The CC Sabathia Problem

No-show offense sinks Yankees in Subway Series opener
Gary Sanchez ranks 16th on Keith Law's updated top 25 prospect list

For the first time since signing with the Yankees, CC Sabathia is truly a concern. His last three starts have gotten progressively worse, culminating with Sunday’s seven-run, seven-inning disaster against the Rays. It was the fourth time he allowed four or more runs in his last seven starts, raising his season ERA to 3.96 (4.09 FIP). The eleven homers he’s surrendered are half last season’s total in a little more than one-third of the innings, and the weather hasn’t warmed up much yet. He’s a concern, there’s no sugarcoating it.

“It’s everything,” said Sabathia to Mark Feinsand following Sunday’s game when asked what was wrong. “Not being able to make pitches with two strikes, fastball command. It’s just not being good … I’ve been through bad stretches in my career, but it’s tough. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to keep working, keep going and believe that you’re going to get better. I’ve just got to make better pitches, do a better job of getting outs pitching to contact and not getting behind in hitter’s counts.”

That’s some fine generic pitcher speak right there, which unfortunately isn’t very helpful. We shouldn’t be surprised by a player declining to explicitly discuss his struggles, however. It’s typical. Sabathia is clearly frustrated though, it’s evident in his body language. Here, just look at his reaction to the Sean Rodriguez homer from Sunday:

When was the last time you saw Sabathia show outward frustration like that? I can’t remember it ever happening, certainly not before this season at least. He’s pitching poorly and it’s starting to wear on him. It’s perfectly normal. We’re talking about one of baseball’s best pitchers over the last half-decade suddenly struggling as much as he has at any time in his career. It’s a shock to the system.

Anecdotally, it seems like hitters are squaring up Sabathia much more often this year, at least compared to his other four years in New York. That isn’t showing up in his line drive rate — 21.8%, which is only a touch higher than last year (21.1%) and his career average (20.3%) — but batted ball data is fickle since it’s subject to score bias. More balls squared up could mean deeper fly balls that are still caught for outs, harder hit ground balls that still go for singles. That’s what it seems like to me, anyway.

Is that problem related to his velocity drop? It very well could be. Fastballs are not independent events — they setup everything else, and for Sabathia that’s his slider and changeup. It’s an awful lot easier to sit back on mid-80s sliders and changeups when the fastball is humming in at 89-91 instead of 93-95. Sabathia hasn’t altered his pitch selection a ton, at least in the sense that he threw 53.9% fastballs last year and 52.0% this year. That’s a small difference. He has thrown more changeups and fewer sliders than last year, but at this point of the season it could just be a sample size thing. Overall, he isn’t throwing more non-fastballs in 2013.

“The only way the velocity (is a problem) is if it’s changing his arm angle because he’s trying to muster or anything else,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Feinsand on Sunday. “I don’t really see that. I think he’s trying to make pitches with what he’s got on a given day and staying within deliveries and trying to execute pitches. Early in the season he had the same velocity and pitched really well. I think it’s just executing pitches a little bit better.”

Command has appeared to be an issue for Sabathia at times this year, but there really isn’t a way to show that statistically. Walk rates and zone rates speak more to control and throwing strikes in general than command, which is throwing quality strikes. Dotting the edges, staying at the knees, pitching to the hole in the hitter’s swing, hitting the mitt, stuff like that. You can always tell when CC is off because his fastball sails up and away to righties, which I suppose could stem from overthrowing and trying to force velocity rather than just letting the ball come out naturally. I haven’t noticed if that is happening more frequently this year, however.

I have no idea what’s wrong with Sabathia. I don’t think it’s as simple is “he lost some velocity and therefore took a big step back in effectiveness,” though. His days of doing anything more than touching 94+ are probably long gone, which is perfectly normal for a 32-year-old pitcher with over 2,700 big league innings on his arm. Adjustments have to be made and that could take time — it took Mike Mussina all of 2007 to reinvent himself, for example — but it’s becoming more and more clear with each start that the Sabathia of old isn’t coming back. Given the offense and the team’s desperate need for strong pitching, the Yankees need those adjustments to come sooner rather than later. Until they come, CC’s performance is a problem.

