As the 2013 season heads toward August, the New York Yankees still have a pulse. And if you haven’t followed them you may not believe it, but their plucky – if wilting – success has been in spite of ace C.C. Sabathia, not because of him.
In a season where the Yankees have needed Sabathia at his best, he has been decidedly his worst. He has failed to spark winning streaks, faltered at halting losing streaks and routinely left Everest-like deficits in the path of an offensively-starved team.
It frustrates his teammates, his manager and his fans, but no one more than himself. After a 5-inning, 7-run debacle against the Rays on Friday night, Sabathia called his pitching embarrassing. For the first time in his career, he had surrendered 7 runs or more in three consecutive starts.
Sabathia has never been prone to such prolonged runs of impotence. Historically, in innings where he has run into trouble, he has always stiffened and gotten the next out. In games where he has encountered a rough inning, he has always settled down and found his groove. And in seasons where he has thrown a bad game, he has always, always, regrouped and redeemed in his next start.
Until this year.
This year, he hasn’t been able to bear down and make his pitch when he needs to, and 1-run innings have ballooned into 6-run innings. This year, he hasn’t been able to regain his touch once he’s lost it, and smooth sailing has deteriorated into perilous piloting. This year, he hasn’t been able to put a bad start behind him, and minor hiccups have turned into belching losing streaks.
In his last three starts, Sabathia has allowed 26 hits and 22 runs, over 14 innings. Granted, a crucial error led to five unearned runs against the Twins on July 14, but a trademark of C.C.’s in the past has been his ability to pick his defense up and limit the damage. A trademark of C.C. this year has been his tendency to spiral out of control at the first sign of trouble.
Last Sunday at Fenway Park, with a chance to kick-start his team in the second half with a series win over Boston, Sabathia cruised through the first two innings. But in the third inning, the wheels fell off and a 3-0 lead disintegrated into a 4-3 deficit without warning.
But before it was 4-3, it was 3-1 and Sabathia was in a manageable position. Sure, there were runners on the corners and just one out, but for a pitcher with the ability to strike batters out and induce groundballs, the end of the inning didn’t appear so far off. Indeed, a strikeout followed by an out of any kind and the dugout was just around the bend.
But a 1-2 fastball to Napoli was walloped over the Green Monster, and just like that, the Yankees were behind. Two batters later the flash storm was over, but the wreckage remained. And there were still aftershocks to follow. In the fourth, a hit batsman and three consecutive singles – occurring over only 11 pitches – yielded two more runs, and in the fifth, a mammoth home run by Johnny Gomes put a loud bookend on Sabathia’s night.
The two home runs allowed brought C.C.’s season total to 23. It’s the most round-trippers he’s surrendered in his career, with two months still to play. And on Friday, though the big lefty kept the ball in the park, he conceded nine hits over five innings and watched his season total swell to 157, the most in the majors. That’s an unsightly mark for any pitcher, but for a purported ace and a man making $22.5 million a year, it’s baffling.
The most obvious explanation for Sabathia’s struggles is the dip in his velocity. As shown on brooksbaseball.net, a pitch tracking database, Sabathia has lost three miles per hour on his fastball since 2009. This attrition began in earnest last year, when C.C. averaged 93 mph on his fastball, down from an average of 95 mph from 2009-2011. Not consequently, he finished 2012 with his highest ERA as a Yankee.
This year, his average fastball velocity has dropped to 92 mph. And because Sabathia has always pitched to contact with his heater, the results have been ugly. Three miles per hour is the difference between a swinging miss and a foul ball. It’s the difference between a flare to second and a line drive to center. It’s the difference between a foul fly to right and a Big Fly to right center. It’s the difference between an ERA of 3.18 in 2010 and 4.65 in 2013.
Unfortunately for Sabathia, the fastball is the foundation of every pitching arsenal. You can lose the peripheral parts of a house and the structure will still stand. But lose your foundation, and everything else comes crumbling down with it.
Beneath the rubble of Sabathia’s 2013 season, are the two victims of his fastball’s demise: the slider and the changeup. It’s not that he’s lost the feel for these pitches, but rather, that the pitches have lost their effectiveness. Knowing they can now wait an extra split-second on C.C.’s fastball, opposing hitters are more often able to identify his off-speed pitches. Instead of flailing at a slider, they are watching it go by. Instead of lunging at a changeup, they are timing it up like the Armitron clock in left-center field.
Consider this: in 2009, with his fastball at the height of its New York powers, Sabathia was producing a whiff rate (percentage of swings and misses vs. all swings) of 23% with his changeup. This season, it is down to just 17%. Even more distressing for Yankees fans is the now hittable nature of his slider. In 2009, the slider induced a whiff rate of 26%. That has fallen to just 15% in 2013.
From here, it’s hard to say where Sabathia goes. The Yankees will continue to pitch him, partly because they have to, partly because they need him. (Despite leading the league in hits allowed, Sabathia has pitched the 6th most innings in the Majors this year.) He can still be an effective pitcher – a dominant one, even – if he minimizes the big hits and the big innings. On days when he does this, Sabathia is in Cy Young form. But on days when he doesn’t, he is in no form at all.
With such little middle ground between the good and the bad, it’s hard to know whether the six-time All Star will throw seven fantastic innings or three feeble ones his next time out. But this much you can be sure about: until his left arm falls off, the Yankees ace-in-hiding try everything within his will to turn this ship around and help his team win.