What’s up, ZZ?

Yanks blow a pair of six run leads, fall to Tribe
Game 50: What's the opposite of a lefty killer?
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Remember when the year started? We began in Boston with Yankee ace Sabathia throwing the first game. Well, CC didn’t do so hot. He was bludgeoned with 5 runs in only 5 1/3 innings. We saw him struggle to start the year in 2009 as well. No reason to panic, right? By the end of April, fans and sportswriters were calling for Sabathia’s head on a pike. Well, as you may also remember, after the Boston series, Hey ZZ did fairly well, blowing out the Rays in April with an oh-so-close no-hitter that wasn’t. He followed it up with a gem of a game against the Rangers with nine strikeouts in 7 2/3rds of 3-hit ball. Things were looking good. And then the outings started to drop a bit. Oakland saw him issue six walks, Baltimore hit him 11 times and each successive game seemed to feature Sabathia “gritting” out a victory but not looking too sharp, or getting tagged for 5 runs in 5 or 6 innings. Over his last five starts, Sabathia has only had a positive WPA in one of them (the start against Boston on the 18th).

Let’s take a look at CC’s peripherals and see if we can figure out what’s at least changed, even if there’s nothing to worry about. What exactly has gone wrong?

The first thing you’ll probably notice with CC’s year thus far is his strikeouts and walks. He’s striking out less than seven batters per game (6.81 k/9) while giving up more walks than we’ve seen since 2004 (2.90 BB/9). His groundball rate is an oddly high 49% on the year, up 7 percentage points from 2009. Still, he threw up a GB% of 49.5 in 2004, so it’s not completely unheard of. And we’ll get to more of that later. He’s also benefited from fairly good defense and luck. His BABip is .272, which is the lowest it’s been at any point in his big league career.

CC's K/BB ratio taken from Fangraphs.com

He’s currently outperforming his peripherals with his ERA, which comes in at 4.16 on the season. His FIP in 2010 is a decidedly un-CC-like 4.46. The rub here though is his xFIP, which basically normalizes home runs and adjusts the FIP. Here we see CC fall in line closer with his ERA, notching a 4.11 xFIP. Why would this be? Well, his HR/FB rate is a wacky 13%, easily a career high by a fairly wide margin. This is not to say CC’s pitched like the guy we know he can, but he’s definitely been burned by the home run, and trends suggest it likely won’t continue at such a rate.

But here’s where it gets weird: you know how we talk about pitchers using all of their pitches effectively and mixing up counts to stymie hitters? Sure you do! Generally we say it about Hughes and his proclivity to  go fastball-cutter-fastball-cutter. Or Joba and the guess-what-3-2 slider. Well, Sabathia hasn’t fallen down that path. No, he’s gone the other way. Generally a guy known to throw his potent four-seamer 60% of the time, Sabathia has been throwing it 48% of the time this year. Instead, he’s been relying on his two-seam fastball 18% of the time, up from 3% last year. Unfortunately, no data is available (that I’m aware of) to suggest a trend or an outlier, but whatever the case, it’s clear that CC isn’t as comfortable with his primary fastball this year, unlike that of the recent past. Could it be that he’s feeling some tiredness due to his extreme workload the past few seasons?

On the year his velocity has been down by about 1 mph on the fastball. We’re only on the doorstop of June so as the weather heats up, we should expect it to rise in line with what we’ve seen in the past. Take a look at his average velocity through this point last year and in the two previous seasons. He’s been consistently higher in velocity, even in his first 10 starts of the season (where we’d expect the weather to be of similar natures). But it hasn’t been by concerning numbers. Remember, we’re talking about 1-2 mph and many pitchers go through periods of variation. Luckily, CC doesn’t seem to have much issue with velocity. He was consistently hitting 95-96 yesterday, though many of them were fouled off and the pitch count ran high. So the velocity issue may be overblown.

From March to June in ’08, Sabathia averaged 93.4 on the fastball, threw it 60% of the time and saw hitters swing at the pitch 45% of the time, whiffing 5% of swings. He had great movement, too. His fastball had 9.11 inches of vertical rise and it moved horizontally 6.66 inches. In ’09 in the same time period Sabathia averaged 93.9 on the fastball, threw it in 57% of the time, saw hitters swing 46% of the time and miss 5.3% of the time. He averaged 9.41 inches of vertical movement and 5.45 horizontally.