No-show offense sinks Yankees in Subway Series opener
Gary Sanchez ranks 16th on Keith Law's updated top 25 prospect list
  • Vern Sneaker

    Yes, command issues for sure, and that may well improve, but there’s no way to under-emphasize the velocity drop. If it’s a permanent thing (and who knows?) then he’s no longer an elite pitcher, just a good one who will have great games when his command is there and be very average when it’s not. Confusing to me because he says his arm is fully recovered, so if the velocity doesn’t come back I guess it’s attributable to career innings and there’s no fix for that. Still, who can’t feel good when it’s his turn — he’s still CC, better than most.

    • Wolfgang’s Fault

      Actually, I’ve seen CC struggle AND look frustrated on the mound a # of times over the years, starting in Cleveland, & yeah, in some of his early starts in pinstripes. He had some surgical thing on his arm this past winter, he physically carries more than the average amount of Lbs., & yeah, he’s older, so of course his velocity figures to drop & it has. He’s got to do a better job of adjusting to the stuff he has now. Obviously, he’ll have to rely more on finesse than in the past, but he still has enough juice in that arm to keep hitters honest while setting them up w/his off-speed stuff, playing both sides of the plate, & pitching to different speeds & planes. Now, it’s all about command, and the willingness to accept the inevitability & consequences of growing older & adjusting accordingly.

  • Chasing Headley

    Man, if only there were a way for CC to just simply take a few starts off and get his head (and body) right. Seems like the issues are just compounding and it’s only going to get worse.

    Obviously what I suggested isn’t realistic, but it sure seems better then putting him back out there.

  • Mike HC

    It hasn’t been fun watching CC’s decline this season. I still hold out hope he can find his old form again, but am not counting on it.

  • Robert

    There is no problem,it is what it is while healthy he will take the Rock and pitch every 5 days until his contract is up.
    He will adjust to his lack of velocity.

    • Mike HC

      That is possible. But it is also possible that this is a precursor to more arm problems and injuries.

  • trr

    I agree with the basic premise of the article. As of right now, the team’s pitching is its strength; and our rotation was built around CC.
    To this point, Kuroda has stepped up and is our ace – consider where we’d be without him. However, this team need more from Sabathia if we are to contend all season long. Recall how Kuroda’s effectiveness diminished as the season wore on last year. There doesn’t seem to be any injury issue (Thank God!), so any diminished results would seem to be a product of years/innings/pitches. I thought I read somewhere that CC has thrown more pitches than any other MLB pitcher the last 5 years. Other quality pitchers have made adjustments and prospered. I believe CC can do the same. For our sake, at least this season, he’ll have to.

  • Craig

    The lost velocity is being made into way more than it should be by people who don’t really understand pitching. CC has had 3 bad starts because his location and execution were off. That happens to pitchers. He will work through it on the side and correct the issues. To say that he is giving generic “pitcher speak” is just not accurate. You are upset with that answer because you are reading too much into radar gun readings and want to be able to say you’ve identified this big reason for CC’s struggles.

    CC was telling the truth in the interview. He is frustrated because he hasn’t made pitches and his command has been off. It is frustrating. He will work on the side and correct the problems. It wouldn’t surprise me if he went out there and ripped off 6-8 great starts.

    Everybody is constantly looking for problems and signs of a player’s demise. Sometimes a guy gets rough up because he just didn’t pitch well…and nothing more.

    • Kosmo

      Thank You ! he was pitching well before the 3 start slump. Everyone was talking about how great he looked in his rain shortened game vs. Colorado. That was 4 starts ago. 3 starts ago he did K 10.
      2 things 1) he hasn´t pitched well in Tampa 2) His ERA is over 5.00 in the 3 games Romine has caught him. Around 3.25 when Cervelli and Stewart are behind the plate.

    • trr

      Respectfully disagree, Craig. Diminished velocity for a power pitcher IS a concern. As correctly pointed out in the article, it allows batters to center on your other pitches. I have no issue with CC’s comments, and I’m sure he’s more frutrated than we fans. He will have to improve location/execution, perhaps even feature a change up / off speed breaking ball more often. I do agree with you this is not a sign of a pitcher’s imminent demise, and I do have faith that CC will work through these issues. I don’t think he can be the same pitcher he used to be, but I do think he will be a dependable, quality starter for us in the coming years.

