap at the Yankees’ bench. He was unable to contain the bubbling anger and frustration of his slow start and the failure to match his own expectations of what he should provide to his team.
“There was no amount of pressure that anyone could put on me that I wasn’t already putting on myself,” Sabathia recalled Saturday afternoon, one day after he landed on the disabled list because of a groin injury. “I’m sure [Price is] the same way. I don’t think the contract has anything to do with that. He’s just having a tough month. He’s one of those pitchers that’s able to snap out of it at any time. I wouldn’t be overly concerned with him.”
In his seventh start that year, Sabathia fired a four-hit shutout against the Orioles, kicking off a 28-start stretch in which he went 18-5 with a 3.06 ERA. He topped that by posting a 1.98 ERA with 32 strikeouts and nine walks in five postseason starts as he helped to lead the Yankees to their last championship. Any initial rockiness of his transition was forgotten.
“I just knew that once the summer rode around I’d be better,” said Sabathia. “[Price] has got a new catcher, new surroundings, different housing. There’s a lot that goes into it. But he’s good enough that he’ll be fine by the time the summer rolls around.”
In a way, the Sox can find an even more hopeful precedent from Sabathia based on what happened to him in 2008, a season that he started with the Indians. That year, he submitted four straight clunkers to kick off his walk year and through seven starts owned a 1-5 record with a 7.51 ERA. Sabathia’s velocity was down, sparking plenty of speculation about whether he had commenced an early decline.
Current Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis, who is trying to solve the riddle of Price’s slow start, experienced a similar undertaking as Sabathia’s pitching coach with the Indians in 2008.
“I’ve actually thought about that,” Willis said about the parallels of Sabathia’s slow start in 2008 and Price’s this year. “In 2007, we went deep into the playoffs. Last year, David pitched into the playoffs with Toronto — not his first time. He had done that in Tampa, but he is a little older. Maybe you’re seeing a little bit of a hangover, so to speak, of pitching further into October and it took a little toll at this point of his career. That’s the one similarity. That’s the one common thread I’ve come up with.”
Sabathia’s 2007 season, which ended when the Indians lost to the Sox in the ALCS, involved a cumulative regular-season and playoff workload of 256⅓ innings. If there was a hangover, it quickly cleared.
“I think that’s safe to say,” chuckled Willis. “He did pretty well those last couple months in Milwaukee and took the ball every fourth day.”
Sabathia rendered his slow start a distant memory, proving a force of nature over the rest of the year. He made 28 starts — including a number of outings on three days’ rest in September after a July trade to the Brewers — in which he posted a 1.84 ERA. It convinced the Yankees to give him the largest contract ever conferred upon a pitcher.
Now, it is Price who possesses the title of the pitcher to receive the largest financial guarantee of all time, $217 million over seven seasons. There are no guarantees that he will prove capable of changing course to the same drastic degree that Sabathia did seven and eight years ago.
Even so, there is reason to believe that the ERA is something of a mirage, and perhaps that even the velocity is a bit of a red herring. Despite consecutive clunkers against the Yankees, Price still has 11.5 strikeouts and 2.6 walks per nine innings.
“If you look at his peripheral numbers, he’s pitching like an ace,” noted Yankees GM Brian Cashman as he looked back on watching the start of Sabathia’s Yankees career and its implications for Price. “If you look at his strikeouts and walks, they’re pretty off the charts. You don’t pay attention to all the other stuff.”
Meanwhile, there are enough parallels between Price now and Sabathia in 2008 and 2009 — age, stuff, and elite history — that the Red Sox feel they can look at Sabathia’s precedent with a sense of optimism that the results will soon start to align with the track record.
“David’s going to be fine,” said Willis. “I know it’s frustrating for him and everyone, but he’s a hard worker. We’re working at it. I think we’ll see David Price soon.”