CC Sabathia’s new reality

Yankees come back for win over Diamondbacks
More science, more baseball, more success
(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

We all knew this would happen eventually. The unnatural act of pitching has a way of wearing down even the most durable athletes over the years, sapping velocity and arm strength after thousands of innings and tens of thousands of individual pitches. Andy Pettitte went through it, Mike Mussina went through it, Pedro Martinez went through it … heck, even Mariano Rivera went through it. Father Time remains undefeated.

At age 32, with just under 2,700 total innings on his arm, it appears CC Sabathia has lost his best fastball. He topped out at 91.2 mph with his fastball last night and averaged just 90.1 mph according to PitchFX, a bit short of the 90.7 mph he averaged during his first three starts. Last year he averaged 93.0 mph. The year before it was 94.7 mph. The year before he became a Yankee it was 94.9 mph. It’s been a gradual decline over the years, just like it was for Pettitte and Moose and Pedro.

When most pitchers lose their fastballs, the initial results tend to be very bad. Sabathia is not most pitchers though; he’s used his diminished heater to post a 2.57 ERA (2.69 FIP) in 28 innings across his first four starts of 2013. After allowing four earned runs to the Red Sox in five innings on Opening Day, the left-hander has allowed just four earned runs in his last three starts combined. The diminished fastball hasn’t led to diminished results, at least not yet.

Adjusting to life with a new, slower fastball can’t be easy. Mussina is one of the smartest pitchers I’ve ever seen, yet it took him all of 2007 to learn how to work with reduced heat. Roy Halladay is arguably the best pitcher of his generation, but he’s having a devil of a time figuring it out in Philadelphia right now. Part of the problem, at least initially, is just denial. No world-class athlete wants to admit his skills are declining, especially pitchers and their fastballs. Sabathia, however, seems to be very aware that his heater doesn’t have as much oomph as it once did.

“I’m hoping some more velocity comes back. If not, we’ll work with this,” said the southpaw to Mark Feinsand after last night’s win. “It’s reality. You never know. I’ve never been through anything like this, so I don’t know. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. I’ve been pitching for a long time. Eventually, it was going to happen … It’s something everybody is going to go through. We’ll see if this is my time.”

With the obvious sample size caveat, it does appear to be Sabathia’s time. I’m almost certain he’ll add a tick or two as the season progresses and the weather warms up, pretty much everyone does, but his fastball is down quite a bit this year compared to his first four starts of last year — 90.6 mph in 2013 vs. 92.6 mph in 2012. The velocity drop has been real early on and not even Sabathia is denying it.

“It’s definitely going to be hard, but I’ve got guys in here that I can turn to like Andy,” added CC. “We can work on game plans and just try to keep getting better as a pitcher … If I make pitches (I can be effective with less velocity). I always felt like that. I would take some off to make pitches when I had more velocity, try to stay at 91-92, then hump up when I needed to. I can pitch at this.”

Saying and thinking he can pitch with reduced velocity is an entirely different thing than actually doing it. The early signs on promising, but who knows what will happen when the weather heats up and the ball starts carrying a bit more. We saw the Diamondbacks hit a number of long fly balls last night, long fly balls that would have presumably been a lot more dangerous had it been the middle of July or August. This is very much a wait and see thing.

Sabathia suffered the first arm injury of his career last summer and needed offseason elbow surgery. His fastball velocity has been dipping for a few years now. This is his new reality, and he not only seems to be completely aware of it, he doesn’t seem to be bothered by it at all. That’s reassuring but only to a point, because I don’t know if Sabathia can continue to be an ace-caliber pitcher with reduced velocity, especially if it continues to slide in the coming months and years. One thing I do know is that whenever CC stops pitching like an ace — it will happen at some point, it’s inevitable — it won’t be from a lack of effort. If there’s anyone who can figure this diminished fastball thing out, it’s Sabathia.

