2014 Season Review: The Ex-Ace

The 2014 season is over and it’s time to look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new review format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)
(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

By just about any measure, last season was the worst of CC Sabathia‘s career. He did manage to soak up 211 innings and that’s worth something, but he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR out of 81 qualified starters. Sabathia led baseball with 112 earned runs allowed and his 2.69 K/BB fell off big time from the 4.48 K/BB ratio he put up in 2012. It was an awful season and everyone and their mother had theories why CC dropped off so much.

Despite the terrible year, there were some reasons to believe Sabathia would rebound this year, specifically that he was a year out from elbow surgery and would have a normal offseason. He was also working to add a cutter. I, personally, also thought he couldn’t possibly be any worse. Maybe he wouldn’t get back to being an ace but he would be a serviceable mid-rotation horse, someone who soaked up a boatload of innings and was league average or better at preventing runs. I would have taken that in a heartbeat.

Instead, Sabathia did get worse in 2014. He got worse and he got hurt. Sabathia made just eight starts for the Yankees this summer and threw only 46 innings — he failed to complete six full innings of work three times, equaling his total from 2011-12 combined — with a 5.28 ERA and 4.78 FIP. It all started in the first inning of the first game of the season too. The Astros (!) tagged Sabathia for four runs in the first inning on Opening Day and only twice in those eight starts did he allowed fewer than four runs.

There were flashes of Sabathia figuring it out but one of the ways we cope with Ace Sucking Syndrome (ASS) is over-analyzing the hell out of every little thing. I did it. More than once. But none of the positive signs — the times he’s retired 12 in a row in the middle of a start, stuff like that — meant anything in the end. Sabathia was getting bombed on the regular, allowing ten homers in those 46 innings (1.96 HR/9 and 23.3 HR/FB%). Hit Tracker says those ten homers averaged 403.1 feet, so they weren’t wall-scrapers.

Sabathia’s season came to an end following his May 10th start against the Brewers, when the Yankees placed him on the disabled list with fluid in his twice-surgically repaired right knee. He was expected to return in June or July and he actually did go out on a minor league rehab assignment at one point — I completely forgot about that — but Sabathia eventually suffered a setback. It was feared he would need career-threatening microfracture surgery after a stem cell treatment didn’t work, but additional tests showed he only needed the knee cleaned out. Either way, his season was over.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in Sabathia’s season, it’s that both his strikeout (9.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%) and walk (1.96 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%) rates were stellar. He also got a lot of ground balls (48.0%). That’s all well and good, it’s better than having crappy peripherals, but Sabathia’s struggles are rooted in the type of contact he allowed, which was routinely hard. Unfortunately there is no publicly available data measuring this stuff. Line drive rates are fickle — his 22.1% liner rate was in line with the last four or five years anyway — because of scorer bias. All we have is anecdotal evidence and that sucks.

What we do know is that Sabathia’s velocity continued to trend downward — he averaged 90.76 mph in 2014, down from 92.36 in 2013 and 93.31 in 2013 according to Brooks Baseball — and that’s completely expected since he’s a 34-year-old with nearly 3,000 regular season innings on his arm. Velocity loss is inevitable and not reversible. That’s life. It happens to everyone. Sabathia’s location was ever so slightly worse than it had been, particularly when it came to grooving pitches over the plate (via Brooks):

CC Sabathia 2009-14 Grooved Pitches

You can get away with grooving ~6.5% of your fastballs like Sabathia did from 2011-13 when you’re throwing 93+. In his limited time this year he grooved 7.3% of his fastballs while averaging just north of 90 mph and that’s a big difference. Since 2010, opponent’s slugging percentage against Sabathia’s fastball has steadily reason from .373 to .447 to .479 to .486 to .722 (!) this year. Obviously there’s some sample size noise in there, but the point stands. Hitters are getting mighty comfortable in the box against CC.

