A deeper look at Sabathia’s very bad then very good Opening Day start

Two Games, Two Losses: Yanks fall 3-1 to Astros
Report: Astros, Mariners among teams interested in Eduardo Nunez
(Scott Halleran/Getty)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

The Yankees dropped their season-opener to the Astros on Tuesday for more than a few reasons, including a rebuilt offense that didn’t show up until about the seventh inning. CC Sabathia shoulders most of the blame because he was awful, allowing six runs in six innings. Doesn’t matter who you’re playing, climbing out of a 6-0 hole is tough for any lineup.

That game really was a tale of two Sabathias. He was abysmal in those first two innings, allowing all six runs on six hits, including two homers and two doubles. Over his final four innings, Sabathia kept Houston off the board and held them to a walk and two singles, one of which didn’t leave the infield. Five of his six strikeouts came in those final four innings and only one of the 14 batters he faced after the second hit the ball in the air. Sabathia was terrible the first two innings and pretty damn good the final four.

As I mentioned yesterday, the mid-start turn-around was so drastic that you have to think some kind of adjustment was made. Maybe Sabathia did it on his own, maybe pitching coach Larry Rothschild pointed something out, maybe it was Brian McCann. We’ve seen CC struggle early in a start before figuring it out before, so Opening Day wasn’t that unique, but it was especially noticeable on Tuesday. For what it’s worth, Sabathia chalked it up to adrenaline.

“It got out of hand early,” said CC to Chad Jennings after the game. “That’s been the toughest thing for me. I do get so excited. I feel like I’m a kid again. I would sleep in my uniform if I could the night before Opening Day. I think it’s just the nervousness, the jitters, wanting to start the season off good so bad, I end up pitching bad.”

It’s very possible Sabathia’s adjustment was simply calming down, but whatever it was, it should show up in the results somewhere. His velocity held steady all game — his fastball averaged 89.7 mph on Tuesday, down from 90.3 mph on Opening Day last year — and while Sabathia said he starting throwing his new cutter in the later innings, PitchFX didn’t pick any up. Maybe the system is broke, maybe the cutting action was so big they were classified as sliders. Who knows?

Whenever Sabathia struggles, it seems like it’s because he misses his location. That sounds obvious, I know. Sure, he gives up the occasional hit on a pitcher’s pitch like everyone else, but the Astros punished him early because he was missing out over the plate. I’m going to point this out again:

Jesus Guzman L.J. Hoes homers

Those are the homers by Jesus Guzman (left) and L.J. Hoes (right). Dexter Fowler swatted a similar pitch to center, leading off the game with a double. Belt high offerings right out over the plate. That’s no way to pitch.

So did Sabathia’s location improve in innings three through six? To the PitchFX data:

Sabathia Opening Day Location

Just to be clear, that is looking from the catcher’s perspective.

I was hoping there would be a big blob of blue pitches over the middle of the pitches and a bunch of red on the edges, but no dice. That would have been cool. Sabathia threw 99 pitches in the start, including 50 in the first two innings and 49 in the final four, so the sample is split right down the middle. That’s convenient. There are two things going on in this graph that I want to look at specifically, so let’s make life easy:

Sabathia Opening Day Location1

Like I said, two things I want to look at, hence the colored ovals. To the details:

Yellow Oval: The Astros had eight right-handed or switch hitters in the lineup, so these pitches are more or less in the wheelhouse. Belt high and right out over the plate. Sabathia threw seven pitches in this general area in the first two innings, resulting in the two homers, Fowler’s double, Jason Castro’s run-scoring fielder’s choice, a foul ball, a called strike, and a swing and a miss. In innings three through six, he threw only two pitches in this area, getting a foul ball and a swing and miss. If you want to count that one extra pitch at the top of the zone that’s hiding under the yellow oval, that’s another swing and miss. So yes, Sabathia did a better job of staying out of the danger zone in those final four innings.

Blue Oval (or cyan, whatever): I’m not going to count pitches and look at individual results here. I’m pointing this part of the strike zone out because it’s the outer half of the plate and generally the bottom half of the zone. With those eight righty bats in the lineup, that where you’d want a left-hander to pitch, down and away. Sabathia didn’t throw too many pitches down there in the first two innings — he was really all over the place in those two innings, geez — but he did a much better job of locating the ball down and away in his final four innings. Getting the ball out of the wheelhouse and instead burying it down there is a surefire way to improve performance.

