2014 Season Preview: The Erstwhile Ace

Guest Post: Five Big Ideas from the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
AP: El Duque joins Yankees as minor league pitching instructor

It is in no way an exaggeration to say CC Sabathia was one of the worst pitchers in baseball last season. Out of the game’s 81 qualified starters, he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR. He also led the league with 112 earned runs allowed. Last season was the worst of Sabathia’s career by a large margin and it was a big reason why the team failed to qualify for the postseason for only the second time in 19 years.

Why did Sabathia struggle so much in 2013? There is no shortage of theories. He lost too much weight, he lost too much velocity, he had offseason elbow surgery, all the innings are catching up to him, his mechanics were out of whack … on and on we could go. Sabathia never made excuses and pitching coach Larry Rothschild blamed it on inconsistent mechanics that led to too many pitches out over the plate. My guess? All of it. All of that stuff and more contributed to his poor year.

That disastrous 2013 season is in the past now. Sabathia is now more than a full year out from elbow surgery and he remade his body this winter, shedding bad weight and adding muscle in hopes of building power and stamina. He looks marvelous and in better shape than he’s ever been as a Yankee, but that was also true last spring, just not to the same extent. Physical condition is not going to be excuse, not that it ever was. CC is always going to be a big guy, that’s just his body type, but now he is slightly less big.

In his first Spring Training outing on Saturday, Sabathia came out firing 88 mph bullets that raised a little red flag but are not really freakout worthy yet. It was his first Grapefruit League start and we’ll re-evaluate his fastball when he builds up some more arm strength and gets another start or two under his belt. Sabathia’s velocity has steadily declined in recent years …

CC Sabathia's velocity

… and there is little reason to think that will stop. That’s the reality of being a 33-year-old workhorse who will top the 3,000 career innings (regular season and postseason) mark this summer. Once the fastball starts to go, it tends to continue going. Reversing the velocity decline is just not something that happens. The best the Yankees and Sabathia can hope for is halting the decline and maintaining this level of velocity for a little while longer.

Lefties who can pump 94-96 mph consistently — like Sabathia a few years ago — are the exception. Lefties who sit right around 90 are the rule. That’s Madison Bumgarner (91.2 mph in 2013), C.J. Wilson (90.9), Cliff Lee (90.4), and Mike Minor (90.4) velocity, and that foursome combined for a 3.06 ERA and a 3.12 FIP in 841 innings last year. Sabathia averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball last season and even if he loses another mile an hour this year, it should still be enough.

At his peak from 2007-12, CC maintained an ~8 mph separation between his fastball (93.7 mph) and changeup (86.0 mph). Last year it was only a 6.5 mph separation and that’s a big difference. That’s the difference between squaring a pitch up and hitting it off the end of the bat or flat out swinging and missing. Linear weights reflect the reduced effectiveness of his changeup (-8.3 runs saved in 2013 after +35.6 from 2007-12), a pitch that his been one of his most dangerous weapons the last seven years or so.

Of course, velocity and separation between the fastball and changeup is only one small piece of the pitching pie. Sabathia’s location flat out stunk last season, anecdotally because his arm slot wavered (he admitted as much) and his pitches cut back over the plate. According to Baseball Heat Maps, a whopping 39.2% of Sabathia’s pitches were over the heart of the plate last season, up from 30.7% in 2012 and 31.7% from 2011-12. That’s a big, big deal. He averaged 104.25 pitches per start last season, so we’re talking an extra nine pitches (!) over the heart of the plate per start on average. Big deal. Really big deal.


Improving on last season’s performance will require a number of things. Sabathia’s not finding more velocity so just forget about that. He needs to improve his location first and foremost. I’m not sure there is any way you can improve performance quicker than by not throwing the ball in the hitter’s wheelhouse. If Sabathia can get back to living on the corners and at the knees, it doesn’t really matter if he’s throwing 85 or 95. Easier said than done, obviously. Regaining that 8-ish mph separation between the fastball and changeup is another key.

