Silver Lining: CC Sabathia shows he still has something left in loss to Tigers

Changeup! (Presswire)
Changeup! (Presswire)

The Yankees dropped last night’s series opener to the Tigers in a pretty annoying way — they jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, didn’t build on it, then watched as Detroit used some less than well struck balls to rally for two runs in seventh. An annoying loss, no doubt, but it’s still just one loss. Before you know it that game will fade from memory and blend into the glob of baseball we forget each season.

The loss did come with a silver lining, however, and that of course was CC Sabathia‘s complete game performance. He allowed those two runs on seven singles and three walks, and it wasn’t until that seventh inning that the high-powered Tigers had a runner reach second base. Sabathia struck out five, threw 62 of 98 pitches for strikes (63%), got nine swings and misses, and 12 of the 21 balls put in play against the big lefty were on the ground. Solid performance all around.

Unlike his first two starts, when his velocity gradually faded as the game progressed (first start, second start), Sabathia held his velocity all night last night despite the cold, windy, rainy conditions. He hit 90.7 mph in the first at-bat of the game and 91.7 mph in the last. There was no drop-off. Here’s the velocity graph via Brooks Baseball:

CC Sabathia Tigers velocity

Most pitchers lose a little something in the later innings, it’s normal, but for a guy who’s lost noticeable fastball oomph with age, sustaining velocity all night was a very encouraging sign for Sabathia. His margin for error is relatively small as it is, and if he’s able to avoid having that margin for error get even smaller when his pitch count climbs north of, say, 70 pitches, the more effective he’ll be overall.

I thought Tigers manager Brad Ausmus did Sabathia a bit of a favor by loading his lineup with right-handed hitters — all nine players in his lineup were righties — because it allowed him to stick with the same approach all night: fastballs to both sides of the plate and changeups down and away. He threw only eleven sliders out of 98 pitches (11%) after throwing 28% sliders in his first two starts. The lack of a lefty hitter allowed Sabathia to get in a rhythm and stick with one approach all night.

That’s a luxury Sabathia won’t have every start but teams do still stack their lineups with righties again him — only six of the 53 batters he faced in his first two starts were lefties, and even last season only 31 of 209 batters faced were lefties (15%). Sabathia’s changeup is super important because he always faces a ton of right-handed batters and last night was an opportunity to really dig in and work on that pitch, which was an issue in his first two starts (opponents hit .308 against it).

Coming into the season, we really had no idea what to expect from Sabathia following knee surgery and 257 pretty ugly innings from 2012-13 (4.87 ERA and 4.22 FIP). His three starts have gotten progressively better — five runs in 5.2 innings, four runs in seven innings, two runs in eight innings — and there are other positive signs as well, including the way he held his velocity and used his changeup last night. The loss stunk, that’s baseball, but the Sabathia we saw last night can be an effective pitcher. CC is trending in the right direction earlier this season, for sure.

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Re-inventing CC Sabathia as a ground ball pitcher

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

CC Sabathia did pretty much everything that you’d expect from a frontline starting pitcher in his season debut last Thursday against Toronto. He struck out a third of the batters he faced, walked nobody, didn’t allow a homer, and induced ground balls or popups on nearly every ball that was put into play. Sabathia also got batters to chase almost half of the pitches he threw out of the zone, and the Blue Jays whiffed on nearly 15 percent of the pitches he threw. Sounds like an ace!

In fact, if you look at the outcomes that a pitcher has control over, Sabathia produced one of the best games of his 16-season career. His FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching) for the game was 0.18, the second-best mark out of the 424 games he’s pitched with the Indians, Brewers and Yankees.

Despite those impressive results, he ultimately ended up with a crooked pitching line (5 R, 8 H, 5 2/3 IP) because of two issues that have plagued him over the last two seasons – a high BABIP and inability to pitch out of trouble. Half of the 16 balls put into play went for hits, and he stranded just three of the players that reached base against him. There is little doubt that Sabathia stills needs to iron out those problems if he’s going to bounce back from the worst two-year stretch of his career.

However, there was one very encouraging trend from his season debut that is worth watching for tonight when the large lefty takes the mound against the Orioles in his second start of 2015.

