For nearly a decade, C.C. Sabathia had been one of the most reliable, premiere starting pitchers in all of MLB. Heading into 2013, expectations for Sabathia were right where they had been for the last handful of years; the New York Yankees ace was the 14th starting pitcher selected according to ESPN’s average draft position. Well, simply put, C.C. failed to live up to those expectations.
After dominating major league hitters for almost a decade, the wheels fell off the wagon for Sabathia in 2013. From 2006 through 2012, over the course of seven seasons, he led baseball in innings pitched, strikeouts and WAR, and he was second in wins, third in ERA- and 10th in WHIP.
In 2013, he was 18th in innings pitched, 33rd in strikeouts, 47th in WAR, 15th in wins, 72nd in ERA- and 67th in WHIP. Sabathia finished 2013 as the 98th-ranked starting pitcher according to ESPN’s player rater, behind guys like Jeremy Guthrie, John Locke and Tyson Ross. Yikes.
So what can we expect from Sabathia in 2014? Should we anticipate that the burly starting pitcher returns to the Sabathia that was one of the most consistently dominant pitchers from the mid-2000s through 2012? Or should we expect him to continue to decline with age?
I have a feeling we’re never going to see pre-2013 Sabathia ever again.
The most obvious trend that sticks out in Sabathia’s profile is his declining fastball velocity. Sabathia is going to be turning 34 this July and as I mentioned up above, he led the league in innings pitched over a seven year period (1591.2 innings), that’s a lot of mileage for one arm. For his career, Sabathia has averaged 93.2 mph on his fastball. Here are Sabathia’s fastball velocities from 2011-2013 (starting with 2011): 93.8, 92.3, 91.1.
According to BrooksBaseball.net, from 2007 (the first year the data is available) through 2011, opposing hitters had a .144 ISO against Sabathia’s fastball; in 2012, it rose to .184 and last season it was .194. As Sabathia’s velocity has decreased, the rate at which hitters are driving the ball with power has increased, not an encouraging trend for an aging pitcher.
What’s worrying me even more though with regards to Sabathia is the decreasing effectiveness of his changeup. Sabathia uses his changeup exclusively to keep right-handed hitters honest but against them, he uses it quite often at a 23 percent rate (since 2007). According to PITCHf/x data, Sabathia’s changeup has been a positive pitch for him every year of his career except for 2013.
From 2007-2012, right-handed hitters had a .091 ISO against Sabathia’s changeup; in 2013, that number shot all the way up to .187. Throughout his career, the changeup has been Sabathia’s most dominant weapon against right-handed batters but it became a weakness in 2013.
I have Sabathia projected to win 13 games in 2014 to go along with a 3.93 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP and 174 strikeouts. I have Sabathia ranked as my 47th starting pitcher, behind guys like Tony Cingrani, Michael Wacha and Francisco Liriano. All good things must come to an end, C.C. Sabathia’s stretch of dominance included.