How does Sabathia go about improving his location and the effectiveness of his changeup in 2014? Damned if I know. That’s up to Sabathia and Rothschild to figure out. The problems could be mechanical or the result of the elbow surgery — he underwent a biomechanical analysis over the winter and things checked out okay, for what it’s worth — or they could be the result of muscling up and trying to manufacture velocity. Overthrowing is a great way to miss spots. Again, it’s probably a little of everything.

Maybe I’m just a raging homer, but I truly believe Sabathia can rebound and be an effective starter for the Yankees this summer. He has to make several adjustments first and even if he does, I still think it’s unlikely he’ll ever get back to peak CC form, that Cy Young caliber ace. Simply being not one of the worst pitchers in baseball like last year seems reasonable to me though. A guy who can give the team 200+ innings of 3.70-ish ERA ball is still really valuable, even if it is not what we’re used to seeing from Sabathia.

I don’t know if the Yankees can make the postseason in 2014 with a good but not great performance from Sabathia, but I do know they have almost no chance of going to the playoffs if he pitches like he did a year ago. Even with Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda around to anchor the rotation, I believe a rebound from the club’s erstwhile ace is a necessity for contention this season.

Guest Post: Five Big Ideas from the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
AP: El Duque joins Yankees as minor league pitching instructor
  • GaryDirtySanchez

    Probably an aberration, but CC’s xFIP last year was 3.76, a hundredth better than the 3.77 xFIP he posted in 2009 when he was at the top of his game. Means nothing, just thought it was an interesting footnote. Great article but, to me, he is a different sort of pitcher than Wilson, Lee and Bumgarner. Aside from a short stint in the minors when Bumgarner was supposedly hitting 97+, none of these guys ever really had the velocity that CC owns. As a result, as they lose a tick or two on their fastball, they don’t have to revamp their entire approach to pitching like Sabathia may have to do. If he can’t get back to sitting 92-93, I think he’s going to be just above league average as a starter who retains substantial value because even in his worst year he logged 211IP with 175K’s.

    • LK

      Well, I wouldn’t be quite so quick to dismiss the xFIP number. If you want to predict 2014 ERA, 2013 xFIP will do a better job than 2013 ERA or 2013 FIP, so it’s at least an encouraging sign that his peripherals didn’t go completely into the shitter along with his results. Now, that said, 2009 was his highest xFIP from 2005-2012, so equaling that value, especially when overall offense is down, isn’t the best news.

      Overall, I can’t imagine his BABIP and HR/FB% will be as high this year, so I think the results will be at least somewhat better. At a minimum, I’m confident he won’t be one of the worst starters in baseball. I think the Yankees will need more than that though, both to make the playoffs in 2014 and due to the remaining very expensive years on his contract. Here’s hoping he’s got some good years left to cement his HOF case (particularly since there’s a good chance he’ll go in with a Yankee cap if he makes it).

  • dkidd

    i’m a believer

    if anyone can make this transition, it’s cc

    • Betty Lizard

      I thought the playoffs only were in fairytales
      Meant for stupid teams but not for us
      Only age and injuries
      That’s the way it seemed
      Disappointment haunted all my dreams

      Then I saw him pitch! Now I’m a believer!
      Not a trace of doubt left in my mind
      I’m in love, love—I’m a believer!
      Couldn’t repeat last year if we tried . . .

      • vicki

        You once thought of me
        As a staff ace on a steed.
        Now you know how happy I can be.
        Oh, and we’ll still have our fun
        Without 95 on the gun.
        But how much, baby, do we really need.

        Cheer up, Betty Lizard.
        You’re a yankee fan.
        And a CC believer
        something something McCann.

        okay, so song adaptations aren’t my thang.

        • Betty Lizard


  • John Duci

    CC Sabathia 2014: 18-7 3.35ERA 212 Inn.
    He’s going to be really good he’s focused and excited for this season with all the new additions.

  • Slu

    Maybe I am too uch of an optimist, but I expect CC to rebound to his normal self this year. I have seen too many picthers be very effective into their late 30s, and unless CC is hurt, I am willing to call last year an anomoly and expect CC to be his old self in 2014.

  • Farewell Mo

    The top of the rotation ace CC may be gone considering his age and the shit ton of innings on his arm but I’m confident he’ll evolve into a solid number 3 level starter as long as he stays healthy.

