Archive for CC Sabathia
CC Sabathia‘s season came to unceremonious and positively 2013 Yankees-esque end earlier this week when the team announced he had a Grade II left hamstring strain. He supposedly suffered the injury in the second inning of his start last Friday, but he pitched through it and still held the Giants to one run in seven innings. That is pretty damn remarkable when you think about it.
Even though he eclipsed the 200-inning plateau for the seventh straight season — only Sabathia, Mark Buehrle, Jamie Shields, and Justin Verlander can make that claim — Sabathia had the very worst season of his 12-year-old career in 2013. He posted a 4.78 ERA (4.09 FIP) in 211 innings across 32 starts, and according to runs allowed-based value metrics like bWAR (0.3) and RA9 (0.7), he was damn near replacement level. If you prefer FIP-based value, he was still at a career-low 2.7 fWAR. There’s no getting around it, CC was huge disappointment.
“It was a bad year,” admitted Sabathia to Fred Kerber yesterday. “It is frustrating and it’s tough. You feel like you let your teammates down. Everybody knows how much I care about winning and wanting to be there for the guys. Not to be able to be there this last week is going to be tough.”
There are a million possible reasons why Sabathia’s performance declined so much in one year. The workload caught up to him. The offseason elbow surgery had a bigger impact than expected. His fastball lost too much velocity. His fastball lost too much velocity and that made his changeup worse. He lost too much weight. Who knows the real answer? It’s probably all of the above to some degree. At his age, it’s hard to believe CC can get back to being the guy he was just last season, nevermind 2009-2011.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to be that same guy again,” added Sabathia. “I am 33 this year. Pitching [Friday] I felt back to myself, more so than any other start. It wasn’t velocity because I was 90-93, but just pitching inside, being aggressive, throwing fastballs in hitters’ counts — just going out there and being a bully.”
Now, just because Sabathia is unlikely to turn back into the 2009-2011 version of himself doesn’t mean he can’t be effective. He just has to go about being effective in a different way. CC will have to adjust the way he pitches and, just as importantly, adjust the way he prepares for starts. The days of dominating hitters with a fastball/slider/changeup mix on the quality of the individual pitches alone are over.
“I’ve always been a guy that never watched video,” said Sabathia. “That’s something that I need to change. Just my preparation for games probably has to get a little better … Me and [pitching coach Larry Rothschild] did a lot of work lately that got me back on the right track and I felt like we were headed in the right direction and stuff was going better and [the hamstring] happens.”
I always find it amazing whenever I hear about a veteran player not watching video. It’s not unheard of, but it is rare. Most players obsess over mechanics or scouting reports or whatever, others prefer to keep it simple and leave it to the coaching staff. Considering how effective Sabathia was over such a long period of time, we can’t say the “no video” approach didn’t work for him. It obviously did.
That probably isn’t the case anymore though. At this point of his career, with a diminished fastball and command that seems to come and go, Sabathia will have to put in more preparation time between starts. This isn’t so much about watching video and dissecting his mechanics, it’s about learning hitters’ weakness and developing a personalized scouting report. A lot of guys will watch how similar pitchers attack hitters — when I interviewed Al Leiter last year, he said he watched video of Andy Pettitte and David Wells to see how they approached certain hitters — and use that as a building block.
Sabathia’s stuff is what it is at this point. He averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball this summer — less earlier in the season, more later in the season — and that is plenty good enough for a left-hander with three (really four since he throws both a four-seam fastball and a sinker) pitches. He’s got the slider for lefties and the changeup for righties. The stuff is fine, it’s just not what it once was. Sabathia is going to have to adjust his preparation and between-starts routine as much as anything if he wants to bounce back and return to being an effective pitcher next year, something he is confident he can do.
“I’ll be back to myself,” said CC. “I know a lot of people have written me off and said I’ve thrown too many innings and whatever, but I’ll still be here and still be accountable and still be the guy that signed up in 2009.”
CC Sabathia suffered a Grade II strain of his left hamstring in his last start and is done for the season, the Yankees announced. The recovery time is eight weeks and he is expected to be ready for Spring Training. Brian Cashman confirmed to Dan Martin that Sabathia suffered the injury in the second inning of Friday’s start against the Giants but “pitched through it.”