Location is very important but it is just one piece of the pitching pie. I also want to look at whether Sabathia changed up his pitch mix as the game progressed, so here’s the breakdown:

Batters Faced 1st Pitch FB FB% CH% SL%
Innings 1-2 13 6 40.0% 24.0% 36.0%
Innings 3-6 14 9 55.1% 20.4% 24.5%

That is … the exact opposite of what I expected. I thought Sabathia would have thrown fewer fastballs and particularly fewer first-pitch fastballs in those last four innings. Instead, he threw more fastballs than he did earlier in the game. He really pounded the zone with his heater late. Very surprising, at least to me. I guess he just got into a groove and was better able to drive the ball down and away to all those righties.

At some point between the second and third innings, something happened that helped Sabathia better locate his pitches, particularly his fastball. The PitchFX data confirms this. We have Point A (innings 1-2) and Point B (innings 3-6), but no knowledge of Sabathia got there. Maybe he did just calm down. Maybe it really is that simple. I can’t help but think some kind of mechanical adjustment was made, something that helped him get the ball down and get it on the outer half of the plate against righties.

“I just think it was a matter of relaxing. I didn’t want to go out and overthrow and be all over the place, but I think backing off didn’t help either so I got to find a place in the middle where I can pitch good,” said Sabathia to Jennings and Jorge Castillo. “I’ve got 34, hopefully, more starts left. I’m definitely not going to pitch like I did tonight in the first two innings. I know I can pitch, and I know I can get guys out. I feel great. I’m not going to beat myself up about this.”

Sabathia has always been super-accountable and when he struggled last year, he crushed himself after every start. Tuesday though? Eh, no big deal, I’ll be fine. I wonder if that is a function of knowing the problem and knowing how to solve it. Sabathia stunk last year and he always seemed to be looking for a fix. There were no answers and he as clearly frustrated. This year, it seems like he knows what was wrong in those first two innings and knows the solution. He found it in the middle of the start. That he didn’t tear into himself after the game may be an indication that is the case.

Let’s not try to soften the blow here, Sabathia was terrible overall on Opening Day. He didn’t give the Yankees much of a chance at all. That he turned it around literally between innings and settled down is encouraging. We don’t know what changed, but something did. I guess there’s always a chance nothing changed too. We are talking about the Astros. It’s early in the season though and this is the time for optimism, so let’s say he fixed something. Sabathia has a big test against the Blue Jays on Sunday, so we ‘ll get to see if whatever adjustment was make between the second and third innings on Tuesday is a sustainable formula for success.

Two Games, Two Losses: Yanks fall 3-1 to Astros
Report: Astros, Mariners among teams interested in Eduardo Nunez
  • Pinedamaybegreata (formerly Monterowasdinero)

    From a psychological standpoint, pitching down 6-0 and batting up 6-0 can factor in to this analysis as well. Hitters can be less focused, pitcher can get more intensely focused etc.

    Remember what Yogi said about the mental part of the game…..

    • Reuben Sierra’s Chains


      We have a winner ladies and gents.

      The Astros became uninterested after they acquired they big lead. Really no more analysis needed than that.

      CC will get a chance to face a real lineup on Sunday against the Jays. Have fun Carsten Charles.

      • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead


        A team that won 3 games last year becomes uninterested when they’re winning?


      • RetroRob

        That actually has been disproven over the years (disinterest once a team gets a big lead). Hitters still want their hits.

        • Reuben Sierra’s Chains

          Um, not sure about that study? How does it explain getaway games. We have all seen games on a travel day when Yankee hitters have one foot in the batter’s box and one foot on the tarmac.

          I guess bottom line is I don’t think their was some magical force that took over CC’s body after the 2nd inning. Not going to over think this one. But you guys go ahead and knock yourselves out.

          • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

            You go ahead and trust your eyes which watch at most 162 games during any regular season. I’ll trust the study which can take into account every single game played.

            • Tom

              Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

              The inability to measure something means you can’t prove something, it doesn’t mean you can logically invert it and conclude you have disproved something.

              The other issues with most studies I have seen on this:
              – They are based on large aggregates (which is good for a large sample, but assumes all pitcher/hitters follow the same homogenous approac)

              – They are generally result based and don’t look at the process. Is pitch type the same? Pitch Sequence? pitch location? The overall final result may look similar but that doesn’t mean nothing has changed or is “proof” nothing has changed.

              If two pitchers have the same ERA (or FIP or however you want to measure it) can you conclude their approach to pitching is the same?