    There have been plenty of lefty starters who have excelled with far less “stuff” than CC.

  • AndrewYF

    Pitching was absolutely not the problem last year. The problem last year was hitting.

    It is not a requirement for CC to return to form for this team to contend. That’s the nice thing about having other pitchers who are able to step up, and enough offense to back them up. I think we have to be okay with Sabathia being an inning-eating workhorse in the middle of the rotation. He absolutely does not *need* to be the team’s ace anymore.

    • Darren

      Umm, what? Yes, it’s true that the disastrous (lack of) hitting was an obvious reason for missing the playoffs, but CC’s horrible year was also a huge factor. If he had pitched decent 1/3 more of his starts, the Yanks would have made the post-season.

      • nycsportzfan

        He still won 15games. Thats more then guys like Chris Sale won. In the end, winning games is what gets you in the postseason.

  • TWTR

    Felix has adjusted to declining velo by using his change more.

    • I’m One

      But CC’s change was horrible last year. He needs to adjust. If he gets more separation between his FB and change, maybe that will work. Otherwise, he needs to figure out what else he’s got in his arsenol to keep hitters off balance.

      • TWTR

        If he can’t get separation, which is my pint, he probably isn’t bouncing back.

  • steves

    Regarding as to what happened to CC, not enough attention has been paid to his last 3 starts of the 2012 season. He pitched two great back-to-back games against the Birds in the division series (1/3 of an inning short of 2 complete games) but obviously was hurting before or very soon into his next start (when he threw 93 pitches in 3 and 2/3 against Detroit) and a week later he had his elbow surgery and hasn’t been the same since. Seems to me that pitching when hurt against Detroit and the subsequent surgery has more to do with his 2013 and perhaps future performance than any of the other reasons that may be conjured up.

  • TomH

    Robin Roberts always comes to my mind when CC’s fastball is discussed. He was never as fast as CC, and he had one of those easy-going windups that makes you think, “Hell, he must think he’s pitching batting practice”; but that fastball came out of that windup with just enough speed and movement that he’d make monkeys out of guys. For those 5 or 6 years when he was the NL’s top pitcher, on a usually lousy Phils’ team.

    And then an inch or two came off the fb. But the amazing control was still there, and NOW they did begin tee-ing off like it was bp.

    He also pitched a lot of innings, often over 300. Without doing a check, I’m going to say that when the 20-win-per-year streak ended for Roberts, he was comparable in innings pitched to CC last season.

    However, he never did really become a Mike Mussina and regain effectiveness when the FB went. Or a Warren Spahn (back in Roberts’ own era). The other pitches he had were good but not great. Roberts was always the epitome of a command-and-control pitcher and, when that fastball was in its prime, this was enough to make him really formidable.

    I think CC’s slider is a lot better than I remember any of Roberts’ other pitches (curve and change-up) to have been. If, as Mike says, CC can get some kind of effectiveness back to his change, and with that slider, he OUGHT to be able to be more effective than Roberts was in the post-flaming-fastball period of his career. I don’t think that will mean effectiveness of the “old” CC (or comparable to the “old,” 20-game winning Roberts), but pretty good nevertheless, even Andy Pettitte good.

    I guess we’ll see soon enough, but, to tell truth, all that weight loss…. I dunno. I knew a cop once who slimmed down on doctor’s orders. He wasn’t otherwise a big guy. He quickly put the weight back on, claiming he couldn’t kayo hoods with his slimmed-down punch.

    • Gonzo

      Not bad on the Roberts guess. If you include Roberts’ 19-win season immediately after the 20-win streak, you are only 54 innings over where CC was last year in terms of career innings pitched.

      Amusing cop story too.

  • Tanakapalooza Floozy

    League average would be a big bounce back at this point. That’s how bad he was last year. Anything more would be a gift. Expecting more I don’t this is especially wise.

    It’s certainly possible that his absolutely dismal 2013 was a result of the injury and surgery at the end of the 2012 season, and maybe he just needed to work through 2013.

    We’ll see.

