Archive for CC Sabathia
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.
Our season preview series continues this week with the starting rotation, though the format will change just slightly. Since there’s no clear starter/backup/depth lineage when it comes to starting pitchers, we’ll instead look at each type of pitcher — ace, number two, back-end, etc. — at different levels.
The term “ace” gets thrown around far too liberally these days. Technically every team has an ace in the sense that someone has to start Opening Day, but very few pitchers are true, bonafide number one starters. Those are the guys who provide both quality and quantity — they take the ball every five days and pitch deep into the game. Just as importantly, they do it every single year. It’s possible for a pitcher to have an ace-like year in any given season (coughEstebanLoiazacough), but the guys who do it year after year stand out from the pack. Those are the true aces.
CC Sabathia is a true ace. Despite two DL stints — including the first arm injury of his career — the 32-year-old still rattled off his sixth consecutive year of 200+ innings with a sub-3.40 ERA in 2012. The number of other big leaguers who have done that: zero. Raise the bar to a sub-3.60 ERA and it’s still zero. Sabathia was the difference in the ALDS against the Orioles, allowing just three runs in an LDS round record 17.2 innings. That’s an 8.2-inning start in Game One and a complete-game in Game Five. The Yankees and Orioles played five very tight games, but the difference was Sabathia shoving it in the first and last games of the series.
Going into 2013, CC is more of a question mark than he has been at any other point as a Yankee. He had surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow in late-October, which slowed his pace in Spring Training ever so slightly. The good news is Sabathia has been throwing with no complications or pain or even unexpected soreness in recent weeks, so he remains on target to start Opening Day. That said, his fastball velocity did drop more than one mile an hour from 2012 to 2013. It’s a concern because of his age and all the mileage on his arm, if nothing else.
Despite the DL stints and reduced fastball, Sabathia was excellent last season — 3.38 ERA and 3.31 FIP — so excellent that his strikeout (8.87 K/9 and 23.7 K%) and walk (1.98 BB/9 and 5.3 BB%) rates were the second best of his career behind his monster 2008 campaign with the Indians and Brewers. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild came to New York with a reputation for increasing strikeout rates and reducing walk rates, and sure enough Sabathia has posted a 8.79 K/9 (23.5 K%) and a 2.16 BB/9 (5.8 BB%) during his two years under Rothschild after managing a 7.59 K/9 (20.6 K%) and 2.71 BB/9 (7.4 BB%) during his first two years in pinstripes. One year is a fluke but two years are a trend, as they say.
The Yankees have internally discussed scaling back Sabathia’s workload going forward in an effort to keep him healthy and just fresher late into the season. That could mean treating him as a 200-inning pitcher rather than a 230-inning pitcher — one fewer inning per start, basically — but that’s much easier said than done. Sabathia is, by his own admission, a rhythm pitcher who is at his best with more work, not less. Finding the balance between lightening the overall workload and remaining super-effective will be difficult.
Either way, Sabathia is a benefit of the doubt guy. I assume he’ll remain a workhorse of the first order and highly effective until he isn’t. The elbow surgery and reduced velocity are red flags, but they have yet to manifest themselves in a meaningful way. I still expect CC to strike out a ton of batters in his 200-something innings while keeping his ERA under 3.50. He’s been doing it nearly a decade now and I’m not going to doubt him. At some point Sabathia will decline, but I don’t expect it to happen just yet.
Knocking on the Door
There are only a handful of minor league prospects who project as future aces — don’t confuse ace stuff with being a projected ace — and the Yankees don’t have any of them, especially not at the Triple-A level. The only pitcher who is slated to open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation with ace-caliber stuff is Dellin Betances, who lacks everything else a pitcher needs to be an ace: command, durability, etc. Brian Cashman already acknowledged the club will start the 24-year-old Betances in the Triple-A rotation despite his miserable season a year ago, but this is his final minor league option year and I don’t think the Yankees would hesitate to move the big right-hander into the bullpen if he doesn’t show improvement within the first few weeks of the season.
The Top Prospect
The Bombers have a farm system that is top heavy in position players — the top five prospects on my preseason top 30 list were all position players — especially since their best pitching prospects all seem to be coming off injury. The best combination of ace-caliber stuff and command in the system belongs to 22-year-old Manny Banuelos, who will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery. His command started to waver in 2011 though, maybe due to the elbow problem.