      • Craig

        He has plenty of fastball to be successful. It is possible that he needs to take a tick or two off of his change up, but I haven’t seen the pitch splits to tell. His problems have been more location-related than anything else. This is by far the most fixable problem.

        I do think comfort and flow matters to CC and he may prefer throwing to Stewart.

        I also wonder if he or Romine could be tipping pitches or location…no proof, just thinking out loud.

        • Redass Bluie

          Stewart was behind the plate in Hughes’ 2/3 IP horror show vs. Seattle. I wonder if Hughes or Stewart could be tipping pitches or location…You know, sometimes it’s the pitcher. It’s just the pitcher.

    • hogsmog

      I feel like your comment doesn’t address what I felt like was a main point of the post, that “Fastballs are not independent events — they setup everything else”. If CC is not ‘making good pitches’, that could depend a lot on his velocity- what was once a good pitch after setting up with a 95 mph fastball is no longer a good pitch if set up with something slower.

      It’s not that the velocity itself is a problem, but that every good pitcher simply must adapt to their body slowing down; the same strategies won’t work if the pitches are different. CC’s even said this himself.

  • Rolling Doughnut

    The CC issue may be overanalyzed. It’s probably the periood of growing pains for him, as he morphs into a different pitcher. If the elbow is really healthy as he says, then it’s no more 95 from here on out. Lower velo and erratic control of his pitches is a very bad combination.

  • Frank

    No surprise at all to me. I was against the extension when he opted out after 3 years for this exact reason. The Yanks chose to take a gamble and pay him $20M+ per year for the next 3-4 years for what are clearly his declining years. He needs to re-invent himslf and rely more on pin point command moving forward; he needs to morph into Andy Pettitte.

  • jjyank

    I do think that if it’s the lack of velocity, CC is a smart enough pitcher to figure it out. I realize that not everyone is Mike Mussina, but I think CC could do it if needed. I have faith in the big man.

  • Chasing Headley

    Also, I know many are trying not to worry about the drop in velocity, but the article makes a good point: It’s hard to pitch when all your pitches at around the same speed.

    The drop in velocity and lack of control make me wonder if something is wrong with him physically and we don’t know about it. Either way, here’s to a better season going forward.

  • Robinson Tiapia

    “Adjustments have to be made and that could take time — it took Mike Mussina all of 2007 to reinvent himself, for example — but it’s becoming more and more clear with each start that the Sabathia of old isn’t coming back.”

    There we go.

    I will say this: He’s not Andy Pettitte. He’s not Jamie Moyer. He’s not whatever pitcher you can come up with who made some sort of adjustment in his later years. I count on him because of both his work ethic and what seems, at least to me, to be a high level of actual baseball knowledge, but that’s not a guarantee of anything. It’ll look like what it’s going to look like, and it’ll take as long as it takes, if it even does happen.

    If it takes longer, or if he’s never the same, then it’s another challenge the franchise will have to face as it enters the middle of this decade.

    Someone mentioned Mets fans being terrible last night in the game thread. Wrong. Mets fans are some of the best in sports because, no matter what, they hold their head up high, even when self-deprecating, and root for their damn team. That doesn’t really have anything to do with this post, but I just wanted to say it.

    • Troll

      From sun-up to sun-down I can always count on you to be pounding away at the keyboard. What is your job? I too want an abundance of time to waste throughout my day.

      • Dalek Jeter

        And from sun-up to sun-down we can trust on you to be right there to call out R-Tills to be posting. What do you do where you can apparently not only read the articles but then read through the entire comment section looking for him to comment? I would think that requires more free time. (If anybody asks, I work at a shop that’s normally very slow so I pass the time by wasting it on the internet)

        • Robinson Tilapia

          Not worth it. Thanks, though. :)

      • True Pinstriped Blue

        RT is a loser. Tells everyone how many friends he has on this thing on the internet called RAB. It’s the only thing he has going for him. The real world is too tough of a place for this D-Bag.

        • jjyank


          • Robinson Tilapia

            I’m convinced we could actually post detailed plans of a terrorist attack on here without getting banned at this point.