Even during the low points of Sabathia’s struggles in 2013-14, he still maintained strong strikeout and walk rates. So the fact that he had eight strikeouts and no walks last Thursday was not surprising.

Rather, the most impressive number from his outing against the Blue Jays was 75.0 – the percentage of balls in play that were grounders. That was the third-highest groundball rate he’s induced in any game of his career, and his best mark since joining the Yankees. As you can see in the heat map below, he was really effective in pounding the bottom of the strike zone with his sinker.

Sabathia vs Blue Jays pitch location

Perhaps realizing that he can no longer dominate hitters with a blazing four-seamer, Sabathia relied on his two-seam fastball more than ever before against the Blue Jays. Forty-five percent of the pitches he threw were sinkers, his highest two-seam usage rate in a game since Pitch F/X tracking began in 2007. He also threw just six four-seamers, his fewest in any game over that same time period.

Although the sinker averaged only 89 mph, it had impressive horizontal movement (11 inches) and he located it well (53 percent below the knees). The pitch was just not a ground ball machine either; he got three strikeouts with the sinking fastball and batters whiffed on more than 20 percent of their swings against it.

One key result of his increased sinker usage was the weak contact that he induced throughout his outing. According to ESPN Stats & Information’s Mark Simon, he gave up only one hard-hit ball (as classified by video review) to the 24 batters he faced last Thursday. Just two of the 16 balls in play were line drives, and in addition to his 12 ground balls, Sabathia also generated an infield popup.

By keeping the ball down and getting grounders, Sabathia successfully avoided one of his biggest problems over the past two seasons – the home run ball. From 2013-14, he allowed 1.33 homers per nine innings, the sixth-highest rate among pitchers with at least 250 innings in that span.

Was this a deliberate strategy by Sabathia? Will he continue to ditch his four-seam fastball and instead go to his sinker to generate quick outs? Perhaps the most intriguing question is this one: Can Sabathia re-invent himself as a ground ball pitcher as he ages and enters the twilight of his career? If the answer is yes, the Yankees may have found themselves a solid mid-rotation pitcher for the next few years.

Choosing to anticipate good things from Nathan Eovaldi and CC Sabathia

Ed. Note: In addition to Katie and Sunny, we’ve also added Matt Imbrogno to the RAB roster. You know him from IIATMS. He’ll be contributing an article every Sunday. So think of him as a specialist. RAB’s LOOGY.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Just as much as any sport, if not more than any sport, baseball is one of anticipation; the action in the moment may not be constant and is over relatively quickly. In those hanging instants just before and just after contact, infinite possibilities exist. It’s those instants that bring us to the edge of our seats, bring our hands to our faces in excitement. They ready us for the joy or for the agony and they are where the beauty of baseball lies. In games, those instants are obviously short, fractions of a second. Even during the season, the anticipatory moments are relatively quick since teams play just about every day. Those simple facts of the game make the offseason seem even longer, giving us long, cold, miserably snowy months to build anticipation bit by bit. That anticipation is generally focused on new things: the new season, new players, new prospects. Such was the case regarding Nathan Eovaldi’s first start in pinstripes on Friday night.

Eovaldi carried with him from Miami and Los Angeles a reputation for being a bit of a project and that was definitely on display Friday; though he lit up the radar gun, he registered just one strikeout and five swings-and-misses and, as he’s done with some frequency in his career, gave up more hits than innings pitched. The non-fastballs he threw, as advertised, were certainly a work in progress as well. His performance didn’t change the fact that before the game, I was certainly feeling that aforementioned anticipation.

He came into that game as a new thing among new things. While we’d gotten used to his presence during Spring Training, he came to the Bronx as a relative stranger. He’d spent all of his career in the National League, either out on the West Coast with the Dodgers or in the relative obscurity with the Marlins, and did not face the Yankees in any interleague matchup. Aside from that “demographic” newness, Eovaldi’s the type of player you can dream on — a big, seemingly strong guy with a dynamite fastball (even if he does look like Carl Pavano). The anticipation I felt for him on Friday night will continue as the season wears on: Will he harness the breaking stuff? Will he stop giving up such hard contact? Will he put batters away and thus prevent Twitter from making Phil Hughes flashback jokes? Eovaldi has just as many questions around him, even if for different reasons, as does another pitcher whose 2015 debut I was anticipating highly: CC Sabathia.

