Thursday, January 29, 2015

Can Yankees' CC Sabathia resuscitate his career?

The New York Yankees have a slew of questions concerning its 2015 rotation and near the top of the list is whether or not CC Sabathia can resuscitate his career.

Sabathia suffered from right knee discomfort in 2014 which ultimately resulted in season-ending surgery in July. He amassed just 46 innings of work last season, cutting a string of seven straight seasons in which he tossed at least 200 innings.

And that might be the issue going forward. Sabathia, 34, has a lot of mileage on his left arm, and without figuring out how to compensate for diminished velocity, it’s hard to see him showing much improvement than he displayed from 2013-14.

While the sample size is small, Sabathia looked dreadful at times in 2014. His performance metrics back up with we saw. He was 3-4 with a 5.28 ERA (4.78 FIP) and a 1.478 WHIP. The good news is he lowered his BB/9 from 2013’s 2.77 to 2.00, and increased his K/9 from 7.46 in 2013 to 9.39. The bad news is he allowed an alarming 11.3 hits per nine innings pitched, up from a not-so-good 9.4 in 2013.

Some of those hits were hammered as well. His home run rate has steadily climbed over the years, peaking at 1.96 per nine innings in 2014, up from 1.19 in 2013.

Sabathia’s fastball velocity, per FanGraph's PITCHf/x data, has continued to wane, and worse the pitch now consistently costs the team runs where it used to be quite effective.

You can also see that Sabathia completely went away from using the fastball as the top pitch in his arsenal in the short time he spent on the mound in 2014. To compare, Sabathia threw his sinker 29.4 percent, his slider 24.7 percent and his changeup 24.6 percent of the time last season. The fastball was his fourth most used pitch in 2014, where it used to be at the top of his repertoire each season prior.

None of these peripheral stats paint a rosy picture for a player who is getting up there in years and whose “baseball age” is higher due to the number of innings he’s tossed in his 14-year career. It is difficult to suggest that he can simply flip a switch and turn things around to be an elite pitcher once again.

That said I do believe it is plausible Sabathia can show improvement from 2013-14 to this season. There has never been a knock on Sabathia’s work ethic. Hopefully he comes to camp in shape and stronger. He has the benefit of resting his arm for almost a full season.

If he is indeed stronger, and the knee is no longer an issue, it may boost Sabathia’s fastball back up a notch allowing him to regain confidence to use the pitch more so than he did last season. At the same time, he’ll also need to find a groove with the sinker, slider and change because he won’t get a 94-mph heater back. Basically, Sabathia needs to work to find what pitches he can use effectively to get batters out at a much better rate than he has shown the last couple of seasons.

A plus for Sabathia is that the Yankees do not need him to be their ace in 2015. If they do, they're in trouble. Sabathia doesn’t need to reach 20 wins with a shiny ERA under 3.00. Rather, 15 wins and an ERA in the 3.50-3.70 range (with a FIP that is close to the same) will likely put him in the middle of the rotation and signify that he has something left in the tank for his remaining time in the Bronx. Those are optimistic measures to be sure, but not superior and attainable nonetheless.

The question remains; was 2013 was a blip on the radar, and were his 2014 stats all about being hurt? If that’s the case, Sabathia can look at 2015 as a learning situation, one in which his secondary pitches must make up for any continued lack of velocity in the fastball without dropping the pitch from his arsenal. If he can figure out this dynamic, Sabathia can be more than serviceable for the Yankees in 2015 – he might even be helpful.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Photo of CC Sabathia courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer and sports media strategist. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.