            • Troll

              Wow. How mature . . . and stupid. Scumbag.

        • Troll

          Yup. He’s a social reject that finds his sh*ts and giggles on a baseball website. Sad. He’s also a pathological liar, a fact that should not be overlooked.

    • Redass Bluie

      Mets fans probably can correctly spell their own damn handle while making condescending comments on Yankees blogs.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Ooooooh snap.

  • Craig

    If people are looking for good CC conspiracy theories…it is possible some of the lost velocity went with the lost weight. He has been slimmer the last 2 Aprils and then gained some weight back and added velocity as the season progressed. Now, pitchers should add a tick or two as the weather heats up, but some guys also play better at certain weights…even bigger guys.

    David Wells lost a ton of weight one year and was terrible. His mechanics got all screwed up and it messed with his location. He has said that he just felt more comfortable at a certain weight (cue up fat guys jokes now).

    I don’t think this is what is going on with CC from a command perspective, but I wonder if it just has him a little more uncomfortable.

    • Redass Bluie

      On the contrary, it is what’s affecting his command. CC hesitates in his delivery to gather momentum when he’s right over the rubber. The lost weight is altering that pivot moment. He is capable of pitching well with the diminished velocity. It’s his mechanics that are thwarting his location and command.

      • Mike HC

        I definitely think there could be something with the weight loss thing, but on the other hand, if he was still heavy he might be having more knee and/or back problems. There is not a perfect solution.

  • CONservative governMENt

    Does C.C. have another opt-out?

  • trr

    You could be right about the catching. I really can’t think of why some pitchers do better with certain catchers, but statistically it is a truism. We’ll have to watch Romine next time CC pitches to him.

    At this point, once Cervelli is ready, Romine will be sent down. If his hitting doesn’t improve it may be before that…

    • Redass Bluie

      Catcher ERA is not foolproof but Romine’s CERA is a run lower than Stewart’s. And Cervelli’s is lower than Romine’s. Anecdotally, pitchers seem to really like pitching to Romine, according to media who cover the team.

      • trr

        Oh yeah, it’s far from an exact science…and Romine could still develop into a #1 starting catcher type at the MLB level,
        but that’s in the future, if ever.

        • Redass Bluie

          Cervelli and Stewart neither of them evoke memories of Johnny Bench either. Again, it’s the pitcher. It’s the pitcher.

  • RetroRob

    While velocity has been down, it’s really been the last three starts that have been the issue. His range of pitches, and the fact that he is a pitcher and not a thrower, suggests he should be more than fine as his velocity drops. It’s a command issur right now, with the question being why.

    My bet is he’ll be fine when it’s all said and done, although slightly less than peak CC.

  • MannyGeee

    Blah blah inflated contract blah blah dead weight like A Rod something something Nuno and Warren something something let the kids play.

    Nailed it

    • trr

      Except….there’s nothing like A-Rod and his contract.
      can’t wait to see what people are gonna write if he plays this season

    • Dalek Jeter



      • Robinson Tilapia

        FREE MUSTY!

        • WhittakerWalt

          Imagine if RAB had been around back in 1997?

          “FREE RUBEN RIVERA!”

  • mike

    the bigger issue is not whether CC can rear back and throw 95….its the fact the opposition recognizes he cannot- ever – and so can adjust their approach at the plate.

    without the worry that he can rear back and blow a fastball past you – even if you are looking fastball, causing you to cheat a lil bit more, then being that much further out in front when its a slider….you have that extra millisecond to read the pitch correctly and adjust with a smaller range in your head.

    This affects mostly the poorer hitters in the lineup, but also allows the pitcher to quell rallies even if the stars/better hitters are on him.

    thus, even if his 95mph is a thing of the past, i had hoped we would see it once/twice a game just to keep everyone honest – especially the average/worse hitters. if 92mph is all we are gonna see, i fear the Big Man might be in for tough times

    • Redass Bluie

      He threw 94 on a couple of FBs last night. Unless 95 is some kind of magic line of pitching efficacy, CC’s problem is entirely command and bad location. He’ll need to figure it out. Plain and simple.