In 2010, he’s averaging 93.1 on the fastball, throwing it for less strikes and getting less whiffs on the pitch, down to 4.6%. The movement has registered at 9.28 inches vertically and only 3.81 horizontally. Slower and less movement.

So according to this, his fastball hasn’t been what it should be, even when only looking at the colder beginning months of the last two seasons (where PitchFX data is available). And I think he knows it, which is why he’s throwing it less often. Well, what about other data points we can get by the pitches themselves? Fangraphs has a nifty little pitch values chart, which essentially rates how effective pitchers are with their offerings and how hitters fare against them. His fastball this year rates as a negative pitch (-1.8) while his slider and changeup both rate as positives (3.2 and 3.5 respectively). So what about that two-seamer he’s been so fond of lately? Well, I believe that’s included in the overall fastball rate. Per Texas Leaguer’s Pitch FX data, it seems like it’s been effective for him. He’s getting 8% whiffs on it, has thrown it for strikes and often elicits groundballs.

The two-seamer seems to explain the uptick in groundballs, now approaching 50% on the year, as I previously mentioned. We know that pitchers need to evolve as they get older, so getting more groundball outs could be a way for CC to put less strain on his arm and adjust to hitters that see him many times over the years. Or it could be that he’s thrown it in the past but they haven’t classified the pitch as a two-seamer (or in TX Leaguers, a sinker). Hard to say.

Another odd point in the year is that lefties are hitting an extraordinary line against the big Californian, known to be death to lefties. A career .236/.297/.358 against southpaws, he’s been lit up for a line of .283/.377/.472. That absolutely cannot continue for the big fella to be a successful ace in New York. That’s almost Gaudin-ian.

Lastly, the plate discipline. CC isn’t getting batters to chase as many pitches he’s thrown but they’ve made contact at higher rates than we’ve seen in a while, checking in at a 79% contact percentage. His swinging strike percentage is also down to 8.5% – he’s usually in the double digits.

Now this could all be nothing. Again, when he got off to a poor start last year, people echoed similar concerns. “He’s thrown too many innings,” “stuff just isn’t the same” and the like.  But it’s too early to say anything is awry. Sure, we haven’t seen his struggles extend so far into the season yet, but CC has never been known as a 1st half pitcher. Maybe he just needs an extra month (like Teixiera?) to get hot and he’ll start looking like the CC we saw last year. The home runs will come down, the velocity should move up and it looks like he’s now relying on a pitch more to get grounball outs. How he approaches left-handers and the look of his four-seam fastball should be large factors in how CC does moving forward. He needs to be the ace on this staff.

Yanks blow a pair of six run leads, fall to Tribe
Game 50: What's the opposite of a lefty killer?
  • http://twitter.com/stophamm3rtime Dela G

    he was hitting 96 yesterday, so it seems as if his arm/shoulder are getting stronger as the season goes on, but man, he’s been brutal to watch the past 5 starts or so

    • JMK

      Yeah, he was around 93 for the first three innings and by the 4th he was regularly hitting 95. He frequently hit 96 afterward, though tons of those pitches were fouled off.

      It’s been a tough go for the big man, but there’s good reason to believe he’ll get better moving forward. I’m concerned he’s not throwing his 4-seamer as often, but having a two-seam fastball that he can also go to may be better for his evolution as a pitcher when he really does start to lose velocity in his later years.

      The results aren’t great and the process has been rough, but in terms of long-term development, this might not necessarily be a bad thing.

      Also, good to be following you on Twitter, Dela. Congrats on your CPA exams!

    • john quigley

      I think it has alot to do with Cervelli. Cerv a little hyper behind the plate and likes to work fast, CC is painfully slow and on the last outing slower than usual just to slow Cerv down more. You could seee the frustration.
      Also CC is a horse and i love him, but he’s overweight and the heat could be getting to him he hasnt lost any velocity that concerns me but his outings have been shorter.
      Lastly i admired that pitch by pitch chart you had and noticed there were 11 pitches that were strikes that were called balls. mostly inside knee high. there were also 3 or 4 boaderline pitches that could have gone either way. now depending on the count that really extends the inning. So maybe he was squeezed to a degree or could have just been off because of pitch selection or Cervellis rythm. Either way we dont have much of a choice to Jorge gets back but i think they will right the ship

  • Bondarri

    This analysis is fantastic!!! One thing I said about C.C. is he is a serious lower back problem just waiting to happen. It just hasn’t occurred yet. With his weight and gut I don’t see how he is going to avoid it?