Of course, the anticipation I felt for Sabathia on Thursday night was completely different than the anticipation I felt for Eovaldi on Friday night. Going into the game, I still felt a familiar optimism that I get when Sabathia pitches. It may not be deserved at this point, but for some reason, I still believe in CC. I liken it to the feeling I get when an even-slightly-diminished Alex Rodriguez comes to the plate: when he’s up there doing his thing, there’s the potential for something special to happen. Maybe this anticipation is a bit of misplaced nostalgia that will come crashing down on me as CC repeats his mostly disastrous last two seasons of pitching. But, on the other hand, however small that hand may be, I’m still anticipating a repeat of 2009-2012.

While we can’t repeat the past with Sabathia and we can’t tell the future with Eovaldi, this is the most anticipatory time in a sport driven by anticipation. I choose to anticipate good things for both Sabathia and Eovaldi.

Yankees finalize Opening Day roster with latest round of roster moves

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3:25pm: The Yankees have officially announced their Opening Day roster. It is exactly as presented below. No surprises.

10:00am: The Opening Day roster has been slowly coming together over the last several weeks, and yesterday afternoon the Yankees made the roster all but official with their latest round of moves, including Austin Romine being designated for assignment. Here is the 25-man roster the Yankees will take into the regular season tomorrow:

CATCHERS (2)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy

INFIELDERS (7)
Stephen Drew
Didi Gregorius
Chase Headley
Garrett Jones
Gregorio Petit
Alex Rodriguez
Mark Teixeira

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Carlos Beltran
Brett Gardner
Jacoby Ellsbury
Chris Young

STARTERS (5)
Nathan Eovaldi
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Masahiro Tanaka
Adam Warren

RELIEVERS (7)
Dellin Betances
David Carpenter
Chris Martin
Andrew Miller
Esmil Rogers
Chasen Shreve
Justin Wilson

DISABLED LIST (4)
Chris Capuano (quad) — retroactive to March 27th
Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) — retroactive to March 27th
Jose Pirela (concussion) — retroactive to April 2nd
Brendan Ryan (calf) — retroactive to April 1st

Pirela was placed on the 7-day concussion DL while Capuano, Nova, and Ryan were all placed on the regular old 15-day DL. Petit takes Romine’s spot on the 40-man roster, which is full. The Yankees can transfer Nova to the 60-day DL whenever they need another 40-man spot since he’s not expected to return until June. Romine, Petit, and the DL assignments were the moves announced yesterday.

Despite those injuries, the Yankees made it through Spring Training as the healthiest team in the AL East, just as we all expected. The rest of the roster is pretty straight forward. Warren was named the fifth starter a few days ago and it was clear Shreve and Martin were going to make the Opening Day roster once Chase Whitley was optioned to Triple-A. Joe Girardi is planning to use Betances and Miller as co-closers to start the season, which is pretty cool. Hopefully it works as planned. Carpenter and Wilson figure to be the sixth and seventh inning guys.

As always, the 25-man roster is going to change throughout the course of the season. Quite a bit too. Petit figures to be replaced by Pirela or Ryan, whoever gets healthy first, and those bullpen spots belonging to Shreve and Martin could be revolving doors given the team’s relief pitcher depth. That includes Capuano, who could wind up working in relief if Warren fares well as the fifth starter. For now, this is the group of Yankees to start the new season.

The Summer of A-Rod: Looking At Upcoming Milestones [2015 Season Preview]

As Yankees fans, we’ve been fortunate to see a lot of historic moments over the years. Derek Jeter seemed to pass someone on some all-time list every other game last season. Mariano Rivera rewrote the record book for closers and others like Roger Clemens and Ichiro Suzuki had historic moments while passing through the Bronx.