  • Dalek Jeter

    If there is one pitcher on this roster who I trust to learn how to pitch with diminished stuff it’s CC. He’s a veteran, and a smart one at that, plus he’s surrounded by guys who have learned to pitch with lesser stuff later in their career (Mo, Andy) and guys who have done it their entire career living in the low 90s (Kuroda). If this was one of the younger guys, like a Phelps, or Nova, or even Hughes, suddenly at 89-92 I’d be scared shitless because 1. it would scream injury to me and 2. Younger guys are a lot more hard headed when it comes to making adjustments. (Looking at you Ivan) When all is said and done, if this change in volciety is permanent, there is no reason he can’t still be a dominant pitcher, look at Halladay later in his career and 2008 Mussina. I just hope that CC has more of a Halladay adjustment time where he figures it out and still is able to pitch well instead of a Mussina circa 2007, where he was god awful for an entire season.

  • Greg

    “His days of doing anything more than touching 94+ are probably long gone, which is perfectly normal for a 32-year-old pitcher with over 2,700 big league innings on his arm.”

    Is it though? How often does a 32 year old starter lose 2.3 mph of his fastball from one season to the next? Essentially never.

    I doubt he’s seriously injured or anything, but I’d be shocked if this wasn’t related to his weight loss.

    • Dalek Jeter

      He also had elbow surgery in the offseason. As minor as it was reported as being, it’s still messing with the inside of the elbow.

    • Redass Bluie

      Would it surprise anyone if the weight loss has caused him to lower his arm slot? Rothschild should probably take a second look at the video.

      • trr

        I would think they’ve been poring over the videotape already, looking for some change or variance. If it’s mechanical, I’m sure they’ll find it…

  • Darren

    I’m sure glad of all those extra innings CC pitched for no reason. Being up by 6 + runs pitching into the 8th or 9th. Thanks Girardi.

    • WhittakerWalt

      There’s not a whole lot of evidence in this argument. Just another chance to blame stuff on Girardi.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Exactly and, if he was being pulled in the 6th and 7th, what would the argument be?

      • Darren

        Does anectodal eveidence count AT ALL? I mean, I know there were at least 20 – 30 games that I can remember where CC pitched beyond the point where it was necessary. Maybe 60 innings doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a pitcher that has to go into October every year, it can be very stressful. There just never seemed to be any point to it, except to fit the narrative of CC being a workhouse.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          Again, if he were being pulled in the 6th or 7th, would you be on here talking about the strain on the bullpen?

          How exactly did pitchers throw multiple complete games in a season without dropping dead not that long ago?

          Regular wear and tear can be one factor among many here. Sure. I don’t think we can sit here and blame pitching into the 8th inning and such throughout the season as the culprit for what we’re seeing right now.

          • jjyank

            And if CC did get pulled early in some of these anecdotal starts, how many people would be calling out Girardi for babying his ace pitcher?

            Also lost in this discussion is the fact that CC has thrown so many innings partly because he’s been really good for a long time. Great pitchers throw more innings because they’re not giving up as many runs as the other guys. It is what it is right now, trying to figure out where to point the blame finger is a useless exercise here.

            • Robinson Tilapia

              To not blame would be un-American.

        • WhittakerWalt

          “Does anectodal eveidence count AT ALL?”

          Sure, it’s a factor. It just looks to me like you had your conclusion in place ahead of time (Girardi burned out CC’s arm) and you’re constructing the argument around it.

          • Darren

            i don’t think it’s even possible to say that I had a conclusion and then built anecdotal evidence to support it. Maybe stats is another thing, but by definition, anecdotal evidence would come before the conclusion.

            In any case,obviously, CC’s troubles could be caused by anything.

            But the simple fact is there were a number of games where there was no reason whatsoever to keep him in there. With a big lead and a rested bullpen there’s ZERO upside to keeping having him conitnue to pitch. Girardi “babies’ every other starter that way except for CC, and to a lesser extent Kuroda.

  • Louis

    CC’s problem is his weight.
    Some guys are better when they carry more weight.
    CC’s slimmed down this year and his velocity has dropped. He should go back to his normal eating habits, get his weight up and find his 92-94mph fastball again.

    There are any number of examples of “overweight” pitchers who pitched very well while carrying extra pounds. CC is just another in a long line.