Right-hander Jose Campos lacks a defined breaking ball while right-hander Ty Hensley lacks command in addition to having basically zero professional experience. Righty Bryan Mitchell has nasty stuff, missing bats with a mid-90s fastballs and a knockout curveball, but he lacks command as well. Perhaps the best current ace package in the system belongs to 23-year-old Jose Ramirez, who is organization’s consistently hardest thrower with a swing-and-miss changeup and a promising slider. That said, he’s battled arm injuries and command throughout his five-year career. The Yankees don’t have a minor league pitcher who clear projects as an ace, but Ramirez is probably the closest. He’s a long way from that ceiling, however. A very long way.
The Deep Sleeper
The Yankees were very, very patient when it came to signing soon-to-be 22-year-old Rafael DePaula. They originally agreed to sign him for $500k back in November 2010, but it wasn’t until March 2012 that the right-hander was approved for a visa and the contract became official. Because he wasn’t allowed to play in actual games while waiting for his visa, DePaula lost a lot of crucial development time these last two years. With command of a mid-90s fastball and low-80s curveball, he’s the best bet in the organization to emerge with the “future ace” label over the next 12 months. DePaula figures to start with High-A Tampa this year, but the Yankees could opt to hold him back with Low-A Charleston given the lack of experience.
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Sabathia is one of the game’s ten best pitchers and pretty clearly the second most important Yankee heading into the 2013 season. He’s truly irreplaceable. The Bombers don’t have any clear-cut ace-caliber pitching prospects in the minors — just a collection of guys with good stuff or good command or good health, but not all three. It’s a problem going going forward given the team’s plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014 (and beyond), so they’ll have to get creative to pull it off. Either that or hope for good luck.
Via Jorge Castillo: CC Sabathia doesn’t expect to be far behind his usual schedule in Spring Training following October surgery to remove a bone spur from his pitching elbow. “I don’t think I’ll be that far behind … Maybe just a bullpen session behind or a batting practice session that I might skip so we’ll see what happens when I get down there,” said the left-hander. Sabathia, 32, also said that he recently stretched out his long-toss program to 110-feet and doesn’t have any discomfort. Hooray for that.
Via Dan Martin: CC Sabathia started his offseason throwing program earlier this week after having surgery in October to clear a bone spur out of his left elbow. “My elbow is feeling good,” said the left-hander. “I just started throwing on Monday. That’s the time I would normally start my throwing program, and I’ll be ready to lengthen it out and be ready to go for Spring Training.”
Sabathia, 32, has also lost some more weight this winter — “I lost a little bit of weight … Twenty pounds. Coming off the elbow surgery, I just wanted to be able to be healthy and stay healthy all year.” — in what has become an offseason tradition. It was 30 lbs. in each of the last two offseasons, but he did a much better job of keeping the weight off in 2012 than he did in 2011. The most important thing is the health of that elbow after surgery though, and it’s good to hear his rehab is progressing well.
Via Jeff Bradley: CC Sabathia plans to begin throwing after Christmas following late-October surgery to clean out a bone spur from his pitching elbow. “That’s when I always begin throwing,” said the left-hander. “That’s normal. The past three seasons I waited until Christmas to begin throwing. Before that, I started earlier. But I have been giving myself a break the last few years. I should be right on schedule. Feeling great. The range of motion is back. I’m not worried. I’m excited about the season.”
Sabathia, 32, will be on a “modified” pitching schedule in camp but (unsurprisingly) the Yankees haven’t really explained what that means. The important thing is that he’s on schedule to begin throwing soon and is expected to be ready in time for both Spring Training and Opening Day.
All 30 managers meet with the media for 30-ish minutes during the Winter Meetings, and Joe Girardi held his Q&A session late this afternoon. It’s pretty typical of Yankees people to speak a lot of words but not actually say much, and this was no different. I don’t have the audio to share because the quality is awful, but here’s a recap…
- Girardi confirmed what Brian Cashman said yesterday, that A-Rod didn’t say anything about his hip until being pinch-hit for in Game Three of the ALCS. “His hips weren’t firing right. It wasn’t pain but he felt it was not the explosiveness … I was somewhat worried because he’d been through it on his right hip and you’d think he’d know what the feeling was like. It wasn’t firing the way he thought.”
