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Should the Yankees Start Panicking About C.C. Sabathia's High-80s Fastball?

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Should the Yankees Start Panicking About C.C. Sabathia's High-80s Fastball?
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Here's guessing that the New York Yankees were hoping CC Sabathia would flash better velocity in his second spring start than he did in his first spring start. 

He didn't. And that's bad. It's typically a good idea not to worry about anything performance-related in spring training, but Sabathia's velocity is an exception. In light of how it relates to past trends, the Yankees should be very worried.

But here's a tease: Sabathia's second spring outing was not, however, without a silver lining. 

We'll get to that. But first, let's continue on with the panic mode stuff by diving right into the less optimistic aspects of Sabathia's second spring outing.

Facing the Washington Nationals, Sabathia gave up three earned runs on four hits and a pair of walks in three innings. He struck out three. 

According to Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York, the veteran lefty was honest about how he felt about his performance:

Pretty much, and we haven't even gotten to the discouraging radar gun readings yet. Here's Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post:

The 86-89 range is about where Sabathia was with his fastball velocity in his first spring outing on March 1 against the Philadelphia Phillies, as Mike Axisa of RiverAveBlues.com and others noted. Sabathia's journey toward Barry Zito territory appears to be ongoing.

On that note, Axisa was proactive in asking the big question: Could such early velocity readings possibly be predictive?

When Axisa dug up the velocities that Sabathia flashed in his first televised spring outings in 2012 and 2013, he found that the answer is basically yes and no:

CC Sabathia's Recent Spring Velocities
Year 1st TV Spring Start April May-September
2012 89-92 91.8 92.9
2013 89-90 89.8 90.7

RiverAveBlues.com

It's bad that the velocity Sabathia flashed in his first spring outings in 2012 and 2013 carried over into April. It's good, however, that he was able to add some velocity after April both years.

But then there's the other bad: In neither case did Sabathia recapture the velocity he had the previous year. Per FanGraphs, he never got back to his 93.8 2011 average in 2012, and he never got back to his 92.3 2012 average in 2013. The 91.1 average he finished with in 2013 is easily the worst of his career.

That's not the only career worst Sabathia produced in 2013. His 4.78 ERA was also a career worst, as was his his 85 ERA+.

To boot, key ERA estimators agree that he just wasn't very good. His FIP of 4.10 was his worst since 2004. His SIERA of 3.88 was also his worst since 2004.

If we do some detective work, we find that a big part of Sabathia's struggles was how much easier it was for batters to hit him hard. Batters racked up a .173 Isolated Power against Sabathia, the highest of his career.

Further detective work shows us that the decline in Sabathia's velocity was related to this. Per Brooks Baseball, it was much easier for batters to square up Sabathia's four-seamer (still very much his primary fastball over his sinker) in 2013:

CC Sabathia's Four-Seamer
Year Velo Usage (%) ISO
2008 93.7 53.3 .155
2009 94.2 44.5 .150
2010 93.5 45.1 .107
2011 93.8 45.3 .163
2012 92.3 39.0 .179
2013 91.1 42.3 .194

FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball

Note: There's data for 2007 too, but not a full season's worth. So I chose to ignore it.

Correlation doesn't always equal causation, but it would appear to in this case. As Sabathia's fastball velocity has decreased, the power against it has increased.

And therein lies the chief fear of Sabathia's spring velocity readings thus far. If the trends of the past two seasons hold, it will mean yet another decline year for Sabathia's fastball velocity. And if his fastball velocity does decline even further, even more hard hits against it could be in order.

And let's face it: There's not much hope of Sabathia bucking the trend.

With his 34th birthday coming up, Sabathia is an older pitcher now. One thing we know about old pitchers is that their velocity tends to go nowhere but down. And while it may indeed be neither here nor there, it probably doesn't help that Sabathia doesn't have as much, ahem, heft to put behind his pitches as he used to. After slimming down last year, he's slimmed down even more heading into 2014.

With Sabathia's velocity unlikely to increase, the Yankees' best hope is that his reliance on his four-seamer will decrease. If he can't throw harder fastballs, fewer fastballs is the next-best thing.

Which brings us, finally, to the tease of a silver lining from Tuesday's outing. In it, Sabathia showed that he might be ready to exchange a few four-seamers for a few cutters in 2014.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Sabathia has never thrown a cutter before. But Erik Boland of Newsday got everyone's attention last week by reporting that Sabathia is ready to throw one and that he's been learning one from none other than Andy Pettitte. He broke it out for the first time in a simulated game last Thursday.

"He (Pettitte) was showing me a grip with the cutter," said Sabathia. "I used it today and it worked pretty good, so I'm anxious to take it into a game."

He did just that on Tuesday.

Here's Mike Axisa:

And Delia Enriquez of BronxBaseballDaily.com:

Yours truly was also on cutter watch. But while it was hard to tell cutters apart from flat sliders and simple four-seamers, it seemed to me that Sabathia was indeed often going to his new toy on Tuesday. 

That's about as much as I can say about it, though. Because it was hard to tell what were cutters and what weren't, it's hard to narrow down the velocity of Sabathia's cutter. Nor could I get a solid read on its movement, as TV camera angles make it tough to deduce the movement of lefty fastballs of all kinds.

But for what it's worth, Enriquez's comparison of Sabathia's cutter to Pettitte's cutter seems fair enough. FanGraphs says Pettitte threw his cutter at 83.2 miles per hour in 2013, and that's about where Sabathia's cutter is likely to sit if his four-seamer is maxing out at 88. And just like Pettitte could with his, Sabathia's cutter looks like it has the potential to be a pitch he can use to jam right-handed batters.

Sabathia should definitely be interested in doing that. Per Brooks Baseball, righty batters had a .209 ISO against Sabathia's weakened four-seamer in 2013, their best ever against it. It would be good if Sabathia took to mixing up his four-seamer and cutter against right-handed batters in 2014.

You know, sort of like Pettitte did in 2013 to solid results. From Brooks Baseball:

Andy Pettitte's Hard Stuff vs. RHB in 2013
Pitch Usage (%) Velo Whiff/Swing AVG ISO
Four-Seam 32.2 89.0 11.2 .308 .151
Cutter 29.8 83.2 24.2 .215 .097

FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball

Pettitte didn't split his four-seamer and cutter usage against righties evenly in 2012, throwing the former about twice as often as the latter. That didn't work out so well, as righties hit .330 against his four-seamer with a .121 ISO. And while they did have a .193 ISO against his cutter, they only hit it .140 against it.

Obviously, switching things up in 2013 worked pretty well. Righties still hit Pettitte's four-seamer well, but they continued to struggle against his cutter while also seeing them at a much higher rate.

If Sabathia copy cats Pettitte's aggressiveness with his new cutter against right-handed batters, it's possible that he'll be able to avoid being crushed by right-handed batters like he was in 2013. Maybe his overall numbers won't get better, but that would certainly help keep them from getting worse.

For now, all we can say is "Maybe." Because it's only spring training and Sabathia has been throwing his new cutter for all of one week, making promises about its potential would be a decidedly silly endeavor.

We can say this much, though: The Yankees had better hope that Sabathia's new cutter can be a weapon for him this year. Because if it's not, he'll be back to proving that he can get by with diminished velocity on the pitches he already has in his arsenal.

He couldn't do that in 2013. He very likely wouldn't be able to do it in 2014 either.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. 

 

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