    • JMK

      Thanks. I can’t say I know too much about biomechanics, but is there a specific physiological reason you expect his back to be an issue? Would the nature of pitching (a violent one) put more strain on his lower back simply because he has a gut? He may not be a small man by any means, but by all accounts he’s very athletic and I’d bet he’s more muscle than fat.

      But again, I really have no idea. It would be nice to see a biomechanics take on what CC has done and what they project given his physique and mechanics.

  • http://theyankeeu.com Moshe Mandel

    A few points:

    1) As Joe Pawl has noted a number of times, the horizontal movement algorithm is off or has changed. All Yankees pitchers have a large regression in that, so something is up.

    2) His K/BB is down every year at this time, as is his velo. Less than 1MPH from last year really doesnt concern me.

    3) The switch to two seamers is interesting, but I would not be shocked if it was just a change in pitch classification. That’s a huge change that has gone unmentioned in the press or by CC. That sort of swing might just be an algorithm change.

    • JMK

      All of these are good points. Again, as I noted, a lot of this could be classification changes. Before yesterday’s game, the velocity average had been 92.8, just barely 1 mph less than his career average.

      I think yesterday has shown he can dial it up and be in the range we’d all prefer. What I’m saying is it was still down from usual and that could be the reason he didn’t throw it as often, unless the classification system is spitting out oddities – definitely a possibility.

      Regarding the K/BB, that’s true. The question is will CC end up closer to the 2009 rate or ’06-’08. Obviously he had a very good 2009, but you’d really not like to see a downward trend in K/BB, which would occur if he doesn’t pick it up.

      Am I concerned? Not really, but there are some interesting data points worth looking over.

      • http://theyankeeu.com Moshe Mandel

        Oh, definitely worth looking over, didnt mean to imply otherwise. I just dont see anything that has me particularly concerned yet. That could change if he sustains similar rates.

  • http://newyorkstateofsports.com Matty V

    He has also had some bad luck. He should have won his last two Boston starts, but the weather and Yankee bullpen thought otherwise.

  • leftylarry

    He’s at least 20-25 pounds heavier than last Spring.He was a svelt 300-305 last year, looks 325 at least now.

    • JMK

      [citation needed]

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUvg7Empjfg Captain Jack

    Hmmm…yeah, this is a cause for concern. Not that I’ve been displeased with CC’s performances but I thought they were going to get a bit more. I ultimately think he’ll be fine, IIRC if a pitcher makes it through his first 1000 innings or so (anyone know what I’m talking about?) that it significantly decreases the chances of him getting injured. He’s been healthy all this time and while:


    “HE’S TOO FAT!!!!”

    sound like perfectly reasonable concerns, despite my facile way of putting them, not all pitchers are created equally, some have better arms through it be better mechanics, better conditioning, or more resilient muscle mass than others. As to fat pitchers? Jesus, they’re as big of a part of baseball as steroids, stealing signs, the Red Sox complaining about the backwards K, or coming in hard to home. Fat pitchers have always been a part of the game, and always will. Losing weight wouldn’t hurt him…but I don’t think it is as drastic of an issue as everyone else does.

    Side note: Could it be a playoff hangover? In the past guys who have had an awesome post season have struggled the next year Beckett 07 then 08, Cole Hamels 08 to 09, and Sabathia now. The argument is, that you pitched an extra month, threw about an extra 30 innings than what you’re used to throwing, and had a month less to recover. I’m unsure that I personally buy that argument, I used to be a competitive weight lifter (now I’m just lazy…fucken school) and a few days max was all I needed to recover from the stress that I put on my body. I’m sure three months ought to be enough time to cool down. However, that being said, it could fuck with your rest schedule and whatever ball players do to prepare for s/t.