- A-Rod went for an MRI on his right hip after the game, and when it came back clean Girardi kept playing him. He did acknowledge Alex “did look different than he did before he got hurt.” The team doesn’t know exactly when the injury happened.
- On losing A-Rod for the first half of next year: “It’s big. You go into an offseason and you feel you have to address certain areas and all of a sudden you get a little bit of a surprise. It’s a pretty big hole to fill, and it may not necessarily be (filled) with one person.”
- “I’m not sure,” said the skipper when asked about any tension in his relationship with A-Rod. “It probably answers a lot of questions — he wasn’t the Alex we saw before the injury. Now we have a reason, possibly why.”
For the most part, CC Sabathia had another strong season in 2012. He logged 200 innings and kept runs off the board (3.38 ERA) with peripheral stats to match (3.33 FIP), but it was also the worst of his four years with the Yankees and his worst since 2005 or 2006 with the Indians. Obviously his standards are pretty high, but the step back in performance was both noticeable and a concern going forward given the four (and potentially five) years left on his contract.
The Elbow Injury
For the first time in his big league career, Sabathia spent time on the DL with an arm injury this summer. Elbow inflammation stemming a bone spur was the culprit, though for a while it sounded a lot worse than that …
“After Seattle, I was (nervous),” said Sabathia the other day. “I woke up the next day and my arm was kind of swollen, and I didn’t have any range of motion. So I was really nervous, honestly. So we had the test, and once the MRI came back clean, I just knew it was something I’ll have to deal with. I know there’s nothing structurally wrong with my arm.” [source]
Sabathia spend the minimum 15 days on the DL and didn’t pitch all that well when he first came back, posting a 4.67 ERA and 4.47 FIP in 27 innings across four late-August and early-September starts. He insisted that his elbow was fine and that he felt “good enough to pitch,” but scattered (and unconfirmed) reports indicated that his elbow was still flaring up between starts. A late-season stretch of dominance that carried over into the postseason help assuage some concern.
The Yankees sent Sabathia for more tests after the season, which led to Dr. James Andrews performing arthroscopic surgery to remove the bone spur on October 25th. Tests confirmed the original report that his ligament was fine, but the spur he’d been pitching with since his Cleveland days had to go. Sabathia is expected to be ready in time for Spring Training but he will be on a modified throwing program in camp to help him prepare for Opening Day. I don’t know what that means, but any time your 32-year-old ace pitcher with 2,500+ innings on his arm starts having elbow trouble, it’s a concern.
The Performance Decline
A 3.38 ERA and 3.33 FIP in 200 innings is nothing to sneeze at, but for Sabathia it represented a step down from both 2011 (3.00 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 237.1 innings) and 2009-2011 (3.18 ERA and 3.27 FIP in an average of 235 innings). The performance decline did not occur in either his strikeout (8.87 K/9 and 23.7 K%) or walk (1.98 BB/9 and 5.3 BB%) rates, which were both his bests as a Yankee. It also didn’t show up in his ground ball rate (48.2%), which was his second best as a Yankee. All three rates, the strikeouts and walks and grounders, were the third best of his entire career.
Instead, the decline showed up in two places, the first being his homerun rate. The 22 dingers he surrendered this year were a career-high, as was the 0.99 HR/9 and 12.5% HR/FB. It had been six years since he topped even 0.80 HR/9 and 9.0% HR/FB. It wasn’t just a Yankee Stadium issue either, his road rates (1.14 HR/9 and 13.7 HR/FB%) were worse than his home rates (0.84 HR/9 and 11.1% HR/FB). Hit Tracker classified just seven of those 22 homers as “Just Enoughs,” meaning the other 15 cleared the wall by more than ten vertical feet. He wasn’t giving up cheapies.
Secondly, Sabathia’s fastball velocity dropped off noticeably (click to embiggen) …
Fastball velocity isn’t exactly a measure of performance, so maybe it’s unfair to lump this in here, but at the end of the day he wasn’t throwing as hard as he had in the past. His average four-seam fastball velocity was 92.4 mph this year, down from 93.9 mph just a year ago. It had never been lower than 93.6 mph (2010) during the PitchFX era. So yeah, losing a mile and a half an hour off the fastball from one year to the next is a considerable drop-off and a concern when again, you’re talking about a guy with over 2,500 innings on his arm.