Yankees come back for win over Diamondbacks
More science, more baseball, more success
  • Eddard

    It’s all about adjusting. Andy throws 90 mph. Moyer stuck around for years throwing under 90. CC is a good enough pitcher and has the breaking pitches to adjust. But I do think this is much ado about nothing since he’ll heat up when it gets warmer and throw 93-94.

    • Slugger27

      “moyer stuck around for years AND SUCKED DOING SO throwing under 90.”


      • trr

        right – we need more than having CC “stick around”
        He’s gotta be a top of the rotation guy for us.

  • billy

    If Sabathia loses his ace status within the next couple of years, it’ll be real interesting to see how Cashman acquires one…

    • Stan the Man

      I am pretty sure that is why they are trying to develop their own and why they made the trade for Pineda. They are hoping one of the kids from the farm develop over the next couple of years to be the front liner once CC leaves. It would help a ton if one of the kids can get up to the big leagues to pitch in the rotation with CC so they can learn from a pro what it takes to succeed at this level.

  • OldYanksFan

    I think the ‘denial’ thing is the biggest issue, and CC doesn’t seem to be there. From Maddox to older Pedro and Andy, command and smarts are more important then pure velocity.

    We may not need CC to be a pure Ace, but we do need him to be at least a #1.5. The Yankees have always been built on great offenses with good pitching. We are not TB or the old Braves. We typically don’t need ‘Great Pitching’.

    As long as CC understands the aging progression (which he seemingly does), he is smart enough and talented enough to be very effective throwing 91.

    Velocity is like the HR. It’s seductive. But it not absolutely necessary to be a very effective Pitcher. I like that CC referenced Andy. We have him for what… 3 more years after this year? Let’s hope the Big Guy stays smart.

    • Rick

      Diminished velocity doesn’t mean you lose your ace status. I think he retains his status as being a “pure Ace” for the next couple seasons at least. He knows how to pitch, that’s the most important thing.

  • Theonewhoknocks

    Too premature to be concerned about it.
    I do think its in a decline phase, but I don’t think it will be as steep as going from 92.6 to 90.6. He’ll heat up as the year goes on and probably finish in the 91.7-92.1 area more of a typical slow decline than anything that we should get be alarmed about.
    Every year there’s an ace who people jump the gun on regarding velocity and they end up getting it back throughout the season. Last year it was Felix

  • Stan the Man

    The pitcher CC was going up against last night was doing a pretty good job without the big time heater. Pitchers need to locate and deceive and CC is already showing the ability to do this pretty consistently. When he has a clunker start it won’t be because his fastball velocity was down it will be because his location was off.

  • Grant

    If CC stays healthy, I’m not that worried. He will have less room for error. Some more balls will get hit, and his ERA will go up some. They all learn how to manage reduced velocity at some time. The great ones, and CC is great, find a way to still be the best. He just has to take care of his body and stay healthy.

  • Manny’s BanWagon

    I agree with above that it’s premature to say he’s lost his FB. It’s not even may and he’s coming off elbow surgery which could have affected his offseason preparation. I think he’ll build arm strength as the season goes along like many power pitches do.

    I’ll bet by July, he’s back up to averaging 93+ again.

    • Steve (different one)

      Agree with this, the plus plus fastball from 2008 is likely gone, but I think (as Mike mentioned) he’ll add a tick or two as the weather warms up. Even Verlander is down almost 3 MPH so far this year.

  • Steve (different one)

    Here is another guy experiencing a steady decline in velocity: King Felix.

    We’d all probably take him on the Yanks….

    • Slugger27

      i get your point. but what worries me is that felix’s decline is pretty subtle while sabathia’s appears drastic. verlander is another ace with a more drastic decrease in velocity and it’s already definitely hurting him.

      • CP

        verlander is another ace with a more drastic decrease in velocity and it’s already definitely hurting him.

        He has a 3.08 FIP and 1.96 ERA this year, so I really don’t see how it’s definitely hurting him.

        • Slugger27

          its 2013, im not using ERA or FIP after 18 innings lol. and you did conveniently leave out xFIP which is 3.93, for the record.

          look at his plate discipline numbers. much lower chase rate, much higher contact rate, much lower swinging strike rate. this season has plenty of outliers and theyre all outliers in the negative way.

