Can New York Yankees Pitcher CC Sabathia Transform from Thrower to Pitcher?

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Can New York Yankees Pitcher CC Sabathia Transform from Thrower to Pitcher?
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There comes a point in nearly every pitcher's career where he must reinvent himself.

After his last start against Boston, one in which he allowed nine hits and seven earned runs over five laborious innings, that time is now for one Carsten Charles Sabathia.

Those who have watched the New York Yankees this season—if they are being honest—will tell you that Sabathia hasn't looked like himself for most of it.  That fact has flown under the radar in the media capital of the world thanks to the litany of injuries that have decimated the team's lineup.

But it can't stay in the background any longer, for the issues with Sabathia are very real, and they have the potential to be very damaging to the team's chances of contending in the future if they are not addressed now.

How did we get here?

For years, Sabathia has been the definition of a power pitcher, attacking batters and daring them to try to get a piece of his heater. But Sabathia's fastball simply isn't what it used to be:

Season Avg. Fastball Velocity (MPH)
2007 93.7
2008 93.8
2009 94.1
2010 93.6
2011 93.9
2012 92.4
2013 90.9

Now maybe that's a result of the surgery to remove a bone spur in his left elbow that he underwent shortly after the 2012 season came to an end. Perhaps Sabathia's elbow simply hasn't been feeling right all season long, and his velocity will tick back up to its previous levels in 2014.

But it's far more likely that the heavy workload that Sabathia has carried over the course of his career is finally catching up to him. While his fastball will hit the mid-90s on occasion, his days as a power pitcher—as a thrower—are likely over.

Since making his major league debut in 2001, no pitcher has thrown as many pitches as Sabathia:

Pitcher No. of Pitches Thrown
CC Sabathia 42,243
Mark Buehrle 41,832
Barry Zito 40,930
Livan Hernandez 38,337
Tim Hudson 36,452
Javier Vazquez 36,376
Roy Halladay 36,023

That's a lot of pitches—and a lot of wear and tear on anyone's arm.

So it begs the question: Can Sabathia transform himself from a thrower to a pitcher, much like former Yankee Mike Mussina did?

Got it? Good.

Sabathia isn't a one-trick (or in this case, one-pitch) pony. His slider has long been his most effective pitch, especially when it comes to strikeouts. Yet for whatever reason, he has gotten away from throwing it nearly as often as he has in the past two seasons: 

Season Slider % K%
2007 20.3 38.8
2008 18.3 56.7
2009 17.9 46.6
2010 18.5 51.7
2011 26.6 48.7
2012 31.8 50.2
2013 22.8 43.2

Over the course of his career, opposing batters are hitting only .155 against his slider, a pitch that Sabathia clearly needs to rely upon more often than he is. His changeup is another offering that baffles the opposition (.239 BAA) and, to his credit, Sabathia is throwing that more often than he has recently.

I'm not saying that Sabathia needs to abandon his fastball—he can't. No pitcher can.

Can CC Sabathia re-invent himself?

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But the time has come for Sabathia to mix up his sequence, to stop trying to blow the fastball past batters and instead use it to set up his secondary stuff, which is far more effective at this point in his career.

It isn't going to be easy, as Sabathia has been doing pitching for a long time and habits are hard to break. With the Yankees' playoff hopes fading this season, now is as good a time as any for Sabathia to begin the transformation.

The longer he waits, the worse things are going to get—and the harder it's going to become for him to make the change.

 

 

*Pitch count totals courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com (subscription required).
*All other statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

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