Did the reduced fastball lead to homer problems? Perhaps, he did give up ten homers on four-seamers this year according to Brooks Baseball, down from eleven last year (in 37.1 more innings) and up from eight in 2010 (37.2 more innings) and nine in 2009 (30 more innings). I think it’s more noteworthy that he surrendered seven homers off his slider this year after allowing ten total off the pitch in his first three years as a Yankee. Anecdotally, I thought Sabathia hung more sliders this year than at any other point with New York, which could be explained by the elbow problem. The fastball and slider aren’t mutually exclusive, one works off the other. A compromised fastball could easily result in reduced effectiveness of the slider.
It’s also worth nothing that Sabathia didn’t truly dominate left-handed batters like he has in the past. He held them to a .288 wOBA this year after a .248 wOBA last year and a .265 wOBA from 2009-2011, so we are splitting hairs. His strikeout (12.71 K/9 and 35.3 K%), walk (1.24 BB/9 and 3.4 BB%), and ground ball (47.5%) rates against same-side hitters were still off the charts good this season. It could be tied back to the whole fastball-slider thing, because the breaking ball is the pitch he’s used to dominate lefties his entire career.
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Sabathia’s down season was still excellent in the grand scheme of things, but this year he gave the Yankees and their fans more reasons to be concerned than at any other point in his first three years with the team. The elbow injury is obviously a big concern even though his ligament checked out fine (twice), plus the declining fastball velocity is a red flag as well. The two could be related, though bad elbows usually result in poor command (which we saw out of CC at times this year) while velocity loss is typically attributed to a bad shoulder. The Yankees have already spoken internally about lightening Sabathia’s workload going forward, so they are aware of these issues and are looking for ways to address them. Hopefully they can help stave off the inevitable age-related decline.
Coming into the 2012 season, CC Sabathia was one of baseball’s few guarantees. Everyone knew he was going to throw a ton of high-quality innings just like he has every year for the last half-decade or so. Although this season was certainly a little rockier than Sabathia’s first three in pinstripes, the end result was the same. The big man again threw a ton of high-quality innings for his team.
The season started with a slow month of April, which isn’t completely out of character for Sabathia. He surrendered five runs in six innings to the Rays on Opening Day, and after four starts he owned 5.27 ERA (3.57 FIP) in 27.1 innings. CC turned things around in his fifth, sixth, and seventh starts, allowing two runs in eight innings each time. He held the Braves to two runs in a complete-game win in mid-June, completing a ten start stretch in which he pitched to a 2.92 ERA (3.02 FIP) in 72 innings.
Sabathia allowed five runs (one earned) in 5.2 innings against the Mets next time out, and soon after the start he was placed on the DL for the first time in six years. A minor left groin problem was the culprit, though both Sabathia and team insisted he would still be pitching if it was later in the season or in the playoffs. The DL stint was sandwiched around the All-Star break, so CC only missed two starts with the injury. He was activated on the first day eligible and returned with six shutout innings against the Blue Jays.
Sabathia made five starts after coming off the DL and didn’t seem right even though he wasn’t pitching terribly (3.89 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 34.2 innings). After allowing five runs (three earned) to the Tigers on August 8th, the Yankees placed their ace on the DL for the second time of the summer. Left elbow inflammation did him in this time, and it was the first arm-related DL stint of his career. The Yankees again insisted it was minor and Sabathia again spent the minimum 15 days on the sidelines. He threw 7.1 innings of one-run ball against the Indians in his first start back and everything seemed fine.
The next four starts were rough (4.67 ERA and 4.47 FIP in 27 innings) but Sabathia insisted his elbow was fine, or at least “good enough to pitch,” to use his words. With only three starts left in the year, CC owned a 3.63 ERA (3.41 FIP) in 176 innings and was in danger of throwing fewer than 200 innings in a season for the first time in six years. Instead, Sabathia ran off three straight dominant starts of exactly eight innings each to close out the year, finishing with exactly 200 innings. He struck out 28 in those three starts, allowing four runs on four walks, eleven singles, one double, and one homer.
