Game 80: Tanaka Time vs. Tampa

(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)
(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

This weekend’s series with the Rays is pretty important. I mean, all games against AL East rivals will be important going forward because the division is so tight. Every single game matters. Each win in July is one less you need in September.

Masahiro Tanaka will be on the mound tonight following two really shaky starts that featured six total home runs allowed. Three in each start. The Yankees might be tied for first today, but it’s hard to see them staying atop the division if Tanaka doesn’t straight himself out. Here is Tampa Bay’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Garrett Jones
  7. LF Chris Young
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. 2B Stephen Drew
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Absolutely flawless weather in New York today. Beautiful blue skies, just enough clouds, temperatures in the high-70s/low-80s, and a nice cool breeze. Just perfect. This is what I want the weather to be for the rest of my life. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and MLB nationally. Enjoy the game, folks.

Rotation Update: Ivan Nova will start Sunday on normal rest, Joe Girardi told reporters. CC Sabathia is being pushed back to Wednesday to give him extra rest, and also extra time to work on things in the bullpen. Also, pushing him back means Sabathia will a) make just one start before the All-Star break instead of two, and b) not face the division rival Rays and Red Sox these next ten days.

Injury Update: Looking for a timetable for Jacoby Ellsbury‘s return? Well we’re not getting one. Girardi basically said he’ll be back when he’s back. Ellsbury (knee) has played two minor league rehab games this week but has had to sit out two others with fatigue. He is not playing for High-A Tampa tonight.

Roster Updates: In case you missed it earlier, Carlos Beltran was placed on the 15-day DL with an oblique strain. Taylor Dugas was sent down as well and both Ramon Flores and Gregorio Petit were called up.

email

Yankees must make tough, yet necessary decision with CC Sabathia

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees lost to the Angels last night, mostly because the bats didn’t show up, but also because CC Sabathia allowed four runs in 7.1 innings against one of the lowest scoring teams in baseball. And the worst part? When Sabathia walked off the mound after being pulled in the eighth, I found myself saying he wasn’t all that bad. That’s where things are right now with the team’s former ace.

Last night’s loss has Sabathia sitting on a 5.59 ERA (4.58 FIP) in 95 innings. The 5.59 ERA ranks 94th out of the 98 qualified starters in baseball this season. That’s after Sabathia ranked 76th out of 81 qualified starters with a 4.78 ERA back in 2013, his last full healthy season. He now has a 5.06 ERA in his last 352 innings dating back to Opening Day 2013. No, ERA isn’t the only or best way to evaluate a pitcher, but the goal is to keep runs off the board, and CC hasn’t done it for three years now. We should all be able to agree on that.

The Yankees are 6-10 when Sabathia starts this season and 35-26 when anyone else starts. Sometimes that happens because a guy isn’t getting any run support and is a tough luck loser a bunch of times, but that isn’t the case here. Sabathia has pitched poorly and his starts are rarely winnable. He’s the weak link in a six-man rotation that will soon be trimmed down to five. It couldn’t be any more obvious.

There is no indication the Yankees are considering removing Sabathia from the rotation — late last night the team announced Nathan Eovaldi, not Adam Warren, will start Wednesday, indicating Warren’s going to the bullpen — and that’s a problem. His enormous contract is dictating his roster spot, not his performance, which to be fair is not unique to the Yankees and Sabathia. It’s happening elsewhere around the league. Still, the AL East is incredibly tight …

AL East Standings 062915

… and it sure looks like it will remain that way all season. This is going to be a really fun race, and the Yankees are hurting themselves by keeping Sabathia in the rotation. It’s going to hard enough to contend against the Orioles, Rays, and Blue Jays as it is. But doing it while running one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball out there every fifth day? When a better option — Warren has a 3.59 ERA (109 ERA+), lowest in the rotation! — is available? It’s illogical.