The 2015 season is shaping up to be a good but not great milestone season for the Yankees. Some players will hit a few nice round numbers but we’re not going to see anything like we did with Jeter and Mariano the last few seasons. Well, that’s not true. The Yankees do have one all-time great close to reaching not one, but three historic milestones. The problem is everyone hates the guy.

As we get closer to wrapping up our season preview series, let’s look at some notable upcoming milestones. We’re only going to focus on the major, somewhat historical milestones though. No one really cares Andrew Miller is ten strikeouts away from 500 for his career, right? Right. Let’s get to it.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Summer of A-Rod

3,000th hit: 61 away
2,000th RBI: 31 away
660th home run: six away

Now that his suspension is over, Alex Rodriguez is able to continue his pursuit of some seriously historic milestones. With good health, he can become the 29th player in history with 3,000 hits and only the fourth ever with 2,000 RBI this season. He can also tie Willie Mays for fourth place on the all-time homer list, triggering the first of his five $6M bonuses. Needless to say, the health part is far from guaranteed. Alex wasn’t particularly durable in the years immediately prior to the suspension, remember.

Here’s the coolest part: A-Rod could reach all three milestones on the same swing. It’s extremely unlikely to happen, but the math suggests it’s possible. One swing … bam. He gets his 3,000th hit, 2,000th RBI, and 660th homer all at once. It would be amazing. Jeter and Wade Boggs are the only players to go deep for their 3,000th hit, which is kinda funny since neither was a home run hitter, and it’s been almost a half-century since a player reached the 2,000th RBI plateau. Hank Aaron was the last to do it in 1972. (Babe Ruth and Cap Anson are the other members of the 2,000 RBI club.)

Should A-Rod reach the three milestones at some point this year, all on one swing or otherwise, I don’t think they’ll come with the usual celebration from fans and the Yankees. Announcers will mention it and writers will write about it, but I don’t think we’ll sit through some kind of massive chase like when Jeter was going after his 3,000th hit. That got non-stop, wall-to-wall coverage. That’s fine. Alex made his own bed and he has to sleep in it. I’m still rooting like hell for him though.

CC Sabathia

3,000th inning: 178.2 away
2,500th strikeout: 63 away

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once upon a time, we would laugh at the idea of Sabathia throwing “only” 178.2 innings in a season. This is a guy who averaged 215 innings a year from 2001-11, which is bonkers. But, between last year’s knee surgery and his natural age-related decline, getting to 178.2 innings is hardly a guarantee for Sabathia. Should he get there, he’d be the 135th pitcher in history to reach 3,000 innings and only the 32nd lefty to do so.

Getting to 2,500 strikeouts is a much bigger deal, historically. Sixty-three more punch outs would move Sabathia into 31st place all-time and make him only the ninth lefty in history with 2,500 strikeouts. That’s not a “stop the game so his teammates can run on the field to congratulate him” type of milestone, but it’s still pretty cool. That kind of longevity and effectiveness is quite an accomplishment.

Carlos Beltran & Mark Teixeira

400th home run: Beltran is 27 away, Teixeira is 37 away

Both of these seem pretty unlikely, though I suppose they aren’t completely impossible. Four hundred dingers is a nice round number and one heck of an accomplishment, but remember, these two are switch-hitters. Only three switch-hitters in history have hit 400+ dingers: Mickey Mantle (536), Eddie Murray (504), and Chipper Jones (468). Beltran is fourth all-time in homers by a switch-hitter and Teixeira is sixth. (Lance Berkman is fifth with 366.) If they don’t get to 400 this year, hopefully both do it before their contracts expire following next season.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Joe Girardi

1,272nd game managed with Yankees: 138 away
1,340th game managed overall: 44 away

When the Yankees play the Orioles at home on September 9th, Girardi will manage his 1,272nd game with the Yankees, jumping over Ralph Houk and into fifth place on the team’s all-time games managed list. Fifth place! It feels like Girardi was just hired yesterday, doesn’t it? My goodness. He has a long way to go before moving into fourth place — Miller Huggins managed 1,796 games in pinstripes — so after Girardi passes Houk, he’ll sit in fifth place for a few years.

