It’s not news that ace CC Sabathia has struggled at the outset of the 2012 season. After an up and down spring, the big righty has allowed nine earned runs over 12 innings in his first two starts to go along with five walks and two home runs. He’s had trouble finding the plat and his fastball velocity has been uncharacteristically low. Yes, he’s also struck out 15 batters, and he did an excellent job keeping the Yankees in the game on Wednesday, but from a pitcher who recently signed another $140 million deal more is expected.
Nobody, really, is all that worried about Sabathia. He was among the best pitchers in baseball last season and has been for more than five years. But as with all issues the New York sports media has managed to manufacture an almost endless stream of story lines from the obvious to the absurd. Some have blamed Sabathia’s weight (he’s listed at 290 pounds, gained weight last season, and lost some this past winter). Others have blamed the calendar (he has a 4.18 ERA and 2.16 K/BB rate in April over his career, compared to 3.53 and 2.78 overall). By far the most creative answer to the Sabathia conundrum, though, comes from Joel Sherman of the New York Post. Sherman writes:
Not counting the playoffs, Sabathia made 91 Yankee starts through last July 26, going 55-20 with a 3.08 ERA and a .635 OPS against. In 12 starts since, he is 4-3 with a 4.46 ERA and a .855 OPS against. He has been particularly bedeviled by homers (.62 per nine innings before/1.45 since) and righty hitters (.653 OPS before/.928 since); both of which suggest he has not been as meticulous or overpowering in this period.
Maybe it is a small sample size or just April now. Or maybe it has something to do with two rain delays last July.
What is Sherman referring to? On July 26th of last season, Sabathia started for the Yankees against the Mariners. His start was interrupted twice by rain but he eventually brought a perfect game into the seventh inning, ending the night with a a seven-inning one hit, one run victory, 14 strikeouts and just three walks. By all accounts a great night for Sabathia and, at 102 pitches, a fairly light workload. Nonetheless Sherman seems to be suggesting that the rain delays on July 26th had such an effect on Sabathia as to turn one of the best pitchers in baseball into a 4.46 ERA workhorse.
To start… yes, that is a very small sample size. Yes, the weight and early season issues that generally plague Sabathia make much more sense as culprits for his rough starts. Yes, Sabathia had a couple of rough (more unlucky) starts in August and another couple this past week that greatly distort those numbers. Yes, Sherman is being utterly ridiculous (if he’s even serious here, and I think he is). But let’s humor his theory for a minute and look a little deeper at what Sabathia has done over the past few months of baseball.
Since July 26th of 2011, CC Sabathia has made 12 starts and thrown 80 2/3 innings. He has struck out 89 batters and walked 19. He has a groundball rate of ~42%, a strikeout rate of ~9.9 K/9, a walk rate of ~2.1 BB/9, and a K/BB rate of ~4.7. He has an xFIP of 2.76 over the period. In his career, CC Sabathia has a 45% groundball rate, a 7.7 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, a 2.8 K/BB, and an xFIP of 3.69. In fact, over the entirety of last season, Sabathia had a 47% groundball rate, an 8.7 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, a 3.8 K/BB and an xFIP of 3.02. So yeah, CC Sabathia is fine. Over small sample sizes weird things happen to ERA, but down the stretch last season Sabathia was striking out more batters, walking fewer, and pitching to a higher pure-skill level than in the early months. His struggles now have nothing to do with how he pitched last August or with some start on July 26th. He’s having a rough start because that’s what he often does, it takes him longer to get ramped up, and maybe because he’s adjusting to a lighter frame. Come July, he’ll be on his way to another 19-20 wins and Sherman will be writing his Cy Young piece.
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