The location issues — it seemed like whenever Sabathia missed, he missed up in the zone and/or right out over the plate — could stem from lots of stuff. There’s a million variables here. He could be overthrowing to compensate for lost velocity, his landings could have been sloppy because his knee was unstable, his mechanics could have been out of what for whatever reason. I’m sure all of that and more have contributed to his problems. Sabathia’s release point has been steadily dropping over the years (via Brooks) …

CC Sabathia 2009-14 Release Point

… which, again, is fairly common among pitchers his age, especially with that workload. At some point your shoulder just isn’t strong enough to maintain your arm slot. Sabathia’s dropped his arm over time and that at least partially explains the extra cut we see on his pitches from time to time. Extra cut that usually took the pitch over the plate and into the happy zone for hitters. We saw plenty of that last year and we saw plenty of it again this year. He had the same issues as last season only worse.

Sabathia had his knee cleaned out in August and soon thereafter had a second stem cell treatment (as planned). We recently learned he has started throwing and will soon get back up on a mound before shutting it down for the winter and going through his usual offseason routine. I love CC, he’s one of the my favorite Yankees of all-time, but I learned my lesson last year and I’m not expecting a bounce back next year. I’m not expecting anything. If he comes back and dominates with a healthy knee, that would be awesome. If he comes back and is a league average inning eater, great. If he comes back and stinks again, well that’ll stink, but that’s sorta what I’m expecting at this point.

The Yankees are stuck with Sabathia for another two years and possibly a third — his 2017 vesting option is based on the health of his shoulder, not his knee — so they have to hope this knee surgery helps him get back to being a useful pitcher. Sabathia is a tough dude who has pitched through knee problems and a bone spur in his elbow these last few years and I have not doubt that if he fails and is again one of the worst pitchers in baseball, it won’t be for a lack of effort on his part. The Yankees have a lot of uncertainty in their rotation heading into next season and, after both this year and last, Sabathia is a huge part of that uncertainty.

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Mailbag: Jeter, A-Rod, Sabathia, Pirela, Ex-Yanks

Got six questions for you this week, the first week of the offseason. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything at anytime, mailbag comments or otherwise.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Terri asks: What do you think the chances are for Derek Jeter to go into the Hall of Fame as a unanimous choice?

Very small, but better than they would be in 2015 because there will be some turnover in the voting body before Jeter is eligible for induction in five years. Greg Maddux, whose Hall of Fame case was unimpeachable, did not appear on 20 (!) of the 575 ballots this year. Jeter may get a higher percentage of the vote — Tom Seaver still holds the record after appearing on 98.8% of the ballots — than Maddux because he won more titles and was simply more popular, but I’ll continue to bet against a player getting in unanimously until it actually happens. Too many older voters still send in blank ballots in an attempt to make some kind of statement. It’s silly, but that’s life. Don’t worry, Jeter will still get in on the first ballot.

Dan asks: Would it hurt the Yankees brand if Alex Rodriguez, given what we know about his connections with PEDs, broke Babe Ruth’s home run record? Also, is it financially responsible to allow A-Rod to reach the $6 million bonuses from the incentive clauses in his contract that was signed under the pretenses of marketing these achievements from a then “clean” athlete?

On the contrary, I think it will help the team’s #brand. They’re going to make a ton of money if Alex Rodriguez manages to get close to Babe Ruth’s Barry Bonds’ homerun record. People are still going to pay oodles of money to see history and boo the everloving crap out of him. Yeah, the bonuses were signed under the pretense that A-Rod was clean, but CC Sabathia‘s contract was signed under the pretense he would be a 200+ inning workhorse. It didn’t work out, that’s the risk you take when entering into a contract with a player. If the Yankees try to get out of those bonuses, A-Rod and the union will file a grievance and probably win given the contract language. They’re not going to let the team weasel out of that money. It’s a precedent the MLBPA won’t allow to be set.

Daniel asks: Given the new regime entering the MLB offices, how important is it for the Yankees’ financial freedom that this year’s playoff picture includes lower budget teams like Royals, Pirates, and Athletics? Obviously spending money doesn’t win you championships per se but more often than not it puts you in contention and the Wild Card has proven that’s all you need. Will these lower budget teams getting a chance have an impact on the CBA? Will it prevent MLB from considering a salary cap?