Sabathia, 33, must have hid the injury if it happened in the second inning. I doubt Joe Girardi & Co. would keep sending him out there if they knew he was hurt. CC has been terrible overall this year, pitching to a 4.78 ERA (4.10 FIP) in 211 innings across 32 starts, his seventh straight season of 200+ innings. The Yankees didn’t need to come up with some kind of injury excuse if they wanted to shut Sabathia down — even if they did, they wouldn’t come up with something as severe as a Grade II hamstring strain — so this is legit. You know, for all you conspiracy theorists out there.
The Yankees had already rearranged their rotation for the upcoming Rays series and Sabathia was scheduled to start Wednesday night. That start figures to go to the Phil Hughes/David Huff tandem instead. The team does need to come up with a starter for Saturday’s game now, so they could either split up the Hughes/Huff tandem or give the ball to someone like Brett Marshall or Adam Warren. I doubt David Phelps is an option at this point. He had not thrown more than two innings in a simulated game before being activated off the DL last week.
Because of expanded rosters, Sabathia will not technically be placed on the DL. Obviously a Grade II strain would be a DL-worthy injury had it come earlier in the season. Sabathia was on the DL twice last season (groin strain, elbow inflammation) and had offseason surgery both last year (bone spur in elbow) and the year before (meniscus tear in right knee). Outside of oblique strains in 2005 and 2006, he was almost perfectly healthy for the first ten years of his career. Sucks he’s breaking down now.
It’s no secret that this has been pretty much a disaster season for CC Sabathia, who owns a 4.90 ERA (4.13 FIP) in 204 innings across 31 starts. He’s going to set career worsts in several categories unless he closes out the year with an insanely strong finish. Sabathia is a big reason why the Yankees are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in with 13 games to play.
There are no shortage of theories why CC has been so terrible this year. He lost too much weight, he had offseason elbow surgery, the workload is catching up to him … all of that and more could be a factor. Here’s what a scout told Baseball Prospectus (subs. req’d) recently:
“More than anything, he just looks dead tired to me and, when you consider his workload since he left Cleveland and how little recovery time he has, I think that makes sense. His arm slot is lower than it has been in the past and he doesn’t keep his delivery together as well when he gets deep into the game, which are indicators that he is wearing down. There’s no denying that his fastball has lost some juice, and I think that has actually hurt his changeup more than anything else, as hitters don’t have to be so concerned with gearing up for the plus fastball. When he had a bigger fastball, hitters had to honor it, but there is less fear there now. However, he still gives it everything he’s got in every start and goes deep into ball games, he’s just not the front-line ace.”
Sabathia’s fastball as actually ticked up as the season progressed and he’s now sitting regularly in the 92-94 mph range each time out. That’s still down just a bit from the last few years, but it’s plenty good enough to succeed. Learning how to succeed with it isn’t easy though, and I think the scout’s point about the changeup is a really good one. A changeup is not a mutually exclusive pitch, so to speak. It’s thrown with the same arm action as the fastball and the difference in velocity is what does the trick. A changeup without a setup fastball is just a batting practice fastball.
Last season, Sabathia averaged 92.4 mph with his fastball and 86.0 mph with his changeup, a 6.4 mph difference. This year he’s at 91.3 mph with the fastball and 84.8 mph with the changeup, a 6.5 mph difference. Basically the same separation between the two pitches. However, it’s easier to sit back on a 91.3 mph heater than it is a 92.4 mph fastball or a 93.9 mph fastball (2011 velocity). Being able to wait a little longer on the fastball also impacts the effectiveness of the changeup. Sabathia’s changeup saved 1.94 runs per 100 thrown last year according to PitchFX. This year? Negative-1.70 runs per 100 thrown. That’s a swing of 3.64 runs saved per 100 changeups thrown. That’s a huge difference.