  • Kevin

    I wouldn’t say “never” with pitchers, age, and velocity/stuff. Nolan Ryan had some very “interesting” “K” numbers from age 33 until the end. Many of you wouldn’t remember this, but Ryan, in his early-mid thirties was told that his elbow was “hanging on a thread”, to which he told the doctors that he’d just pitch until it gave (interestingly, it never did). And up to age thirty-three, the difference in innings pitched between Ryan and CC, well I’ll let you guys do the arithmetic on the link I’ve attached. For the record, Nolan had a career that had a very “odd” slope. You can draw your own conclusions. http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ryanno01.shtml

    • Farewell Mo

      I see your point but I’d be leery about comparing any pitcher to Nolan Ryan regarding K’s as he was the ultimate freak of nature.

      He did slip in regard to K’s/9 in his mid thirties but came back to average >9 and mostly > 10 from his late 30s through age 45. I think it’ll be a cold day in hell before we see that happen again.

      • Kevin

        Nolan was a “Freak of Nature” for most of his career. Later, gotta wonder… Still, guys have won a hell of a lot of games in their thirties without high “K” totals. Warren Spahn and Tommy John, both lefties had unreal records in their thirties. But there are a many others, numerically.

    • Gonzo

      When Canseco said he knows there is a juicer in the HoF, I joked that Ryan and Canseco were once on the same team in Texas. He was also on the same team as Palmeiro and Juan Gone.

      I’ve said too much. I watch House of Cards.

      • Kevin

        LOL, as Bugs Bunny once put it, “Hmmmmmmm couuuuuld be”! ;)

  • vicki

    i love ian kinsler.

    • Petebest


  • 28 this year

    The article on fangraphs about the Royals relievers shows the Yankees with the fewest relief appearances from April through August last year (before rosters expanded). Thats shocking considering how much I feel like the Yanks have a lot of pitching changes. Just food for thought.

  • Greg c

    Am I the only one surprised that there are only an average of 2.7 full-time starting pitchers per team?

    It sounds to me that even “qualifying” is somewhat of an accomplishment- not much of one, but probably enough to not qualify as the worst pitcher in baseball. Yeah, he was one of the worst top 3 full-time starters.

    • Kevin

      Earl Weaver was famous for NOT going to the five man rotation. In his book, “Weaver on Strategy”, one of his “Truths” was that ‘it’s a helluva easier to find four decent pitchers than five’. I’d agree, this inning business is BS, pitchers can either “take it” or not. Bill James, years back, did a study on what destroyed catchers and pitchers, alike. A large workload before age 25 practically guaranteed a shortened, effective career. Apparently, that’s the age where connective tissues “mature”.

  • BigLoving

    I’m not too worried about CC….he has done nothing but win his entire career and even as bad as last year was he still was able to muster up 14 wins. He has had an entire offseason to get strong and make adjustments to his mechanics and pitching philosophy. I know “the sky is falling” is a better story than a one year hiccup, but until CC actually goes out and stinks up the place I have confidence.

    • nycsportzfan


  • Terry

    So which is it Mike, worth watching his fastball velocity (like your post earlier) or not caring that much because its not a big deal (like this post makes you believe)? At least try to separate these types of posts. With that said I believe you hit the nail on head here. I have been noticing the difference between CCs fastball and change over the last few years and that concerns me. It also concerns me that he left more pitches out over the plate. I think CC can do it. AP made a living out of it the last few years. Theres no reason to think you cant get a 3.5 era out of him the last years of his contract if he can learn to pitch again. Lets hope 2013 was that transition year that a lot of power pitchers have when they turn into finesse pitchers.

  • nycsportzfan

    I remember when Dandy Andy went 14-11 4.70ERA back in 99. Also, he went 14-14 4.58 in 08. It happens.

  • Wheels

    Crisco, Bardol, Vagisil.

    • Wheels


  • Kevin S

    Though he’s the fiercest Of competitors, don’t think CC Will rebound . Hitters all over his fastball in ’13–has to find aforementioned separation. Actually think Nova’s performance may be moré important to Yanks.

  • W.B. Mason Williams

    “But have you even TRIED pitching right-handed?”