A salary cap won’t happen because the union won’t allow it to happen. The luxury tax system is a compromise. Baseball is way too strong financially right now to start putting limits on payroll. The owners would love one, sure, but the MLBPA will fight this tooth and nail. I think they would strike before accepting a salary cap and no one wants a work stoppage. The game is too healthy. Maybe seeing those smaller payroll teams get into the postseason both this year and the last few years (Rays!) will help keep the salary cap conversation at bay, but I don’t think it will have a big impact. The biggest argument against a salary cap is the league’s revenue.

Jack asks: CC’s days of going 200+ innings per year are over. The knee can’t take the pounding, especially over the course of a season. On the other hand, if he is only needed for say 100 innings a year he might be able to play out his contract. What do you think of putting him in the bullpen? It’ll be less strain on the arm (and knee) and will allow him to air it out for each of the one or two innings he pitches, so instead of maxing at say 90 mph he can get back to say maybe 93/94?

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

I think it’s worth it to find if Sabathia can still start first. He’ll almost certainly never be an ace again, but maybe he can be what Hiroki Kuroda was this year following knee surgery, even if it’s only for one year. If Sabathia can’t start, either physically or because his performance is terrible, then stick him in the bullpen and see what happens. I don’t think they’re at that point yet. Give him a chance to start following surgery and see where he’s at. We all just might be pleasantly surprised.

Dustin asks: How playable do you think Jose Pirela is at SS? Could the Yanks save a little cash and maybe even slightly upgrade offensively and in terms of defensive flexibility by bringing Pirela off the bench as a super utility guy? That’s assuming they have a rock-solid everyday SS like Hardy.

The Yankees moved Pirela off shortstop permanently following the 2011 season — he’s played only eight games at the position since, all this year with Triple-A Scranton. He’s been a second baseman and left fielder more than anything these last few years, though he’s seen time pretty much everywhere other than pitcher or catcher. Pirela could probably play shortstop the way Yangervis Solarte did earlier this year, a spot start here or there but not everyday. If the Yankees signed J.J. Hardy or whoever and he got hurt, they’d have to play Brendan Ryan at short everyday, not Pirela. He can hit though, and there’s a decent chance he’ll force the team’s hand in Spring Training the way Solarte did this year. His versatility and right-handed bat would be nice to have on the bench.

JPK asks: Using just players that came through the Yankee system, who are no longer Yankees, and were active in MLB this past season, make your best starting lineup…. Mine is Jackson CF, Melky RF, Cano 2B, Soriano DH, Montero 1B, Navarro C, Nunez 3B, R Pena SS, A. Almonte LF… Did I miss anyone?

I’ll do you one better. Here’s an entire roster of former Yankees’ farmhands who played in MLB this season.

Catcher Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
Dioner Navarro 1B Jesus Montero LF Melky Cabrera RH Phil Hughes RH John Axford
2B Robinson Cano CF Austin Jackson RH Ian Kennedy RH J. Chamberlain
DH SS Ramiro Pena RF Jose Tabata RH Zach McAllister RH Tyler Clippard
Alfonso Soriano 3B E. Nunez LH Vidal Nuno LH Mike Dunn
LH Jose Quintana RH D. Farquhar
Bench RH George Kontos
C Eric Fryer IF Dean Anna RH Mark Melancon
UTIL J. Paredes OF Abe Almonte

The roster would look quite a bit better if I could include players the Yankees drafted but did not sign, specifically Gerrit Cole, Doug Fister, Drew Storen, and Chris Davis. The notable omissions are all pitchers: Hector Noesi, Tommy Kahnle, Phil Coke, and Randy Choate. The Yankees have produced a bunch of decent arms recently but not many bats — Fryer and Anna are really stretching the definition of “coming up through the system.” My lineup one through nine would be similar to JPK’s:

  1. Jackson
  2. Melky
  3. Cano
  4. Soriano
  5. Navarro
  6. Montero
  7. Tabata
  8. Nunez
  9. Rakin’ Ramiro

The pitchers are listed alphabetically but my rotation would be Quintana followed in order by Hughes and Kennedy, with Nuno and McAllister in whatever order in the fourth and fifth spots. Pick ’em out of a hat. Melancon would close with Clippard and Farquhar setting him up. I don’t really have a long man but whatever. Just spit-balling it, that roster would win what, maybe 70-75 games? It would rely (heavily) on the pitching and Cano driving in Jackson and Melky. That’s pretty much it. Maybe some trademark Yankees Magic™ would get them to 81 wins.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Tex, Sabathia, Nova