          • Jim Is Bored

            If you’re going to compare 2013 mar/apr to 2012, it’s only fair to compare it to 2013 mar/apr.

            The only differences there are basically he’s walked more guys and his BABIP is back up to .270, whereas last year it was down around .220.

            I’m not worried yet.

            • Jim Is Bored

              Dammit. Only fair to compare it to 2012 mar/apr, obviously.

            • Slugger27

              i didnt know they had plate discipline monthly splits. youre right, the k/bb splits dont seem overly discouraging.

              im mildly worried, not extremely worried. i just think verlander is a more accurate comparison since his velocity decline seems more in line with CC’s, as opposed to felix who has a pretty subtle drop.

              • Jim Is Bored

                Yeah, it’s not unfair to compare the two. I just want to wait until june/july before I think too much about a few mph drop in velocity.

                And I think Felix’s was more notable last year, and he recovered a bit, although I may be making that up.

      • MannyGeee

        I worry a lot less about a pitcher like CC losing “Teh V-LO” than a guy like…. let’s say Ubaldo Jiminez, for 2 reasons:

        – CC has always had excellent secondary stuff. you don’t need to touch 95 when you have a knockout slider and a nice change up. Doesn’t hurt, just doesn’t limit you either. JIminez was (is) a 3 fastball guy, and when youre throwing 91 instead of 96, shit goes down hill fast.

        – CC KNOWS (at least it sounds like it) that he’ll need to adjust to get the job done from here on through. He’s not doing the Kenny Powers routine, acting like its still his time and insisting 88mph is gonna do it.

        So, step off the ledge, its gonna be alright. Different, but alright.

        • MannyGeee

          balls, total reply fail

  • LK

    The biggest concern I have is that this type of sudden, significant velocity loss is often an indication that an injury is lurking. Assuming CC can stay healthy, I think he’ll still be effective, even if diminished from what he was. The real issue is going forward – if Pettitte and Kuroda retire and Hughes signs elsewhere, the cupboard is pretty bare, and CC being very good instead of great only worsens the situation.

    • Steve (different one)

      Or that he is recovering from an injury.

      • LK

        Right, that’s certainly the hope. The fact that he was actually lower than his season average in his 4th start doesn’t have me overly optimistic that the fastball is coming back. Velocity drops don’t always mean an injury though, and clearly he can still be effective with reduced stuff.

  • Rick

    I swear I just read this same exact article, with nearly the same exact title on ESPN NY by Wallace Matthews. Almost the same exact paragraph structure.

  • trr

    For all the hand-wringing, he is still pitching very effectively for us and still remains the ace of our staff. I’m an old pitcher myself
    (HS/College) and I like watching him work

  • monterowasdinero

    Far more important than throwing 95 is throwing off speed pitches (2 different curves and a changeup) in hitter’s counts for strikes. If you have a fb over 90 mph, the other stuff will give CC the success he needs to be an ace.

  • gageagainstthemachine

    Dear CC-

    Please be picking Andy’s brain as much as humanly possible this season…in a non-Zombie way.

    A fan

  • Brett is Bubba’s Son…

    Any other pitcher would be given at least till the all-star break coming of elbow surgery before their fans started worrying about diminished velocity.

    I truly believe that while he is in a decline the large jump from last year to this year is due to the surgery and it will strengthen plenty in the coming months.

    • Darren

      Are you somehow claiming that this is getting more atention due to the fact that he’s the #1 pitcher on the Yankees?

      I mean, yeah, of course.

      But I can’t remember EVER seeing a pitcher of CC’s status (#1 guy in the prime of his career) so clearly stating that he’s lost velocity.

      • Brett is Bubbas Son

        But having lost velocity at this point after surgery is to be expected and shouldn’t be of concern. It be like complaining about lack of command in a pitchers first four starts back from TJ.