Removing Sabathia from the rotation is a difficult move from a personal standpoint — he’s done a lot of good for the Yankees over the years and, by all accounts, he’s a leader in the clubhouse, and it’s never easy to demote a player like that to a lesser role. It’s embarrassing. It’s also necessary sometimes. The Giants sent Tim Lincecum to the bullpen last summer and are likely to do it again in the coming days, for example. The Yankees are at that point with Sabathia.

Perhaps there’s a compromise to be made here. Perhaps the best move in the short-term is a phantom DL trip to give Sabathia a little 15-day vacation. Who knows, maybe he’ll welcome it and see it as an opportunity to work on some things. It’s not just a physical break either, it’s a mental break from what I’m sure has been a very tough season (tough few seasons, really). A two-week breather could do some good. Of course, unless the DL trip is a magic cure and helps Sabathia turn the clock back to 2012 or so, all it does it delay the inevitable. It’s not a real solution.

Either way the Yankees are rapidly approaching a breaking point with Sabathia. Actually, I’d say they’re already there and have been since Ivan Nova returned and legitimately gave the Yankees five starters better than Sabathia. This is an organizational failure. It’s not on Joe Girardi. It’s on Brian Cashman and perhaps those above him if Hal Steinbrenner & Co. want Sabathia in the rotation because of his contract. Girardi can’t be expected to make the decision and carry out the plan on his own. Not with someone like Sabathia. The brain trust has to be involved.

For now, Sabathia is not helping the Yankees win games and they don’t have the luxury of giving him time to straighten things out. They’ve already given him too much time. Sabathia is not much of an asset to the Yankees any more, he’s a sunk cost, and if the team wants to put itself in the best position to return to the postseason, he shouldn’t be in the rotation at all. The sooner they’re willing to swallow that pill, the better off they’ll be.

CC Sabathia and One Bad Inning

To paraphrase The Wonder Years, growing up means watching your heroes turn human in front of you. This process is never easy in sports. Professional athletes have this marvelous–and marvelously frustrating–habit of making what they do look incredibly easy, like they could do it forever and ever, as naturally as anything you and I do. Then, the cliff shows up. Sometimes the decline is slow and gradual. Other times, the player pulls a Wile E. Coyote and looks down, plummeting dramatically. For CC Sabathia, and we Yankee fans who’ve had to “grow up” this season, it’s been a combination of those things. Sabathia’s performance has dropped off considerably, but it’s been going on for two and a half years now. Watching Sabathia, someone we’ve loved and revered for so long, go through this has been painful (granted, I’m sure it’s 100 times more painful for him).

2015 for CC has been a bit of a microcosm of his long decline: things go bad in a hurry, but those bad things tend to be drawn out in one excruciating inning. In five of his 15 starts this year, we’ve seen CC be anywhere from “great” to “alright, okay, fine” in parts or majorities of games, only to have One Bad Inning rear its disastrous head and ruin the start for everyone (appropriately enough, this happened to my softball team and me on Friday night).

In start number one against the Blue Jays, Sabathia surrendered five runs total; four of them came in the top of the second inning. During his matchup with the Mets, the fourth inning was his downfall. After recording outs on two of the first three batters, Sabathia then surrendered a run-scoring triple, a run-scoring single, and a two-run homer, leading to four of the seven runs he gave up. It’s worth noting that after the run scoring, he gave up another hit–a single to former teammate Curtis Granderson–before recording the third out on a lineout by John Mayberry, Jr.

Things were more or less normal for the next few starts until number seven on the year against the Rays. CC didn’t give up a lot of runs that game–four–and the Yankees won, but of the runs he gave up, three of them came in one inning, the seventh. Back-to-back homers by Logan Forstyhe and Joey Butler started the inning before CC got an out, gave up a double + error, followed by a sac fly to plate the third run of the inning. The Yankees were ahead 9-1 going into the inning, so this didn’t matter a ton, but was still indicative of Sabathia’s one-inning-struggles this year.