Unless Sabathia and pitching coach Larry Rothschild make some kind of magic mechanical adjustment, the fastball isn’t coming back. That’s not how it works for 33-year-old hurlers with nearly 3,000 innings on their arm. The solution may be working on the changeup to get even more separation from the fastball. Choke it back further in the hand, alter the grip, whatever. Something to turn that 6.5 mph separation into something like an 8-10 mph separation, which is where Andy Pettitte is living these days. Changeup masters Cole Hamels and Jamie Shields are also in that 8-10 mph range. This is much easier said than done obviously, but it’s something Sabathia will have to do to improve his performance going forward, both this year and next.
Thanks to their back-to-back come from behind wins over the Orioles, the Yankees are right back in the thick of the wildcard hunt with 16 games to play. Yeah, just 16 games left. The end of the season is right around the corner. Here are some thoughts as we await the final of this four-game series against Baltimore:
1. The Yankees crept to within two games of the second wildcard spot in the loss column, and you know what the most ridiculous thing is? They haven’t evenly played all that well recently. They’ve lost four of their last seven games — the Red Sox just demolished them over the weekend, that was ugly — and trailed in all three wins. The Rays are letting New York and every other team right back into the race. Tampa has dropped five of their last six games and 13 of their last 17 to fall from tied atop the AL East to eight back in the loss column. Last night, in the biggest moment of their season (to date), Joe Maddon brought the pitcher former known as Fausto Carmona out of the bullpen. He promptly walked the bases loaded and surrendered a grand slam. You kinda deserve to collapse when you do that. The Yankees were going to need some help to climb out of the hole they dug themselves a few weeks ago, and the Rays have happily obliged. The Bombers just have to start playing a little better to finish this thing off.
2. Can you imagine where New York would be right now if they had gotten anything out of CC Sabathia this season? I was pretty optimistic about him coming into this year because he finished 2012 well (ALCS Game Four notwithstanding) and had his elbow cleaning up over the winter, but boy was I wrong. Think about it, Sabathia’s has been replacement level this year (0.2 bWAR). Replacement level! Nearly 200 innings (198, to be exact) of 4.82 ERA (4.15 FIP) ball. That’s hard to believe and tough to swallow. Obviously Sabathia isn’t the only reason the Yankees are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, but there’s no doubt he has played a big role in the team’s general mediocrity this summer. I think we all knew CC would decline during the course of his contract, but I don’t think many expected to see him go from ace to fifth starter in one year. Yuck.
3. I’m convinced Derek Jeter will return next season. I don’t see him going out like this, not in a million years. He’ll pick up his $9.5M player option and work like hell this offseason to make sure there are no more physical issues next year. I’m sure of it. At the same time, I don’t see any way the Yankees can count on him in 2014. I think they need to go out and find a permanent shortstop solution this winter so they can treat Jeter as a full-time DH who can step in and play the field on occasion. If he can do more than that, great. I just wouldn’t expect it. I know he’s Derek frickin’ Jeter and a god around these parts, but we are talking about a 39-year-old shortstop who lost what amounts to a full season with a series of leg injuries. The Yankees should plan for the worst because guys like that usually don’t come back and be productive.
4. Hypothetical: what happens if, after the season, Andy Pettitte decides he wants to pitch again in 2014? He had that really ugly stretch after coming off the DL, but he has been vintage Andy of late. Not dominant, but steady and reliable. Pettitte is already the oldest starting pitcher in baseball at 41 and he’s shown that he’s not physically up to the rigors of a full season, meaning 30+ starts of 100+ pitches. The Yankees will need pitching next year and, despite that hiccup a few weeks ago, I think most people would welcome Andy back with open arms. What’s a reasonable cost though? He’ll earn $12M this year and I don’t see any way the team could give him a raise. If Pettitte wants to come back, I think my absolutely maximum would be $10M for the year. Preferably, I’d guarantee him like $6M with incentives that kick in around 20 starts or so. Let’s say a $6M base salary plus $500k for every start after number 20, giving him a chance to match this season’s $12M salary if he manages to make a full 32 starts. Reasonable? That would be a pain to work into the luxury tax-drive payroll, but I think it’s fair considering Andy’s expected production and marquee value to the franchise.