              HOF pitchers have talked about this, the score and situation absolutely do impact things. You think the 3-1 pitch you are throwing to Miguel Cabrera in a 2-2 game in the 8th is the same pitch and location as you would throw to him in a 5-0 game in the 4h inning?

              The impact of it is impossible to determine – and that is what the studies “prove”. It’s the same thing with protection.

          • Jorge Steinbrenner

            Welcome to River Avenue Hunches.

  • mike

    I want to chalk it up to nerves as well, especially after seeing Kuroda lay a meatball in for Fowler in the same situation last night.

    Most pitchers will always speak of the “few pitches they left up” or the mechanical issues they faced in a certain inning as the reason for their demise, and I suppose at this level those small things make all the difference in the world….but i didn’t see anyone slowing the game down or chatting with Sabathia during the beat-down (coaches, players etc.) so i really doubt it was something mechanical or detectable by others.

    The fact he settled down when pitching to a AAA lineup really doesn’t make me look forward to the big starts he needs to deliver in other “nervous” situations this year when facing a real lineup

  • Frank

    Don’t share your optimism at all about CC moving forward. And I haven’t since the end of ’11 when I was against extending him. I still say the CC we saw last season and Tuesday is the one we’ll see more often than not moving forward. Like Texeira, he’s on a fast track to the end of a very good career.

  • ropeadope

    I would sleep in my uniform if I could the night before Opening Day. (CC Sabathia)

    Who’s stopping him? Mrs. Sabathia?

  • Pinedamaybegreata (formerly Monterowasdinero)

    Next year Tanaka pitches opening day. Am I getting ahead of myself here?

    • Best No 4 Pitcher in MLB

      You’re not getting ahead of yourself at all. My guess is that Tanaka and Nova will have very good years this year and be even better in 2015. Pineda, quite possibly as well. Kuroda hard to guess if he will call it quits but potentially we can see CC slide down to no 3 spot?

  • LK

    Hmm. That shift in pitch mix is surprising to me also. I wonder if it has something to do with this cutter that PitchFX apparently isn’t picking up. If the FBs in innings 3-6 are actually a fairly even combination of 4-seamers, 2-seamers, and cutters, it’s possible that he was mixing things up more than that table would have us believe later in the game.

    Ultimately, though, 1 start doesn’t tell us much of anything. CC has a 9.00 ERA which is going to come down, and he’s got a 2.19 xFIP which is going to go up. If he’s not hurt, I think he’ll figure out how to stop getting pounded.

  • RealtyCheck

    I’m not defending Sabathia, because he was horrible..but the damage didn’t need to be as bad. Some better defense, which I guess we can’t really expect this year, and things might have been a little different. Probably not different enough to change the final outcome, but who knows.

  • Johnny5

    I know some of you will jump at me for being “that guy”, but I have noticed many writing errors in the last month or so. Not sure what is going on lately.

    “That would have been cool. Sabathia threw 99 pitches in the start, including 50 in the first two innings and 99 in the final four, so the sample is split right down the middle. “

    • BaltimoreYankee


  • Rolling Doughnut

    Gets rocked early, settles down, he’s a horse, he’s a trooper. saves the bullpen, etc. Been there, done that right? And chalking it up to opening day “jitters” is kind of lame, IMHO. CC might want to consider some serious face time with Moose or Andy.

    • Pinedamaybegreata (formerly Monterowasdinero)

      Agree. Jitters from CC against the Astros? Really? I thought he was picked to start because he was the LEAST likely to have jitters being a veteran, a #1, and a post-season pitcher. What nonsense! The Astros’ 23 year old starter last night didn’t seem to have any jitters facing the great Yankees on Derek Jeter night in Houston.

  • losealot101

    cc’s record as a yankee on opening day:

    2013: 4 ER in 5 innings
    2012: 5 ER in 6 innings
    2011: 2 ER in 6 innings
    2010: 5 ER in 6 innings
    2009: 6 ER in 4 innings

    that’s an ERA of 7.33 on opening day as a yankee, ladies and gentlemen!

  • fred robbins

    Joey G does not have the guts to start his best pitcher, only the one he likes the most, otherwise there would not be a David Phelps coming out of the bull pen.

  • yankeesws28

    I heard that they interviewed joe girardi after the game and he said that they had discovered that last year cc was throwing his fastball wrong, with some weird spin and Therefore he couldnt control it. they worked on fixing it and it wasnt a problem in spring training. After the first two innings of this game they realized he was doing it again, so they fixed it.

  • yankeesws28

    you were right mike, they did make a mechanical adjustment.