Yankees' ace CC Sabathia struggled again last night in New York's season-opening loss to Houston, continuing an alarming trend of diminished fastball velocity and poor starts dating back to last season.
By Michael Parente
Joe Girardi can bark all he wants about velocity being overrated, but when your washed-up ace is bragging about his newfound changeup reversing the course of history, it’d help if the aforementioned pitch were more than just a few ticks slower than his actual fastball.
The problem with CC Sabathia these days is everything he heaves toward the plate looks like one sloppy meatball, whether it’s the fastball, changeup, slider, sinker or underutilized curveball. Even the trained eyes at FanGraphs can barely tell the difference.
Last night in Sabathia’s abysmal opening-day start at Houston, in which he allowed six earned runs in six innings, the Yankee ace threw 99 pitches, 40 of which were sinkers mixed with 30 sliders, 20 changeups and only seven fastballs, according to FanGraphs.
Those numbers seem off considering Sabathia has always lived and died with his mid-90s fastball, but they also make sense given the fact Sabathia’s heater now tops out in the low-90s, let alone lives there consistently. Last night, Sabathia’s fastball averaged a velocity of 89.1 miles per hour with the changeup clocking in at an average of 83.7 – not enough of a difference in velocity between the two for the changeup to make any sort of impact whatsoever.
So, in a nutshell, either Sabathia had no confidence in the fastball whatsoever, which would make sense, or FanGraphs couldn’t figure out what was what since it all looked the same. Let’s just assume he lacks as much confidence as fastball velocity.
Either way, this is a major problem for a pitcher whose fastball has sat in the low- to mid-90s every year since FanGraphs began calculating such numbers, and it’s a major problem for a Yankee team banking on Sabathia to rebound from a lousy 2013 and complement the $471 million worth of free agents added to the roster this winter.
As bad and injury-plagued as the Yankees were last year, they still won 85 games and might’ve actually challenged for a playoff spot had Sabathia – one of the few healthy regulars on the roster – had not pitched like complete crap (a 4.78 ERA accompanied by an astronomical 1.370 WHIP, the worst single-season totals of his career). Granted, it would’ve helped if Phil Hughes hadn’t lost 14 games or posted a ghastly 5.19 ERA either, but at least Hughes had the wherewithal to pitch like complete crap in a contract year and effectively pitch his way out of New York, whereas the Yankees are still stuck with Sabathia for another three years and $71 million.
This rotation could actually show promise this year with the addition of Masahiro Tanaka, who has drawn rave reviews since throwing his first pitch three weeks ago, and the potential breakthrough of Michael Pineda, who is finally healthy after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012, and perhaps there’s hope for the bullpen after all with Dellin Betances and Vidal Nuno looking as sharp as they did last night, but Sabathia’s gross decline threatens to ruin what could be a return to normalcy in the Bronx.
Had 2013 never happened, the doom and gloom emanating from last night’s clunker would be considered a bit premature, but these starts in which Sabathia barely cracks 90 on the radar gun are now an alarming trend dating back to last spring. It seemed inconceivable that a workhorse who pitched more than 200 innings in each of the last five seasons with remarkable consistency could suddenly fall off the cliff at the age of 32. Declines are supposed to be gradual, but Sabathia’s fall from grace has been more Paula Deen than Jay-Z.
The Yankees can continue spinning this any which way they want, and they can keep pretending Sabathia will turn into the next Jamie Moyer, but it won’t mean anything unless their ace learns to work with what he has. If Sabathia continues to pitch the way he did when he actually had a consistent, mid-90s fastball, this will be a long, ugly summer in the Bronx, and the spin from Sabathia himself, who thinks it’s just a “mechanical” issue, will get old in a hurry. If that’s the case, pitching coach Larry Rothschild should be fired tomorrow for failing to fix a 13-month mechanical flaw, but he won’t be, because the Yankees know that’s complete nonsense.
This isn’t a money issue, either. If the Yankees have to trudge their way through the final three years of Sabathia’s contract, so be it. They’ll handle it the same way they handled the news of Alex Rodriguez’s suspension, which means they’ll just spend more money and bulk up in other areas. This is more about wasting Derek Jeter’s final season in pinstripes, or perhaps what might be Hiroki Kuroda’s last real season as an effective starter.
The Yankees already dropped the ball last year with an 85-win, non-playoff season in Mariano Rivera’s farewell. The greatest closer of our generation spent the final weekend of his illustrious career riding the pine in Houston on a team playing out the string for what seemed like an entire month down the stretch. That’s an injustice.
This year’s team has a chance to do something, but it’ll be another lost cause unless Sabathia brings something more than empty promises and propaganda to the mound.
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