Outside of a major arm injury, I’m not sure things could be going any worse for CC Sabathia this year. The big left-hander is sitting on a yucky 4.73 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 160 innings across 24 starts, thanks in large part to a sudden Hughesian affinity for the long ball — Sabathia has already allowed a career-high 25 homeruns (1.41 HR/9 and 14.5% HR/FB) this year, and that includes a 1.63 HR/9 (16.9% HR/FB) away from homer happy Yankee Stadium. In the second season of his five-year extension, CC is having the worst year of his 13-year-career.
Early on, back in April, fastball velocity was believed to be the root cause of his problems. Sabathia came out of the gate sitting in the 88-89 mph range, occasionally hitting 91 or 92, but his heater has picked up some oomph as the weather warmed up and the season progressed. Here, look:
Sabathia’s fastball isn’t what it was even two years ago, but it has been trending upward in recent months. In his most recent start, he averaged 92.6 mph and topped out at 94.0 mph. That’s plenty. Velocity, the pure radar gun reading, is not the reason the Yankees nominal ace has been pitching like a number five starter.
One possible (and suddenly popular) explanation has been his weight loss. Sabathia is a big dude with broad shoulders and a big ass, he’s built to carry a lot of weight, but he’s shed upwards of 30 pounds in each of the last two offseasons. Losing weight is a good thing, especially when you’re talking about a pitcher with a twice surgically repairing landing knee. That doesn’t mean pitching with fewer pounds is easy though, it requires an adjustment.
“The weight loss has created a balance problem for him,“ said one evaluator to Nick Cafardo recently. “He’s all over the place. He’s learning how to pitch in that body, a body he’s really never had. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him other than that. Sometimes you pitch at a certain weight all your life and then someone has the brilliant idea that you should lose weight because it’s putting stress on your knees, you do it, and then you’re dealing with something else.”
According to PitchFX, Sabathia’s average release point has dropped 1.68 inches from 2012 to 2013 after dropping 2.04 inches from 2011 to 2012. His release point has also drifted an additional 1.8 inches towards first base from last year to this year. Think about the hands on a clock; his release point was sitting at one o’clock last year but has slid down and further out towards two o’clock. That slight change in arm slot seems small but it can make a huge difference, especially when you’re talking about the bite on a slider or the ability to drive a fastball downhill.
“The consistent problem is the command,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Andy McCullough two weeks ago. “Even though his strike percentages are okay, it’s what’s going on in the strike zone. A lot of his fastballs and changeups are cutting. Which is a major problem for him.”
That cutting action hasn’t really shown up in PitchFX — Sabathia’s fastball has an extra half-inch or so of horizontal movement this year, which is nothing — but is something Rothschild has mentioned as a problem for several weeks now. It also seems like something that could be attributed to the lower release point. Dropping the arm creates more movement, it’s just the physics of this whole pitching thing. That’s why sidearmers and submariners always have those ridiculous fall off the table sinkers and frisbee sliders.
So the question now is why has his release point (and his arm slot) dropped? Is it because of the weight loss? Is it the toll of over 2,800 career regular season and postseason innings? Is it the result of his offseason elbow surgery? Is Sabathia muscling up in an effort to create the velocity he’s lost over the years? I don’t know. It could be none of those things or it could be all of those things. Pitching mechanics and deliveries are weird like that. They’re these fine-tuned yet never quite perfect unnatural acts, and sometimes stuff goes wrong for no apparent reason.
If the problem is Sabathia’s recent weight loss, then it’s probably a good thing because it should be easily correctable. I’m not talking about gaining the weight back, that’s kinda silly. The weight loss is healthy and he should keep it off. It’s a good thing because it’s something he can adjust to and iron out with enough reps. It’s been a challenge so far, but no one said it would be easy. I suspect Sabathia’s career workload and offseason elbow surgery are playing a part in his awful season though, and although I have faith in the big guy to figure it out, I can’t say for certain that he will.
No, it’s not the literal midway point of the season, but we’re going to use the four-day All-Star break to review the Yankees’ performance to date. We’re handing out letter grades this year, A through F. Yesterday we tackled the A’s, today we continue with the B’s.
The Yankees remain just three games out of a playoff spot despite their plethora of injuries, and the reason they remain so relatively close is a number of unexpectedly strong performances. Some new faces — I mean really new faces, as in guys acquired during Spring Training — have stepped up and assumed larger than expected roles, taking pressure off stalwarts like Robinson Cano in the lineup and David Robertson in the bullpen.
