Are We Seeing the Beginning Stages of Decline for Sabathia?

CC Sabathia is a big left hander who has held down the ace role of the rotation for the New York Yankees since 2009. The 31-year-old is signed through 2016 with a vesting option in 2017. It’s been an inconsistent season for the big lefty which begs the question; are we beginning to see Sabathia’s production begin to dip heading into his mid-thirties? Let’s take a look.

From 2007 to 2011, he’s pitched no fewer than 237 innings and there are theories out there suggesting arms only have some many innings in them before they become ineffective and/or injury risks. Even Joe Girardi offers up a hypothesis as to Sabathia’s troubles this season as he told Newsday’s Erik Boland:

“It’s been inconsistent this year, and at times you wonder if it’s the workload he’s had the last four or five years. He’s logged a lot of innings over his career.”

This season, Sabathia hasn’t seemed like himself on the mound, especially as of late. His ERA (3.56) is the highest since his 2006 season with the Cleveland Indians when he recorded a 4.03 ERA. A look at his FIP (3.54) reveals that he’s, in fact, pitching as expected and it’s no fault of the defense. However, his xFIP (3.26) indicates there’s room for improvement.

Too much of this look from CC Sabathia lately. (Image: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE)

The big Achilles heel of the Yankees starting rotation in 2012 has been the long ball and Sabathia is not immune to this. He’s recorded the highest mark (1.12 HR/9) of his career this season. Furthermore, nearly 14% of flyballs are landing in the seats. To give you some context, in 2011, he amassed a 0.64 HR/9 ratio, and 8.4% HR/FB rate. Mysteriously, his strikeout and walk rates are trending positively, which bodes well for a pitcher his age.

As our own Matt Hunter pointed out in an article last week, it seems as though Sabathia might be in the beginning stages of altering the way he pitches. You see, up until this season he’s relied heavily on the mid-90’s fastball to get guys out. He mixes in a fabulous slider and change-up in order to keep batters off balance. Sabathia’s fastball velocity is down almost a mile and a half per hour, and he’s using his slider and fastball more than 66% of the time. Conversely, he’s relying less on his fastball (35.3% in 2012 vs. 50% career) and more on his slider (32.4% in 2012 vs. 22.1% career). We see this transformation all the time in pitchers as they age; I suppose Sabathia should be treated no differently. More off-speed offerings could lead to more flat pitches, flat pitches are often meatballs, and meatballs usually become souvenirs. We can expect this trend of giving up more home runs to continue throughout the life of his contract with the Yankees.

Looking at his starts since coming off the DL, he’s 2-1 in four games. In those four starts he’s given up 14 runs (11 earned) and six (!) homers. That’s not very ace-like from Big Poppa. During that span, his ERA has risen from 3.44 to 3.56 and he hasn’t been able to hold leads very well. Case in point, his last start in Baltimore he had a 2-0 lead going into the bottom of the second and he promptly gave up back-to-back home runs to Mark Reynolds (Yankee Killer®) and Lew Ford (yes, that Lew Ford). He then later gave up a two-out double to J.J. Hardy which scored Nick Markakis, who singled earlier in the inning. Just like that by the third inning it was 3-2 and the Yankees never recovered, losing 6-5.

From a fan on the sideline, Sabathia just doesn’t look right this season despite his numbers being in the same ballpark. The smell test doesn’t pan out and one has to wonder if the two DL stints this year conveys a larger problem that’ll be revealed in the offseason. The Yankees can ill afford to have secondary production from Sabathia, who is being counted on (and paid handsomely) to be the Yankees’ ace over the next 3-4 years. There’s already doubt concerning the current rotation and in the prospects currently making their way through the minors, so Sabathia needs to figure it out if the Yankees want to stay competitive going forward.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs