It’s difficult winning games when your offense is averaging 3.78 runs per contest, which currently ranks the New York Yankees above only the Chicago White Sox in the American League. It’s also difficult winning games when your ace isn’t pitching like the team’s best pitcher. Earlier this week, our own Hunter Farman laid out some of his ideas as to why the Yankees pitching staff needs to step up, but I’ll be taking a look at the Yankees ace, CC Sabathia more in depth, because the club is stuck with him, good or bad, until 2016.
First let’s take a look at two seasons for which Sabathia has pitched for the Yanks, and see if you can guess which is the current season:
7.71 | 7.78
2.62 | 2.24
3.77 | 3.59
42.9% | 44.9%
If I didn’t know any better I would think the pitcher on the right was having a slightly better season. However, the guy on the left went 19-8 and finished fourth in the Cy Young race in 2009, while the guy on the right is below .500 this season (I cherry picked the snot out of those stats to prove my point). When we begin introducing some more numbers, we begin to see an alarming trend. For instance, Sabathia’s HR/FB rate has doubled compared to his 2009 season (from 7.4% to 14.9%), and with it, his ERA and FIP have skyrocketed from 3.37 (3.39 FIP) in 2009 to 4.78 (4.18 FIP) in 2013.
He’s not the same pitcher he was, and age has very much to do with it. As we know, with age comes a loss in velocity, and Sabathia who regularly sat in the mid-90′s with his fastball (94.2 mph in 2009), has dropped to just 90.8 mph this year. He’s also relying less on said fastball as he’s using more offspeed stuff to mask the decreasing effectiveness of the pitch. Unfortunately, his changeup isn’t fooling many batters because hasn’t followed the same path as his fastball, and is now only 6 mph apart rather than 8 mph he was averaging in 2009. believe it or not, but that’s a big difference. The effectiveness of his offspeed stuff hasn’t caught up with how his fastball used to be. Meaning, hitters aren’t afraid of his offspeed stuff, because his fastball is now much more hittable.
Looking at his plate discipline numbers he’s experiencing more contact from pitches from within the zone and fewer swinging strikes. What’s weird is he is inducing more swings and contact on pitches outside the strike zone than he did back in 2009. Putting the bat on the ball outside the strike zone induces weaker contact, but that hasn’t translated into similar numbers to 2009 for Sabathia.
So what does Sabathia have going for him? Not much, and he’s going to need reinvent himself going forward. Diminishing velocity doesn’t magically cure itself as more miles are put on his arm. So he’ll need to take a page out of Mike Mussina‘s book.
Moose went through three seasons where he struggled with lost velocity and finally bottomed out in 2007, when he turned in a subpar campaign with a 13-8 record and 5.15 ERA (4.01 FIP). So how did he turn in a 20-win campaign with a 3.37 ERA (3.32 FIP) in his final year in baseball? He put more emphasis on using his offspeed offerings to set up his fastball. He used his slider nearly 5% more in his final season than he did the year prior and dropped his changeup usage from 7.1% to 5.2%. He effectively became a three-pitch pitcher, by dropping off two of his more ineffective offerings.
It’s not exactly new ground we’re breaking here, but it’s a tough realization for a dominant pitcher to come to in his career. There’s the old adage of veteran pitchers learn to pitch, not just throw, and Sabathia’s time has come. He’s averaged 228 innings in his 13-year career and has put oodles of miles on his arm, so it shouldn’t be surprising he’s regressing, especially at this rate.
It’s difficult seeing the team’s ace struggle, especially since he has a few years remaining on his deal. The Yankees aren’t exactly the bastion of developing players, namely pitchers. However, if Sabathia can find a happy medium by using his offspeed stuff to setup his diminishing fastball, he might just regain some of his dominance.