Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Yankees’ Sabathia hopes to follow Tanaka’s, Pineda’s footsteps

Tuesday night, New York Yankees starter CC Sabathia will be on the mound in a game for the first time since May 10, 2014. Thus far we have seen Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda take successful turns on the hill in their first tests this spring. They have been healthy and equally as important, they have been sharp. Sabathia hopes to keep the positive vibes going.

The difference for Sabathia is that he was not performing to expectations for much of 2013 and what little of last season he participated, while Tanaka and Pineda were very good in 2014. Certainly health is the main focus for Sabathia after having knee surgery last summer, but regaining at least some of the top of the line production is also important to the Yankees.

By no means does Sabathia have to win 20 games, nor does he need to maintain an ERA under 3.00, but he cannot be the pitcher he was the last two seasons. It will be interesting to see how much of Sabathia’s struggles can ultimately be related to diminished strength and his injury, or if his poor performance simply relates to declining abilities after throwing over 2,900 innings including the postseason in 14 seasons.

For his part Sabathia came to camp at a weight he feels more comfortable with, about 305 pounds. He had lost significant weight heading into the previous two seasons and looking back felt that he lost power because of it. Sabathia has been able to throw all of his pitches in bullpen sessions, live batting practice and in a simulated game, but he knows the test truly begins when he steps to the mound against the Toronto Blue Jays at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida Tuesday.

“I’m sure I’ll be excited, getting back out there,” Sabathia said according to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. “I’ve just got to keep it all in perspective. It’s the next step in getting ready for the season.”

It’s been reported that he’s had a bit more life on his fastball, nothing like the days when he was a power pitcher, but clearly more so than the last season or two. This is important as he’s still learning how to keep batters off balance with his offspeed offerings. With an uptick in fastball velocity, the offspeed stuff will be even more difficult to gauge and at this point in his career, Sabathia simply has to outwit batters with pitch selection, crisp offerings and location.

Yankees catcher Brian McCann believes Sabathia is on the right track.

“He’s looking good; we’re excited to see him on the mound again,” McCann said via Feinsand. “When you’re hurt, it’s harder to do anything. He got his knee fixed and hopefully he’s able to drive off that back side and plant. I’m excited to catch him.”

What should we look for in Sabathia’s first outing against hitters in game action?

First and foremost, we’ll see if Sabathia has the ability to get through the work without any physical issues. If his knee is not right, he and the Yankees can simply forget about him providing valuable production going forward.

Second, while we should expect some rust, can Sabathia show the ability to bring a fastball in the high 80s, maybe even top off around 90-mph in his first outing? These are not exceptional rates, but they would typically improve over his next several starts where he can stay in the low 90s consistently. Again this would make his offspeed pitches that much better, providing he is locating everything appropriately.

Next, how do his offspeed pitches look? Is there enough disparity in speed in comparison to his fastball? Are they crisp, with bite to them?

Finally, it’s all about location – location – location. Is Sabathia hitting his targets with each of his pitches? Is he getting batters off balance? Or are hitters getting good hacks at his offerings because he’s leaving pitches out over the plate?

These are items to look for tonight but also for each of Sabathia’s starts through the remainder of Spring Training. We should not expect all of this to gel right away, but any necessary improvement must be demonstrated by the time he steps on the mound for a game that matters.

Tanaka and Pineda were able to come out and show they maintained their electric stuff from last season. Sabathia has not been electric in years, but was it due to diminished strength and a bad knee?

We’ll begin to find out the answer to that question Tuesday.

Photo of CC Sabathia courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance baseball writer. Besides his work here, Christopher is a correspondent for FantasyPros, where he writes a weekly column covering the closer/bullpen situations around Major League Baseball. 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.