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are dealing with a number of injuries as the season winds down, mostly on the position player side. Here are a few injury updates worth passing along, courtesy of Brendan Kuty, Dan Martin, and Chad Jennings.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) said he felt nothing more than “normal soreness” yesterday after making his return to the rotation on Sunday. He played catch as part of his usual between-starts routine and is scheduled to throw 80-85 pitches on Saturday. “Just the fact that I was able to throw yesterday and the fact I’m feeling good today (is encouraging),” said Tanaka yesterday. “Having the start coming up on Saturday, if I come out from that strong, then obviously that’s a positive. From where I am right now, I should be able to have a good offseason of training (and) I should be good to go for next season.”
  • Mark Teixeira (wrist) received his third cortisone shot of the season — it was administered in a different part of his wrist, which is why the doctors allowed it — and hopes to return to the lineup as soon as today. “This last week of the season, we’ll do whatever I can to stay out there and play every game. You never want to end the season hurt. You want to finish the season, so if I play the last five or six games, it’s worth it,” he said.
  • CC Sabathia (knee) played catch yesterday for the first time since having surgery in July. He plans to continue his throwing program and get back on a mound by Thanksgiving before shutting it down for the offseason and going into his usual winter routine. “I’ve been throwing a football a little bit. It feels good to come out here and not hide,” he joked.
  • Ivan Nova (elbow) is on a throwing program as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. “Nova’s rehab has went extremely well. He has had zero setbacks and has progressed very, very well,” said Joe Girardi.
  • There were no updates on Jacoby Ellsbury (hamstring) and Carlos Beltran (elbow) yesterday. Both remain day-to-day and are questionable to return before the end of the season.

Sabathia nominated for Roberto Clemente Award, Beltran nominated for Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award

CC Sabathia has been selected as the Yankees’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, MLB announced. It is given annually to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” Here are the 30 nominees. Derek Jeter won the award in 2009 and Carlos Beltran won it last year.

In other news, Beltran is one of six players nominated for the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award, the MLBPA announced. The award is given annually to the player “whose on-field performance and contributions to his community inspire others to higher levels of achievement.” Mariano Rivera won it last year. Beltran is up against Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Hamilton, Adam LaRoche, and Anthony Rizzo. Congrats to both Sabathia and Beltran. It’s a honor just to be nominated for awards like this.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Nova, Prado, Sabathia

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Got a bunch of injury updates to pass along prior to tonight’s series finale against the Red Sox. The updates come courtesy of Meredith Marakovits, Chad Jennings, Mark Feinsand, Jack Curry, Brendan Kuty, and Dan Martin.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) felt fine after playing long toss earlier this week. He is scheduled to throw off a mound in the bullpen on Saturday. “He does feel better. Our doctor said he basically just had arm fatigue, and that’s not abnormal for a pitcher. He does feel better. He played long toss the other day and felt good, so hopefully it’s pretty soon,” said Joe Girardi.
  • Ivan Nova (elbow) started a throwing program last week as part of his rehab from Tommy John surgery. “It was awesome to be throwing a baseball again. For me, I always worried about how I’m going to be. It feels a little weird, but once you start throwing, you’re more confident,” he said. Nova, who is right on schedule with his rehab, is making 25 throws at 60 feet every other day and will eventually start to stretch it out. He will spend the winter rehabbing in Tampa rather than going home to the Dominican Republic.
  • Martin Prado (hamstring) received some treatment yesterday and does not feel anything when he’s walking. He will test the hamstring with some baseball activities today — batting practice, running, fielding grounders, etc. — to see how it responds. “I think we made a little progress and we’ll see how it responds,” he said. “I just want it to be one or two days and not the rest of the season. I don’t feel it walking. I’m not going to play 50%. I have to be 100%.”
  • Carlos Beltran (elbow) will have the bone spur removed as soon as the season ends and the rehab is not expected to limit him at the start of Spring Training. He’ll need two months of rest before he can resume throwing and swinging a bat — Beltran will spend the winter living in New York so he can go for regular check-ups — which still gives him plenty of time to get ready for camp.
  • As scheduled, CC Sabathia (knee) received another stem cell injection last week. “It went well. I’ve got no crutches. I feel good,” he said. Sabathia is expected to begin throwing in another week or two.
  • This isn’t really an injury update, but Hiroki Kuroda admitted he skipped his usual between-starts bullpen session this week in an effort to avoid fatigue, something he’s done late in each of the last two years. He added that he’s thrown less between starts all season.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, CC, Pineda, Beltran

