What's wrong with CC Sabathia this season?
Short answer: a lot.
Oh, you mean, you're here for the long answer? Well, then, let's get started.
Before we go about tearing down the New York Yankees left-hander, though, let's offer something good to hold onto. With just 14 more innings this season, the 33-year-old Sabathia will have reached the 180-inning mark in every one of his 13 campaigns, and with 34 more frames, he'll have hit the 200 plateau for the fifth straight season.
Sabathia also won his 10th game of the season Tuesday against the Los Angeles Angels, meaning he's reached double-digit double-yoos in all 13 seasons—also incredibly impressive.
Problem is, Sabathia, who has a career-high 4.66 ERA and "leads" the American League in earned runs allowed with 86 after Tuesday's mixed-bag outing, is just not going all that strong.
There are plenty of reasons why.
Less Than Lucky
Whenever a hurler's performance is as out of line as Sabathia's is, and injury isn't considered to be a primary concern, the first stop on the diagnosis train is usually to the main "luck factors" station—batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and left on-base percentage (LOB percentage).
In Sabathia's case, neither his .303 BABIP nor his 68.8 LOB percentage are outrageously out of the ordinary compared to either the 2013 MLB averages (.293 and 73.3 percent, respectively) or his own career figures (.292, 72.9 percent). In fact, neither metric is a career-worst.
But he's certainly not getting the benefit of the doubt in either category, and when you consider them together, they're not doing him any favors.
To wit, in his 12 previous seasons, Sabathia had never had a BABIP north of .300 in the same year that his LOB percentage was also below 70 percent, as the chart at right shows. In 2013, both of those marks have been hit.
In other words, Sabathia hasn't been ridiculously unlucky in either category, but he's pretty close to that when you take both into account at the same time.
Not As Grounded
Another aspect of Sabathia's game that has taken a small—but noticeable—step back is his ground-ball percentage (GB percentage).
As with his BABIP and LOB percentage, Sabathia's GB percentage of 44.8 percent isn't the worst of his career, in which he's averaged a rate of 45.4. It's also not much different from the 2013 MLB average of 44.6 percent.
But given that he'd turned 48.5 percent of batted balls into grounders from 2010 through 2012, this year's figure sticks out as a bit more of a departure.
He's a Homer
Perhaps the biggest punch-to-the-gut statistical change for Sabathia this year is how homer-prone he's been. Of course, this is related to the previous point: Because Sabathia is keeping the ball on the ground less in 2013, that means he's allowing more fly balls—and, as we know, those can tend to go over walls.
Through his first 166 innings over 25 starts this year, Sabathia has already surrendered a career-high 26 home runs. His previous high came last year when he gave up 22 big flies in 200 innings for an HR/9 rate of 1.0, a mark he'd hit only one other time before—in 2004, as the chart indicates.
Beyond that, though, there's more. Sabathia is also wearing a career-worst HR/FB ratio of 14.7 percent, meaning just about one out of every seven fly balls is leaving the yard. That's well above the 2013 league-wide average of 10.6 percent, and even further away from Sabathia's career mark of 9.2 percent.
Basically, not only is Sabathia putting the ball in the air more often than he has in seasons past, he's also watching those flies land in the seats at a higher rate than he's ever allowed before.
No wonder that chart on the right has 2013 at the top in both categories.
The Right Stuff
Although he's a left-hander, Sabathia has always been able to keep righty batters at bay. In fact, prior to this year, he'd held opposite-siders to a .247/.307/.380 triple-slash line. That translates to a .302 wOBA—sixth-best in baseball among southpaws over that time.
In 2013, though, righty batters are hitting .276/.324/.472 against Sabathia for a .344 wOBA. That last number is 11th-worst in the majors, and not just among left-handers—among all qualifying pitchers.
In case you're wondering, Sabathia has been keeping lefty hitters down about as good as ever. His .235/.295/.377 (.297 wOBA) isn't too far off from his pre-2013 numbers, which were .229/.285/.354 (.282 wOBA).
A quick check on Sabathia's pitch-type data via the PITCHf/x info on FanGraphs shows that the lefty is throwing his slider just as frequently as ever this year, which accounts for the trouble he still gives lefty swingers.
Same goes for his changeup—the primary weapon a hurler utilizes to neutralize opposite-sided hitters—which Sabathia is using the same amount as he has most other seasons. If that's the case, though, then why are righty batters teeing off on him?
Where'd the Velo Go?
In all likelihood, the answer to that question lies in Sabathia's decreased fastball velocity.
This development hasn't exactly been a secret—you can see the numbers for yourself in the chart, courtesy of the PITCHf/x data available on FanGraphs—and it's definitely related to his performance problems this season.
Aside from the movement, the key to an effective changeup, of course, is the separation it gets from a pitcher's fastball, because deception is what makes the pitch work. Typically, a difference of eight-to-10 miles per hour is the sweet spot.
In Sabathia's case, even though his changeup also has slowed down (perhaps to try to maintain a disparity between his fastball) to an average of 84.7 mph, that's still only a difference of about 6.5 mph from his 91.1-mph fastball.
Go back a few years to 2010, and Sabathia's heater averaged 93.6 mph, while his change came in at 85.5—good for a difference of 8.1 mph.
Of course, the loss of two or three miles per hour on the fastball is about more than just the effectiveness of Sabathia's changeup. It's about his overall effectiveness as a pitcher and whether he's capable of adapting his approach and repertoire to adjust for a lesser fastball going forward.
That velocity drop could be attributed to any number of things, from Sabathia's advancing age, to all those innings under his (rather large) belt, to the elbow problems in 2012 and subsequent surgery last offseason. Very likely, it could be a combination of all three.
Yet, there's more evidence that Sabathia is still going—just not as strong.
All statistics come from FanGraphs.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!