CC Sabathia is the only player the Yankees signed as part of their 2009 massive shopping spree who has continued to earn his gaudy paycheck in the seasons that followed the Championship year. In fact, CC has been a better pitcher with the Yankees than he has been on average over the course of his career (due mostly to a couple league average seasons that he had when he first came up with Cleveland). In his 3+ seasons with the Yankees CC has pitched to a 136 ERA+ and a 1.19 WHIP, versus 125 and 1.23 for his career. The start to this season, however, has been a little different.
If the season were to end today CC would have an ERA+ of 118 and a WHIP of 1.23. Those are good numbers, but last season CC had an ERA+ of 145 (which is really, really good) and a WHIP of 1.23. It’s a little premature to suggest that CC is declining (plus, it’s only been about half a season) but something in 2012 has been a little off.
On the surface, CC’s peripherals are better than ever. His strikeout rate of 9.1 per nine innings is the highest of his career. His walk rate of 2.4 per nine is below his career average and right in line with what he did in 2011. He’s allowing precisely the same number of hits as he did in 2011. The only thing that is different is that he’s giving up 0.9 homers per game, above the 0.6 he allowed last season, and above his career average. How does a pitcher see his ERA get worse while striking out more batters and keeping runners off base at a good clip? Why, giving up more dingers, of course. The extra homers are the most obvious explanation for CC’s (slightly) inflated ERA. The question then becomes, why is he giving them up?
The answer may lie in his fastball. A lot is made of CC’s changeup and his slider. Both rate among the best pitches of any kind in the game, but CC has a plus fastball as well. The fastball isn’t CC’s best pitch, but he throws it more than 50% of the time and it rates as an above average offering for the big lefty, but not this season. Last year CC’s fastball was worth 0.28 runs for every 100 he threw. This year it has been worth -1.48 runs for every 100 he’s thrown, far and away the worst total of his career. All of CC’s other offerings — his slider, curve and changeup — still rate as excellent pitches. Each is worth at least 1.5 runs for every 100 thrown, making them three of the most effective pitches in the game. The problem, therefore, is CC’s fastball.
The bigger problem is that CC’s fastball is his set up pitch. He has said in the past that he needs to locate his fastball to be able to use his out pitches effectively. You don’t have to take his word for it, though. Watching any of his starts proves this. Apart from occasionally starting a batter off with a curveball, CC likes to use his fastball to work the batter into a two strike count before finishing him off with either his slider or his changeup. When he can’t get to two strikes with his fastball — perhaps because batters have been taking it out of the ball park a bit more than usual this season — his entire arsenal suffers.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that even without an effective fastball CC is still having a good season. The better news is that he’s aware that he hasn’t been as solid this season. He’s been working to address the issue and recently announced that he identified a mechanical flaw in his delivery that he is working to fix. There is therefore a high probability that the second half of the season will see CC return to the form Yankee fans have come to expect.
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