How Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia went from teammates to friends to mentor and student
Turns out, though, that even the 36-year-old veteran of 16-MLB seasons has a guru he can turn to at any time, too, to help him with his own transition from power pitcher to wily vet
"We've been talking about things really since I retired," Andy Pettitte, who was in camp for two days this week as a guest instructor, told the media on Tuesday. "He's been working hard on it."
The "it," in this case, is the cutter, a pitch Sabathia started working on three springs ago. CC was coming off perhaps his worst statistical year in the Majors - 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA in 32 starts - and knew at that point that he would likely have to adjust his style on the mound, having to mix in more to accommodate an eventual loss of power.
Sabathia ended up having his shortest season that summer, making just eight starts before knee surgery put him on the shelf for the year, and the evolution was on in full force.
"I think it's just necessary; you always have to evolve in this game, and as I've gotten older, I've started using more pitches in different sequences, and it has kind of turned into this," Sabathia said.
That's when the apprenticeship with Pettitte, who had retired after the 2013 season, truly began, Andy imparting the way that he, too, had to evolve later in his career, especially in his final two seasons.
"I never had that kind of velocity CC has, and his pitches were always better than mine," Pettitte smiled, "but when I lost what little velocity I had, you get out there and start figuring out what pitches guys can't handle and you work on things."
Pettitte has been working on that cutter with Sabathia ever since, and while it's still a work in progress, it has come a long way, especially last season when it helped CC post his lowest ERA since 2012.
"He's been working hard, and I think last year he started seeing a lot of success and started to make that further adjustment into the kind of pitcher that he's going to need to be going forward," Pettitte said. "I know he feels good about things and is very confident, but when you have the stuff that he had and throw in the mid- to upper-90s, it's a big adjustment to almost learn how to pitch again."
The pair got a chance to work together this week, spending a lot of time with each other while Pettitte was in camp Tuesday and Wednesday as a guest instructor, and it was a double treat for Andy, who didn't know until he got to Tampa that Sabathia was pitching Tuesday's game.
"I was fired up when I found out," he smiled, "and I said 'what timing to see my boy pitch.'"
"It was cool to be able to pitch in the couple days he decided to show up," Sabathia added with a smile.
And now, after five seasons as teammates and a few more as mentor/student, Pettitte and Sabathia have such a great relationship that, as CC noted, he can "call Andy any time of night and he'll pick up and help me out."
"I've learned a lot from Andy," Sabathia said. "Obviously my style of pitching now is close to where his was at the end of his career, so we have a lot to talk about, and it's a lot of fun to be able to bounce stuff off a Hall of Famer."
It's a relationship that even Yankees manager Joe Girardi can see the results of.
"I think Andy has helped him a lot, because so much of this game is adjusting to who you are at the present time," Girardi said. "CC pitched one way for a long time and that's not easy to do; you have to keep making adjustments as you get older, and the conversations he's probably had with Andy have helped along the way."
And Joe, too, sees the positive progress of the "new" Sabathia as he moves into this later chapter of his own Hall of Fame-caliber career.
"CC threw the ball well for us last year," Girardi said. "I know the record doesn't indicate that necessarily, but I think the numbers were better."
As Pettitte watched Tuesday, it wasn't really the numbers that mattered. Grapefruit League stats are great in March, but get wiped away come April 2, so all that matters is that the practice eventually makes perfect.
Getting there, Sabathia says.
"Today, in the second inning, I threw some good ones back-to-back-to-back, and being able to throw it consistently is the key," Sabathia noted after that start. "It's just getting a lot more consistent so I'm getting close to that."
And that, Pettitte imparted on his student, will indeed come.
"You continue to keep getting a better feel for it, and I think that's what CC is doing, getting a better feel for that cutter," Pettitte said. "The results weren't there maybe a couple years ago, but like I said, all his pitches were always better than mine, so I knew that if he could figure it out, there was no way he couldn't have success."
That, along with one last word of praise.
"I'm proud of CC, and I hope he has a great year."