The Grade B’s are not the team’s elite players. They are the guys who have performed well, better than average really, and served as consistent complimentary pieces. One of these guys is actually a disappointment relative to his typical production, but his standard is so high that a disappointing year is actually pretty good. Without further ado, here are the Grade B’s.
Outside of Cano, Gardner has been the team’s only other consistently above-average offensive player. He missed basically all of last season with an elbow injury and has emerged as a legitimate leadoff hitter, putting up a .272/.338/422 (107 wRC+) line with a career-high tying seven homers. Gardner has only stolen 13 bases (in 19 attempts), which is surprising and a letdown, but he has made up for the lack of speed by hitting for power. He has also continued to play his typically elite defense while replacing Curtis Granderson in center field — Gardner was slated to play center even before Granderson’s injury. He can be streaky, but Gardner has been very good for the Yankees this year.
Acquired from the Mariners early in Spring Training, Kelley shook off a horrid April to emerge as Joe Girardi‘s trusted seventh inning guy. His 3.67 ERA and 3.12 FIP are built on a dynamite strikeout rate (13.37 K/9 and 36.2 K%), which has allowed him to strand 21 of 22 inherited runners. Kelley has essentially been a second Robertson with the way he can come out of the bullpen and snuff out rallies without the ball being put in play. What looked like a depth pickup in camp has turned into something much more. Kelley is a key part of the bullpen.
The theme of New York’s bullpen is strikeouts, and none of their relievers — not even Mariano Rivera — can match Logan’s ability to miss bats (12.60 K/9 and 34.7 K%) and limit walks (1.80 BB/9 and 5.0 BB%). His 7.00 K/BB is the eighth best in baseball among relievers who have thrown at least 20 innings. Logan has excellent strikeout (42.4%) and walk (3.4%) rates against lefties, but he’s run into a little bad luck (.429 BABIP) and they’ve put up a decent .246/.271/.404 line against him. That’s not good for a primary lefty specialist, but it has improved of late and Logan remains an effective cog in Girardi’s bullpen. He’s been the team’s best left-handed reliever since Mike Stanton way back in the day and it’s not all that close either.
The Yankees signed Overbay with just three days left in camp and he was only supposed to hang around until Mark Teixeira returned, but Teixeira’s season-ending wrist surgery has made him the everyday first baseman. Overbay has responded by hitting an ever-so-slightly above-average .252/.308/.437 (101 wRC+) with more than a few clutch, late-inning hits, plus he plays very good defense at first. He’s a platoon bat — 121 wRC+ vs. RHP but only 46 vs. LHP — but the Yankees have had to play him everyday, so the fact that his overall season line is a bit better than average is a testament to how productive he’s been against righties. Overbay has exceeded even the highest of expectations and has probably been the team’s third best everyday position player. No, really.
Sunday’s disaster start makes this seem silly, but even the diminished version of CC Sabathia is a reliable innings eating workhorse. As I’ve been saying the last five years now, even bad Sabathia is still pretty good. He’s got a 4.07 ERA and 4.05 FIP in 137 innings, the fifth most in all of baseball. His biggest problem this season has been the long ball — CC has already surrendered 21 homers, just one fewer than his career-high set last year. Learning to live with reduced fastball velocity is not an easy thing to do, but Sabathia has worked through it and typically gives the team a chance to win. Well, at least gives a team with an average offense to win. He’s not an ace right now and he may never be again, but the sheer volume of innings he provides makes him a better than average hurler despite the an ERA and FIP that are worse than his career norms.
3:38pm: Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said it was just a mix-up and Sabathia was always scheduled to start tonight. Phelps goes tomorrow and Hiroki Kuroda goes on Sunday.
3:21pm: I misread, sorry. David Phelps has been scratched from tonight’s start for an unknown reason, and Sabathia is starting in his place. CC had extra rest thanks to the off-day on Monday and Ivan Nova‘s spot start. No idea what’s up with Phelps.