If you’re wondering about wins, Girardi has managed 648 of those with the Yankees, the fifth most in franchise history. Huggins is fourth with 1,067 wins. So yeah, it’ll be a while before Girardi moves up a spot on that list. The Yankees have missed the postseason the last two years and could very well miss the playoffs again this year, though I don’t think Girardi is in danger of being fired. Hal Steinbrenner seems to like him very much and that’s the guy you want in your corner. Besides, I don’t see any reason why Girardi should be on the hot seat. If anything he’s helped prop the team up higher than their true talent level the last two years.

Anyway, Girardi will manage his 1,340th career game overall on May 24th, at home against the Rangers, which will move him into the top 100 on the all-time games managed list. Baseball-Reference says 686 men have managed at least one game in the show — I would have guessed more, though that doesn’t include bench coaches who took over in a particular game after the manager was ejected — and Girardi is close to joining the top 100 in games managed just a few months after his 50th birthday. That’s impressive. Joe’s still got a lot of managing left ahead of him.

Masahiro Tanaka named Opening Day starter, rotation order announced

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As expected, Masahiro Tanaka was officially named the Opening Day starter by Joe Girardi this morning, according to the many reporters in Tampa. He will be followed in order by Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, and the fifth starter to open the season. Girardi declined to name the fifth starter but all signs point to it being Adam Warren.

Sabathia has started the last six Opening Days for the Yankees. The team’s last Opening Day starter before him was Chien-Ming Wang in 2008. Yeah, it’s been a while. It was clear Sabathia would not get the Opening Day nod when it was announced he is scheduled to start tomorrow’s game. The schedule doesn’t line up. Sabathia has played in 14 MLB seasons and has started Opening Day in eleven of them. That’s kinda nuts.

As for Tanaka, he is not only the team’s best pitcher, but starting Opening Day allows him to get an extra day of rest prior to his second and third starts of the season thanks to scheduled off-days on April 7th and 16th. The Yankees have said they would like to get him extra rest whenever possible, especially early in the season thanks to the whole elbow issue. The club won’t need to use a sixth starter to make that happen for at least a few weeks.

Believe it or not, Tanaka only started one Opening Day with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, so this will be his second career Opening Day start and first in pinstripes. Hideo Nomo (2000 Tigers, 2003-04 Dodgers), Daisuke Matsuzaka (2008 Red Sox), and Hiroki Kuroda (2009 Dodgers) are the only other Japanese pitchers to start Opening Day in MLB history. Yu Darvish was slated to start Opening Day for the Rangers this year before blowing out his elbow.

The Yankees open the regular season at home against the Blue Jays on April 6th. Toronto has not yet announced their rotation but apparently Drew Hutchison is lined up for Opening Day. I’m guessing R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle will follow in some order. The Yankees play three games against the Jays then three games against the Red Sox at home before going out on a ten-game road trip through Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and Detroit to start 2015.

Knee holds up as Sabathia allows two runs in two innings in spring debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time since last May, CC Sabathia pitched in an actual game Tuesday night, making his Grapefruit League debut against the Blue Jays at home in Tampa. He allowed two runs on four hits in two innings of work, striking out two. Twenty-two of his 31 pitches were strikes (71%).

Sabathia retired the side in order in the first (two grounders and a strikeout) before running into some trouble in the second. More importantly, scouts clocked his fastball at 90-92 mph in the first inning and 89-92 mph in the second inning, according to Mark Feinsand. That’s in line with the 90.6 mph he averaged last year and it’s only March 17th.

“I felt pretty good,” said Sabathia during a YES Network interview after his outing. “I was just telling the guys I was really nervous in the bullpen. Just wanted to get out there and be healthy. Felt good throwing the ball — made a couple bad pitches but I still wanted to get out there and get the game feel and get after it, and I did that.”

I thought Sabathia looked pretty good considering it was his first outing a) in ten months, and b) after knee surgery. His location was okay with most misses way off the plate, so hopefully he irons that out as camp progresses. It would have been nice to see him go six up, six down, but whatever. Sabathia didn’t come out with Jamie Moyer velocity and his mechanics seemed fine. That’s good enough for me in mid-March.