As late as last October, CC Sabathia was considered one of the premier pitchers in the American League. Now, he never put up the flashy numbers of the superstars, but it was pretty much guaranteed he would provide a team with an FIP of 3.50 and below, and would eat up a boatload of innings. That position has certainly come into question, and even his title of “Ace” has been stripped from him by his fans and given to the seemingly more durable Hiroki Kuroda (and Ivan Nova as of late). But why is it that a pitcher that seemed so competent for so many years could devolve into a pitcher with a 4.82 ERA, 4.15 FIP, and a whopping 13.5% HR/FB ratio? The reason is not what one would expect.
Most believe that the root of Sabathia’s problems stem from the loss of velocity in his fastball, slowing from a career average velocity of 93.4 mph to 2013’s average of 91.3 mph. It is true that this loss in velocity has allowed hitters to see the fastball better, but only to the extent that hitters’ career line has jumped from a 112 wRC+ to 124 wRC+ as of the 2013 season. Thus, this is not a sufficient explanation for his lack of performance, because hitters have tabulated 125 wRC+ and 129 wRC+ on the same pitch in 2012 and 2011, respectively, two years in which his performance was definitely “ace”-worthy. The counter to this would be that the drop in fastball velocity has resulted in a diminishing effect for his peripheral pitches–a changeup doesn’t look as good when fastball velocity has dropped. The key with the fastball/off-speed combination is just as much about contrast as anything else, and his 2013 fastball/changeup difference is 6.6 mph, a drop of 1 mph from his career average. That 1 mph may be a significant difference, but not within context, considering his 2012 season featured a 6.2 mph difference.
It is clear Sabathia is able to manage with a diminished velocity by working with his peripheral pitches, but it is exactly these pitches that have failed him in 2013. Traditionally, Sabathia would establish the fastball early in the count, finishing a batter off with an offspeed changeup or slider. The changeup and slider have career opposing lines of 13 and 78 wRC+, respectively. In 2013, those two jumped to 30 and 144 (!) wRC+. In 2011 and 2012 it was clear he could skirt around the ineffectiveness of his fastball by relying heavily on his slider and changeup. His slider is still very effective this year; I wouldn’t call 30 wRC+ a bad number. But, the decrease in changeup effectiveness is alarming, and more alarming is his 20.8% HR/FB ratio this year. It is clear that the issue with his changeup is his location, because as well, his movement on the pitch has only decreased slightly in respect to his career average. Often this year, the changeup is elevated, and when it is, it has the propensity to exit the ballpark.
The bright spot here is that I believe the numbers of 2013 to be a fluke. Sabathia’s fastball will keep decreasing in velocity, yes, but I don’t believe the effectiveness of his peripheral pitches will diminish significantly in the next few years. He has worked with a relatively ineffective fastball for 3 seasons now. The key will be whether he is able to locate his peripherals in the effective spots that have worked in the past.
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