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Mark Teixeira needed three stitches in his left pinkie after getting stepped on while sliding across home plate during last night’s game. X-rays came back negative but he will miss at least one game and maybe more. Here are some more injury updates prior to this afternoon’s series finale against the Tigers, courtesy of Marly Rivera, George King, Fred Kerber, Jack Curry, and Vince Mercogliano:

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) came through the first two days of his throwing session well — yesterday was a rest day and he will throw again today — and the team has a return date in mind, but they won’t reveal it. Can’t say I blame them. It is sometime in September, however. “I’m happy the early return on rest and two throwing days on Tanaka have gone well,” said Brian Cashman.“I’m not gonna say (the date). We’ll take this day-by-day … He’s in one of those situations where every day you hold your breath, hoping it’s a good day. The more of those that come, the better it will be for us.”
  • CC Sabathia (knee) acknowledged he will continue to need treatment going forward and will never truly be 100% healthy because there is no cartilage left under his knee cap. Doctors removed a previously undetected bone spur during surgery and he’s scheduled to undergo another stem cell procedure in a few weeks. “Hopefully, this procedure he just had is good enough to return him to our rotation every five days for an entire year starting next year,” said the GM.
  • Michael Pineda (shoulder) threw his between-starts bullpen session yesterday and will make his next rehab start with Triple-A Scranton on Friday. He has been ruled out as a replacement for the injured David Phelps that day, though he could return to the rotation next week. “He’s probably available to go somewhere between 75 and 80 (pitches), and then we see where we’re at,” said Joe Girardi. “I said we wanted to get him to 90 (before bringing him back), but with the circumstances that we’re in, you never know.”
  • Carlos Beltran (elbow) has started throwing to the bases as part of his throwing program. He expects to return to the outfield at some point — “I’m a position player, have to work on all aspects of my game,” he said — though Girardi acknowledged they aren’t as desperate to get him back in the field after the trade deadline. “There is less of a sense that we need to get him out there,” said the skipper. “We will keep him throwing. The one thing we don’t want to risk is him having a setback.’’
  • Jacoby Ellsbury (thumb) is still sore after being stepped on during a rundown on Tuesday. “I’ll just play through it,” he said. There is no long-term concern.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Sabathia, Pineda, Tex

Like one of these guys is still healthy. (Presswire)
Like one of these guys is still healthy. (Presswire)

Here are some updates are various injured Yankees, courtesy of Chad Jennings, Dan Barbarisi, Bryan Hoch, Brendan Kuty, as well as the team itself.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) still has some pain after receiving his platelet-rich plasma injection. “He’s improved, but he still feels it on a daily basis. It’s not good that he’s still feeling it at this stage. (We’ll just) go day by day, week by week and adjust accordingly,” said Brian Cashman.
  • CC Sabathia (knee) had his clean-up surgery as scheduled yesterday and everything went “as planned,” the Yankees announced. “I don’t know if we’ll see him. Obviously he’s not allowed to travel for a few days, so we’ll probably see him when we get back from the road trip,” said Joe Girardi.
  • Michael Pineda (shoulder) was scheduled to throw two innings and 30 pitches in a simulated game today, but it was rained out. He threw two innings inside and will stretch it out to 45-50 pitches in the coming days. If all goes well, Cashman said Pineda would return to the rotation “sometime in August.”
  • The decision whether to place Mark Teixeira (lat) on the disabled list will be made tomorrow. “It’s just seeing how he feels after three or four days, and then we’ll decide if we think it’s going to be in the near future that he would play, or if we’re going to need the 15 days. If it’s going to be 12, 13, 14 days, it probably make sense to get a player,” said Girardi.
  • Kelly Johnson (groin) has a Grade I strain and is not expected to miss more than the minimum 15 days.