        • Darren

          CC’s comments make it seem like he thinks this may be permanent, not just an after effect of surgery.

          • Brett is Bubbas Son

            Frankly, that makes little difference, I had knee surgery a few years back and thought that I wasn’t going to be able to cycle anymore, let alone play basketball, but there I was this winter averaging about 30 minutes a game. What a player thinks will happen to his body isn’t always, or even usually what happens.

  • mitch

    He’s been a pitcher as opposed to a thrower for a while now. Last year he probably only relied on blowing a fastball by somebody a few times per game. I don’t think he’ll have much trouble adapting.

  • http://riveraveblues alaskamojo

    Manny’s hit the nail on the head, I think. CC just had elbow surgery six months ago to remove bone spurs I believe. Too soon to tell whether two mph reduction in velocity from first four starts of last eason before the surgery is not simply end phase of rehab stage– a defense mechanism to prevent further injury. No doubt he won’t achieve more velocity with age, but most important thing is that CC stay healthy. (Now that I have registered, Mike, here is my comment that may wind up appearing twice)

  • Luis Castillo (Not the one who dropped the ball)

    If he does figure it out, he has a chance to be the only 300W guy that we’ll be able to see in a long time.

    • Jim Is Bored

      I wish King Felix had been on a team that had even a below average offense. He could have been one of those guys.

      • Luis Castillo (Not the one who dropped the ball)

        I wish King Felix had been on THE YANKEES. He could have been one of those guys.

        There, fixed that for you. :)

        • Jim Is Bored

          Hah, well of course.

  • Crespo

    “I’m hoping some more velocity comes back. If not, we’ll work with this,” said the southpaw to Mark Feinsand after last night’s win. “It’s reality. You never know. I’ve never been through anything like this, so I don’t know. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. I’ve been pitching for a long time. Eventually, it was going to happen … It’s something everybody is going to go through. We’ll see if this is my time.”

    The guy is just the man. He’ll keep getting it done. Enough said.

    • dkidd


      listen to the words. that’s a guy thinking three moves ahead

  • Nathan

    The man has a ton of miles on him. He’s a horse and it’s simply wear and tear.

    That said, I’d still rather have CC than NOT have CC.

  • Mike HC

    “It’s definitely going to be hard, but I’ve got guys in here that I can turn to like Andy,” added CC.

    I love that the Yanks have savvy vets for our savvy vets.

  • Greg

    have to separate CC from Doc. Doc appears to have an arm slot problem, the result of which is lower speed, lack of control and poor movement. Fixing arm slot is hard. CC appears to just have lower speed. Meaning no change in arm slot, no change in health, control or movement. While not easy, it is much simpler than trying to re-find arm slot.

  • Herby

    I’ll worry more about the velocity drop if it’s still around in late May or June, after any surgery your muscles are going to atrophy, you aren’t going to be able to get in the work you normally would do and you’re going to lose strength. It’ll just take some time to build back up. Probably a little more work in strengthening his lower half will help too.

  • And in merrie olde England

    Can he get the bone spurs put back in?

  • dkidd

    not worried at all. he’s always been a pitcher, not a thrower

    if it’s possible for a 300-pound man to be “crafty”, cc will do it

  • Improbable Island’s Dirty Midget Whores (formerly RRR)

    Long fly balls that may have been more dangerous in the heat…but you also pointed out that his fastball velocity will go up a bit in the heat.

    Sabathia is probably the best pitcher I’ve ever seen when it comes to adjusting to diminished stuff. If any pitcher can figure this out, CC will.

  • RetroRob

    Give the man a few bowls of Captain Crunch. He’s too thin!

    When CC signed with the Yankees, I was less concerned about his eventual declining years because he’s a lefty pitcher, not a thrower. A lefty can still be effective throwing 88/89, as Pettitte as many other LHPs have shown. CC appeared to be the type who could still be effective with reduced stuff. Yet I am surprised he’s dropped three mph so quickly and is now sitting around 90. That is concerning. I’m hoping he picks a couple miles back up as the season progresses.