While C.C. Sabathia has often been known to struggle in the early parts of the season, his troubles thus far this year are a bit worrying to New York Yankees fans who have come to know the big lefty as their most reliable and talented pitcher. While Sabathia has kept his low walk rate, just about every other statistic of his has shown a pitcher in decline.
Now that two months of the season has passed, it has become clear that his struggles are not just an aberration, and that there is something systematically wrong with Sabathia. He has demonstrated a clear drop-off in both performance and velocity, with an FIP of 4.10 and a fastball velocity of 90 mph flat.
To put this in perspective, the last time the ace finished a season with a FIP that bad was 2004, and his fastball averaged 92.3 mph last season.
Sabathia’s decline is directly related to his lower velocity, but what exactly is causing it? The most obvious answer is his pure physical ability. His weight gain over the past decade is no secret, and it was a matter of time before it caught up with him. Combined with the fact that the 32-year old ages like most humans, some drop in velocity is to be expected from his seniority as well.
Sabathia’s troubles with velocity may be exacerbated by his lower arm slot. Over the past four years, his arm slot has dropped by an inch every year, and we may finally be seeing the effects of his lower arm slot.
Velocity isn’t the only issue, though. It appears as though the lefty has become largely predictable on the mound. In previous seasons, the only thing a batter could count on from Sabathia was that he would not throw changeups to left-handed batters, and while a hitter could anticipate his nasty slider in a pitcher’s count, the location would largely be a mystery.
This season, however, C.C. is throwing six percent more of his pitches in the zone, which for some young pitchers is a sign of good command, but for Sabathia, this means more predictability. Coupled with diminished velocity, this makes batters comfortable sitting back in the box and smacking a two-strike slider for a hit instead of whiffing. As a result, whiffs on his sliders are down eight percent.
Finally, his pitch selection may be a factor in his struggles. While Sabathia is throwing his changeup and slider in similar situations as he normally would throughout his career, he appears to be trying to overcompensate for his diminishing velocity by relying too much on his four-season fastball over his sinker. The result is a reduced ground ball rate from last year, and by extension, more home runs.
For Sabathia to recover, he may need to favor his sinker more and recover some of the height in his arm slot. Otherwise, he may no longer be an ace.