3:20pm: CC Sabathia has been scratched from tomorrow’s start for an unknown reason. The probable pitcher is listed as TBA at the moment, but I have to assume it’ll be Ivan Nova. No word on what’s up with Sabathia, but fingers crossed obviously.
For the first time since signing with the Yankees, CC Sabathia is truly a concern. His last three starts have gotten progressively worse, culminating with Sunday’s seven-run, seven-inning disaster against the Rays. It was the fourth time he allowed four or more runs in his last seven starts, raising his season ERA to 3.96 (4.09 FIP). The eleven homers he’s surrendered are half last season’s total in a little more than one-third of the innings, and the weather hasn’t warmed up much yet. He’s a concern, there’s no sugarcoating it.
“It’s everything,” said Sabathia to Mark Feinsand following Sunday’s game when asked what was wrong. “Not being able to make pitches with two strikes, fastball command. It’s just not being good … I’ve been through bad stretches in my career, but it’s tough. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to keep working, keep going and believe that you’re going to get better. I’ve just got to make better pitches, do a better job of getting outs pitching to contact and not getting behind in hitter’s counts.”
That’s some fine generic pitcher speak right there, which unfortunately isn’t very helpful. We shouldn’t be surprised by a player declining to explicitly discuss his struggles, however. It’s typical. Sabathia is clearly frustrated though, it’s evident in his body language. Here, just look at his reaction to the Sean Rodriguez homer from Sunday:
When was the last time you saw Sabathia show outward frustration like that? I can’t remember it ever happening, certainly not before this season at least. He’s pitching poorly and it’s starting to wear on him. It’s perfectly normal. We’re talking about one of baseball’s best pitchers over the last half-decade suddenly struggling as much as he has at any time in his career. It’s a shock to the system.
Anecdotally, it seems like hitters are squaring up Sabathia much more often this year, at least compared to his other four years in New York. That isn’t showing up in his line drive rate — 21.8%, which is only a touch higher than last year (21.1%) and his career average (20.3%) — but batted ball data is fickle since it’s subject to score bias. More balls squared up could mean deeper fly balls that are still caught for outs, harder hit ground balls that still go for singles. That’s what it seems like to me, anyway.
Is that problem related to his velocity drop? It very well could be. Fastballs are not independent events — they setup everything else, and for Sabathia that’s his slider and changeup. It’s an awful lot easier to sit back on mid-80s sliders and changeups when the fastball is humming in at 89-91 instead of 93-95. Sabathia hasn’t altered his pitch selection a ton, at least in the sense that he threw 53.9% fastballs last year and 52.0% this year. That’s a small difference. He has thrown more changeups and fewer sliders than last year, but at this point of the season it could just be a sample size thing. Overall, he isn’t throwing more non-fastballs in 2013.
“The only way the velocity (is a problem) is if it’s changing his arm angle because he’s trying to muster or anything else,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Feinsand on Sunday. “I don’t really see that. I think he’s trying to make pitches with what he’s got on a given day and staying within deliveries and trying to execute pitches. Early in the season he had the same velocity and pitched really well. I think it’s just executing pitches a little bit better.”
Command has appeared to be an issue for Sabathia at times this year, but there really isn’t a way to show that statistically. Walk rates and zone rates speak more to control and throwing strikes in general than command, which is throwing quality strikes. Dotting the edges, staying at the knees, pitching to the hole in the hitter’s swing, hitting the mitt, stuff like that. You can always tell when CC is off because his fastball sails up and away to righties, which I suppose could stem from overthrowing and trying to force velocity rather than just letting the ball come out naturally. I haven’t noticed if that is happening more frequently this year, however.
I have no idea what’s wrong with Sabathia. I don’t think it’s as simple is “he lost some velocity and therefore took a big step back in effectiveness,” though. His days of doing anything more than touching 94+ are probably long gone, which is perfectly normal for a 32-year-old pitcher with over 2,700 big league innings on his arm. Adjustments have to be made and that could take time — it took Mike Mussina all of 2007 to reinvent himself, for example — but it’s becoming more and more clear with each start that the Sabathia of old isn’t coming back. Given the offense and the team’s desperate need for strong pitching, the Yankees need those adjustments to come sooner rather than later. Until they come, CC’s performance is a problem.
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.