Since an August 6 shellacking at the hands of the rival Red Sox (in which he was tagged for 7 runs in 6 innings), CC Sabathia has not looked like the same dominant pitcher that he has been for most of the season. After a strong July in which he went 4-1 with an 0.92 ERA (1.78 FIP and 2.22 xFIP), Sabathia was less impressive in August, going 3-2 with a 4.68 ERA (4.08 FIP and 2.46 xFIP), and after two solid September starts, put up a clunker against the Jays (4 runs in 5 2/3 innings on 120 pitches).
These struggles may very well be part of the typical up-and-down over a long season, but there are also several possible causes for Sabathia’s struggles (relative to his typically excellent performance), which may have implications for how to handle CC going forward.
One possibility is that CC’s rhythm has been thrown off by the use of the 6-man rotation, as he has pitched all but two of his starts in September and August on five days of rest, instead of the usual four. Instead of benefitting from the extra rest, it is possible that like many pitchers, CC is highly routinized and a disruption of his usual throwing and pitching schedule could lead to a drop in performance. If this were the case, then the solution would be to abandon the 6-man rotation immediately, and ensure that CC is pitching on four days of rest going into the postseason.
Another potential culprit could be the rain delay during the July 26 game in Seattle, where Girardi brought CC back after a 30-minute delay to try to complete the perfect game. Conventional wisdom in baseball doesn’t support using a pitcher again following a rain delay, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this would be harmful to Sabathia (particularly because if was a relatively short delay). To my knowledge, the rain delay-injury connection hasn’t necessarily been well documented, though I’m sure Girardi critics will point to the Josh Johnson injury from several years ago as proof that Sabathia could be similarly harmed. If this were the true cause, there wouldn’t be much to do except monitor Sabathia’s health and make sure he has no pain or weakness.
The third possibility would be that Sabathia has in fact been overworked, and that his high inning total (230 so far) and frequently high pitch counts are taking a toll on the big lefty, wearing him out. If this is the case, then more rest might be the answer, including possibly skipping his turn in the rotation before the playoffs begin. This seems unlikely given Sabathia’s history of handling large workloads throughout his career, but is a potential culprit nonetheless.
A fourth possibility is that CC is simply getting unlucky, which the disparity between his FIP and xFIP might suggest. Sabathia gave up home runs on over 23 percent of his flyballs in August (the highest rate of any other month was 5.3 percent), though he has yet to surrender a longball in September. The 23% rate in August was way out of CC’s normal range, which suggest that either Sabathia was getting unlucky, or else he was pitching poorly enough to give up homers at five times his usual rate. I’m going to assume that while luck may have been a factor, there was still something else underlying these struggles.
While I can’t answer the question of whether Sabathia’s struggles can be linked to any one of these factors (since correlation=/= causation), the next step is to turn to pitch f/x to see if anything significant changed in CC’s repertoire or raw stuff between the dominant month of July and his less impressive August. I’ll give the caveat here that I’m far from an expert on pitch f/x, so if you see something there that I’m missing, feel free to let me know. A few weeks ago, Larry offered up the hypothesis that CC might be getting too slider-happy, so that will be one trend to examine.
I started off looking at CC’s fastball (using Texasleaguers), and the average velocities for the two months were virtually identical. In July, CC’s fastball averaged 94.7 MPH, and it has averaged 94.5 MPH since August 1. I think a 0.2 MPH drop in velocity is probably not significant enough to cause a dip in performance, but if someone thinks differently let me know. The whiff rate has decreased from 7.7% to 7.1%, a small but possibly significant drop.
As for the aforementioned slider, it has dropped in velocity by 0.6 MPH (from 82.3 to 81.7) since July, and it is possible that this difference could account for some differences in performance. The slider has actually averaged a little more horizontal break since the end of July, but perhaps the velocity difference has been more important. This difference is noticed in his whiff rate, as batters whiffed 28.7 percent of the time at the slider in July, and only 18.6 percent of the time thereafter. There has been a 0.4 percent absolute increase in his slider usage, which is not particularly significant in my mind.
CC has used his changeup at approximately the same rate in the two stretches, though the changeup did increase in velocity by an average of 0.5 MPH since August 1. Again, it’s unclear whether this would have an effect, but it is plausible that a slightly faster changeup paired with a slightly slower fastball would be easier for hitters to handle. Interestingly, his whiff rate on the changeup in July was just 7.5 percent compared to 24 percent since August 1, which would call that theory into question.
While I see some minor changes in Sabathia’s raw stuff, I’m not really seeing enough to determine a particular cause of CC’s occasional struggles. The answer is probably that CC’s command hasn’t been up to his usual standard. While he has not been walking tons of hitters, he may be missing his spots with more frequency, giving batters more pitches they can handle and driving up his pitch count. Ultimately, even a laboring CC is still a pretty damn good pitcher, but I’m hoping he can get back to being Dominant Ace CC some playoff time. Given his track record, I don’t see much reason for overall concern.
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