Are CC Sabathia's elbow issues cause for concern?

As Sabathia returns strong, is there still room for concern?

New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia was activated off the DL last night in the first game of the series against the Cleveland Indians and the results were CC-esque.

He pitched 7 1/3 strong innings, giving up one run while striking out nine, and even managed to get out of a one-out jam in the sixth inning. His breaking pitches, particularly the slider, helped with those strikeouts, and the fastball velocity remained consistently in the mid-90s. More importantly, after tossing over 20 pitches in the 6th, CC managed to buckle down and pitch another efficient 1 1/3 innings afterwards, a very good sign compared with the fatigue associated with the long, high-pitch inning before it.

The wonderful return notwithstanding, is there any cause for concern in the long-term with Sabathia’s elbow? There is some positive news regarding the injury; the MRI on the elbow showed no structural damage. This should bring a sigh of relief that CC doesn’t look like a candidate of Tommy John surgery. However, this was the first time in his career that Sabathia has been placed on the DL with an arm-related injury. Sabathia himself indicated that the stiffness had come and gone, and he had pitched through the pain. That plus his ability to get back on the mound in the minimum amount of time on the DL indicates good news, right?

Not so fast. There are some potential red flags around Sabathia. We all know that Sabathia has been an absolute workhorse throughout his career. His pitching efforts on short rest down the stretch in 2008 in a push for the post-season with the Brewers and in 2009 with the Yankees (which resulted in #27) is well-documented. Since 2007, CC has pitched over 230 innings each season, not including the post-season.  Since 2001, CC has pitched over 180 innings pitched per season and has logged over 40,377 pitches on that now-sore left elbow during the same time period, the most in MLB. By comparison, since 2001, Mark Buehrle is a distant second on that list, with 39,432 pitches. (Fun fact: Other notable innings-eaters who are struggling or dealing with arm injuries this year include Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. Take a look at their stats this year and come back to me. Short version: not good.) In short, there are a lot of miles on CC’s arm.

More unnerving is a look at some of Sabathia’s advanced metrics. Since 2007, Sabathia’s fastball velocity has averaged over 93.6 mph, but this year’s velocity has averaged just 92.4 mph, down a full mph. And while Yankees fans tend to fixate on the radar gun when watching pitchers struggle (I’m looking at you, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain), CC’s K/9 sits right around last year’s average of 8+/9, indicating that he’s not suffering in the results department per-say. His WHIP is a very respectable 1.20, although CC’s average HR allowed/9 is 1.00, up from .6 per nine last year. So is the home run discrepancy a matter of big-league hitters catching up to a fastball a full mph slower than last year (as we saw with Phil Hughes in early 2011), or rather a product of bad location? Possibly a bit of both, but combined with the other factors, it bears some watching.

So overall, should we be worrying about Sabathia? While a clean MRI is always reassuring, and the results are there, anytime a pitcher– let alone your ace– the guy who carries the pitching staff with that stiff, more than $150 million dollar-plus elbow who is inked from now through 2016 (with an option for 2017), I’d say that some worry is valid.

As long as the wins continue to rack up for CC this season, we can choose to ignore the potential red flags. But the critical issues; innings logged, fairly measurable loss of velocity, number of pitches thrown- are only going to persist as Sabathia’s career continues. All in all, while the Yankees can survive a small length of time without CC, a long-term loss of Sabathia could be devastating. So, no, the sky isn’t falling, Yankees fans- but it may be forming some cracks. Let’s hope last night’s efforts continue for the foreseeable future without further damage to his prized arm.

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Tags: CC Sabathia New York Yankees

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