Sabathia looked great in his next start after the Rays game, but then came the dumpster fire that was the game against the Rangers: 2.1 innings, 6 runs–all in one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad third inning. CC was charged with those runs thanks to five hits, a walk, and a wild pitch. Let’s not relive that inning any further.

Last but not least, let’s look at his most recent start–one in which I was in attendance for–against the Phillies. He gave up six runs in this game, five of them coming in the fourth inning thanks to two homers, one each by Cameron Rupp and Miakel Franco. I want to focus specifically on the homer to Rupp because, continuing this theme, it encapsulates Sabathia’s struggles in one three pitch at bat. Here is the location chart, thanks as always to Brooks Baseball. Brooks labeled all three of those pitches as changeups. The one Rupp hit into the Phillies’ bullpen is in a location that a Major League hitter can’t help but drive out of the park, and it speaks to everything that’s happened to Sabathia since 2013: he’s lost location and he’s lost the effectiveness on pitches that once helped him get a ton of outs.

I won’t pretend to know what the answer is for Sabathia because I’m not sure there really is one. He’s not the same type of pitcher that Andy Pettitte was, so an Andy-Style reinvention probably isn’t going to happen. This One Bad Inning Syndrome doesn’t scream “Make me a reliever!” either. But running him out there every fifth day has already been bad and probably won’t get better. Since 2013, we’ve had to watch CC turn from hero to human; I’m not sure if we’ll ever see him as a hero again. Growing up sucks.

Game 61: Sabathia the streak-stopper?

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

So, let’s just forget about last night’s game, okay?

Good.

Even with this mini two-game slide, the Yankees have won seven of their last nine games and are 11-5 since May 25. The only AL team with a better record in that span is the red-hot Toronto Blue Jays. Everyone feeling a little better now?

CC Sabathia is on the mound tonight, and is on a bit of a roll right now, with a tidy 3.09 ERA in his first two June outings. He’s pitched into the sixth inning and hasn’t allowed more than two runs in each of those games. That’s great, but Sabathia hasn’t had much luck recently pitching in Baltimore. He’s 0-5 with a 5.48 ERA in his last seven starts in the Charm City, including a loss on April 14 this season. Time to right the ship!

Here is the Orioles lineup and here is your New York Yankees lineup:

1. Brett Gardner LF
2. Chase Headley 3B
3. Alex Rodriguez DH
4. Mark Teixeira 1B
5. Brian McCann C
6. Carlos Beltran RF
7. Didi Gregorius SS
8. Stephen Drew 2B
9. Mason Williams CF
LHP CC Sabathia

It was hot and humid today in Baltimore, and it looks like the possibility of showers and thunderstorms should hold off until midnight. Tonight’s game will start at 7:15 pm ET and can be seen nationally on FOX. Enjoy the broadcast and the game, wherever you are.

(Not)Milestone watch: A-Rod is now one RBI away 2,000 for his career, and six hits away from 3,000. #AROD3K

Roster Update: The Yankees signed Sergio Santos to a major-league contract this morning and added him to the bullpen. He will take the spot of Esmil Rogers, who was outrighted to Triple-A last night. Also, Jose Ramirez has been recalled and is listed in the Yankees bullpen; Jacob Lindgren was sent back down to Scranton to make room for Ramirez on the roster.

A shorter leash could mean a more effective CC Sabathia

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Later tonight CC Sabathia will make his 11th start in what has been, to date, the worst season of his career. Sabathia has a 5.67 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 60.1 innings so far, worse than the 5.28 ERA (4.78 FIP) he had in 46 innings before knee surgery last year, and worse than the 4.78 ERA (4.10 FIP) he had in 211 innings back in 2013, his last full healthy season. CC’s getting old and losing effectiveness. It happens.

The Yankees won’t and pretty much can’t take Sabathia out of the rotation. They owe him a ton of money through next season and possibly through 2017 depending on his vesting option, so they’re going to give him more than ten starts coming off knee surgery to show he has something left. And besides, even if the Yankees were willing to pull Sabathia from the rotation, they have no one to replace him right now. Chris Capuano? Nooope.