Sabathia was able to carry that dominance into the ALDS against the Orioles, holding Baltimore to two runs in 8.2 innings in the Game One win. Only a two-out, ninth inning double by Lew Ford prevented him from finishing the game, though CC did get the complete-game win in the decisive Game Five. He allowed just one run on two walks and four singles in the series clincher, pitching out of a bases loaded, one-out jam in the eighth to preserve the two-run lead. His 17.2 total innings set a new ALDS record. Sabathia got rocked in Game Four of the ALCS (six runs in 3.2 innings) to end his (and the Yankees) season on a very sour note.
Obviously CC’s season did not go as smoothly as his first three in pinstripes given the two DL stints and his mid-season stretch of substandard pitching, but those are things we’re going to discuss a little later today. For now, we’re just going to focus on the fact that Sabathia again pitched to a near-3.00 ERA (3.38 to be exact) with stellar peripherals (3.33 FIP) in exactly 200 innings in what is generally considered a down year for him. That’s a career year for most pitchers. He showed a few kinks in the armor but otherwise gave the team exactly what it needed: tons of high-quality innings.
For the first time as a Yankee and really for the first time in his career, CC Sabathia battled pitching mortality in 2012. He is one of the game’s preeminent workhorses, throwing at least 230 innings every year from 2007-2011 and at least 190 innings in ten of his 12 seasons as a big leaguer. His career-low was 180.1 innings back in 2001, when he was a 20-year-old rookie. He hit the DL twice this year, including once with an arm injury. After the season, Sabathia had surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow.
During a recent radio interview, pitching coach Larry Rothschild discussed his ace left-hander’s workload and the team’s intent to scale it back at various times. Here’s the quote passed along by the fine folks at MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM…
“Joe and I talked about (lightening Sabathia’s workload) even going back to last year. This year we talked about it even more. Not only lightening the load but the pitch total during the game, because he’s a guy that almost thrives on working the pitch totals, and when he doesn’t have them, it has an effect leading into the next start. Unlike a lot of guys where if they get a little more rest they’re more effective, he works more and throws more pitches he seems to get on rolls a lot quicker. And what happened, I think, part of this year is he didn’t do it. We didn’t let him get to that point, and then with the groin at one point and the elbow at the other, we just never got to that point until towards the end and then he got on another roll when he did throw the pitches. So it’s kind of a Catch-22 with him. We do have to watch it, and we’re going to probably have to watch a few guys on this staff. We’re aware of it and back off. When he had a chance to pitch with extra rest we did that. In the past he would pitch on the fifth day almost all the time.”
Despite the two DL stints, Sabathia still threw 200 innings (exactly 200, in fact) this year because he threw eight innings in his final three starts. He seemed to hit his stride in September as Rothschild said, dominating in those final three starts and twice again in the ALDS. At age 32, Sabathia has over 2,500 regular season innings on his arm, more than the career totals of Bret Saberhagen and Doug Drabek, for example. Within two years he’ll be in the top 150 all-time in innings pitched.
I mentioned this to Joe at some point late in the season, but perhaps the Yankees have to start treating Sabathia as more of a 200-inning guy than a 230-inning guy. That means giving him the extra day once in a while or not sending him out for the eighth when his pitch count is sitting at 105. His velocity did decline this year and it’s easy to say they should take their foot off the gas to “save bullets” so to speak, but as Rothschild notes, it’s easier said than done. CC does seem to be a rhythm pitcher, particularly with his command. Reducing his workload even slightly could mean a big adjustment has to be made on his part. I think it is something worth discussing though — the Yankees have already had these talks, obviously — especially with Sabathia approaching his mid-30s with another four (potentially five) years left on his contract.
Rothschild also discussed a number of other pitching topics during the interview, including Michael Pineda‘s injury and possible returns by Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. Chad Jennings has the full recap.
4:46pm: CC Sabathia had arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow today, the Yankees announced. He is expected to be ready in time for Spring Training. Dr. James Andrews performed the procedure at his practice in Alabama during the left-hander’s scheduled visit.
Sabathia, 32, has pitched with the spur in his elbow since his days with the Indians, but it didn’t give him any problems until recently. It caused him to spend two weeks on DL back in August and he also received a cortisone short at some point late in the season as well. It’s never a good thing when your ace pitcher has surgery on his throwing arm, but this was a relatively minor procedure and by all accounts the ligament is fine. That’s all you can ask for with this stuff.