The Yankees lead the AL East thanks in large part to the surprising performance of their rotation, but that unit will be at less than full strength for the next several weeks. On Tuesday night in Anaheim, CC Sabathia limped off the mound after the fourth inning, having suffered what was later diagnosed as a Grate 2 strain of his left hamstring. The injury not only weakens the Yankees but stops the 36-year-old lefty at a time when he was amid one of the strongest stretches of his career.
Facing a Mike Trout-free Angels lineup, Sabathia had pitched effectively for 3 2/3 innings, allowing just three hits and an unearned run before feeling his left hamstring grab on his first pitch to catcher Martin Maldonado. Thinking it was a cramp, he threw another pitch, and while first baseman C.J. Cron was caught stealing to end the inning, the pain was too much for Sabathia to continue. After his early departure, the Yankees wound up losing 3–2, bringing to a halt their six-game winning streak.
Though the big southpaw said on Wednesday that he woke up feeling "a lot better than expected," the strain was diagnosed as a Grade 2, which typically takes four to eight weeks to heal. Sabathia maintained that the injury didn't feel as severe as the Grade 2 hamstring strain he suffered at the end of 2013, saying, "Just going off how I feel in these early stages makes me think it won’t be that long,” he'll nonetheless require a stay on the disabled list. His age, size, and history of lower-body injuries—not to mention the likelihood of the Yankees taking a conservative approach to the situation—suggests a significant absence.
For the second season in a row, Sabathia has been the Yankees' second-best starter. Through 13 starts and 75 1/3 innings he's delivered a 3.46 ERA (131 ERA+) and 4.11 FIP with 7.4 strikeouts per nine. That ERA is his lowest mark since 2012, the year he made the last of his six All-Star appearances, while the ERA+ is his best mark since 2011. His FIP and underlying peripherals (including 1.1 homers and 2.9 walks per nine) are nearly identical to his 2013 season, when he was cuffed for a 4.78 ERA, but he's induced more soft contact than that season en route to a batting average on balls in play that's 30 points lower (.282 as opposed to .312). His 1.4 WAR thus far put him on pace for 3.6 for the season, roughly equal to his 2012 showing.
The shame of it is that Sabathia had been amid one of the best stretches of his 17-year major league career, having allowed two or fewer runs in five straight starts before his outing against the Angels. Including Tuesday's start, he had pitched to a 0.99 ERA and 35/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 36 1/3 innings while holding batters to a .593 OPS. In his career, he's had only three longer streaks of outings with two or fewer runs allowed, eight-gamers in 2007 and 2011, and a seven-gamer last season, though he did throw more innings with a lower ERA (38 2/3 and 0.93, respectively) across a five-game streak in 2010. If there's good news, it's that this wasn't the first such streak since emerging from his 2013–15 dip, during which he was hit for a 4.81 ERA (83 ERA+) and 4.40 FIP in 424 1/3 innings while battling injuries, most notably a bone spur in his right knee that required surgery and limited him to eight starts.
Sabathia's resurgence started in late 2015, when he began wearing a bulky brace under his uniform to support a right knee hobbled by bone-on-bone arthritis. With the brace—which prevents him from feeling jolts of pain when he lands on his front leg—he posted a 2.17 ERA over his final five starts of 2015, including the one that clinched the Yankees' spot in the AL Wild Card game. Just before they played that game, however, he checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation facility to address a drinking problem that he had been battling since late 2012.
Thanks to the brace and his newfound sobriety, Sabathia has produced a 3.61 ERA, 4.20 FIP and 7.5 strikeouts per nine in his past 48 starts and 284 innings, a performance that suggests he’ll be able to find work when he hits the free agent market this winter. With 230 career wins and 2,788 strikeouts, he's got significant milestones ahead that could bolster his Hall of Fame case, though via the advanced stats, he's not a particularly strong candidate. His 50.2 JAWS is tied with Zack Greinke for 71st all time, about 12 points below the average Hall pitcher, and both his career and peak WAR components (60.1 and 40.4, respectively) are similarly off the mark.
The Hall discussion is a long way off. More important for the near term is how the Yankees—who own the league’s second-best record as well as a two-game lead in the AL East at 38–25—will get by without him. To date, they've gotten unexpectedly strong performances from Luis Severino, Michael Pineda and rookie Jordan Montgomery, all of whom have ERAs of 3.71 or lower (ERA+ of 122 or better). Those performances have helped offset the struggles of Masahiro Tanaka, who's been rocked for a 6.07 ERA; the 28-year-old righty has been exceptionally gopher prone, allowing 2.2 homers per nine, and maddeningly inconsistent. In five starts from May 14 to June 6, he had outings allowing eight, seven, six, five and one run(s), the last of those accompanied by a career-high 13 strikeouts. In Monday's series-opening start against the Angels, he allowed three runs (one earned) and struck out eight over 6 2/3 innings for just his fifth quality start out of 13 this season.
Improvement along those lines would certainly help cover for Sabathia's absence, though they still need a fifth starter. Reliever Chad Green, whose spot start on Sunday marked the first time this year that the team has gone outside its starting five, is the most likely candidate. The problem is that in nine turns over 2016 and ‘17, Green has been been cuffed for a 6.10 ERA with 13 homers allowed in 38 1/3 innings. Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre righties Luis Cessa, Domingo German and Bryan Mitchell are all stretched out as starters; each has major league experience and is on the 40-man roster. Cessa delivered a 4.01 ERA and 4.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine starts last year, though he did allow 11 homers in 51 2/3 innings. Chance Adams, their top prospect at that level, is not on the 40-man roster, and given that he's 22 years old and has just 12 starts above High A, the Yankees would prefer he get more seasoning. The fifth-round 2015 pick out of Dallas Baptist University may be the team's best internal option, however, particularly if he can continue pitching as he has since burning through Double A in just six turns; he's delivered a 2.52 ERA and 10.1 strikeouts per nine in 35 2/3 innings since being promoted.
This actually isn't a bad time for the Yankees to be auditioning their internal options, because this year's summer trade market isn’t a strong one. Trade candidates such as the White Sox's Jose Quintana, the Pirates' Gerrit Cole and the A's Sonny Gray have all underperformed, but with their years of club control remaining they'll require a haul of prospects not dissimilar from what the Yankees brought in during last summer's big deals. The Royals' Jason Vargas, a pending free agent, may be more the Yankees' speed, but the Royals aren't going to give him away in a market where every team that fancies itself in contention will mull adding a starter.
It's too soon to worry about that. For the moment, the Yankees can cross their fingers and hope that Sabathia's self-diagnosis is correct, that he won't be out very long, and that the rest of their rotation continues to pick up the slack to continue their bid for a return to the playoffs.