So, rather than replace Sabathia, the Yankees have to figure out a way to live with him and improve his performance. That’s much easier said than done — like I said, Sabathia’s getting up there in age (by baseball standards) and has a ton of miles on his arm, so he might be at the point of no return performance-wise — and I think the best way to do that right now is by shortening the leash. Check out Sabathia’s times through the lineup splits in his last two healthy seasons:

2015 2013
1st time thru lineup .274/.322/381 (102 OPS+) .238/.294/.388 (93 OPS+)
2nd time thru lineup .316/.337/.443 (113 OPS+) .278/.329/.475 (119 OPS+)
3rd time thru lineup .347/.360/.667 (170 OPS) .299/.354/.488 (122 OPS+)
4th time thru lineup .167/.250/.167 (14 OPS+) .281/.333/.391 (104 OPS+)

First of all, just ignore the numbers the fourth time through the lineup. They come from a very small sample of plate appearances (eight in 2015 and 70 in 2015) and typically the only time a pitcher faces the lineup a fourth time is when he’s pitching well, which is why the stats are better. I don’t even know why I included them.

Secondly, just about every pitcher performs worse each time through the lineup, so Sabathia is hardly unique. The league average OPS+ each time through the order goes from 97 to 106 to 109 to 114 this year, and that’s understandable. It’s not just getting more looks a pitcher and getting familiar with his stuff that day, but the pitcher is also more fatigued each subsequent turn through the lineup.

Sabathia is no different at this point of his career. He’s been about average the first time through the lineup this season, below-average the second time around, and a disaster the third time through. Sabathia’s pitch count splits show a similar pattern — the longer he’s in the game, the less effective he is:

2015 2013
Pitches 1-25 .217/.277/.333 (74 OPS+) .233/.291/.433 (103 OPS+)
Pitches 26-50 .350/.364/.383 (113 OPS+) .269/.314/.394 (102 OPS+)
Pitches 51-75 .299/.319/.507 (124 OPS+) .311/.348/.503 (134 OPS+)
Pitches 76-100 .380/.400/.760 (215 OPS+) .259/.335/.466 (114 OPS+)
Pitches 101+ .250/.250/.250 (50 OPS+) .309/.365/.412 (121 OPS+)

Again, pitchers around the league are less effective as their pitch count climbs, and Sabathia is no different. Specifically he’s been positively abysmal after pitch No. 75 this year. It was evident in his last start, when he allowed that game-tying two-run home run to Brett Lawrie on pitch No. 77. Sabathia retired just one of four batters faced after his pitch count eclipsed 75 against the Athletics.

Given how much effectiveness Sabathia loses the third time through the lineup and with his pitch count at 75+, a shorter leash could help limit the damage. Sure, it would probably make him a five-inning pitcher instead of a six-inning pitcher, but what if it shaves a run off his ERA? Or even just half a run? Sabathia would also be able to pitch with more intensity earlier in the game, which could improve his performance as well.

The biggest problem with shortening up Sabathia’s leash is the extra stress it puts on the bullpen, specifically a middle relief crew that hasn’t been all that good this year. Capuano being available as a second long man would help with the increased workload, but again, that means more Capuano innings. There are going to be days when the Yankees simply need Sabathia to chew through six or seven innings to rest the bullpen, so auto-pulling him the third time through the lineup isn’t so cut and dried.

The Yankees are used to Sabathia being a workhorse and taking the ball deep into the game every fifth day. Even with his struggles the last three years, he’s averaged 6.1 innings per start, so he always spared the bullpen a bit. Sabathia takes pride in being a workhorse and he should, because it’s a hell of an accomplishment. At this point of his career though, Sabathia doesn’t have the tools to be effective once the lineup turns over a third time.

CC almost certainly won’t ever be an ace again, but if the Yankees pick and choose their spots to get him out of the game earlier than usual, it could help Sabathia be more productive than he has been so far this season.

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.

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.