COMMENTARY | The New York Yankees have a major issue on their hands this season and possibly beyond.
And for once it has nothing to do with embattled third baseman Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees' supposed ace, CC Sabathia, is in the midst of his poorest season as a professional pitcher, and, worse, he's under contract through 2016 with a vesting option for 2017.
Sabathia is due $71 million over the next three seasons, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts and the option could net him another $25 million. This is a hefty sum of money for a pitcher with a 4.91 ERA in 2013 and more than 3,100 professional innings (including minors and postseason) on his left shoulder and elbow.
When the Yankees signed Sabathia prior to their 2009 World Series championship season, they felt they were getting a bona-fide ace who could lead them to multiple titles. They've won just the one so far, and signs indicate Sabathia may not be the reason they win another.
The once "big" lefty has shown a diminished capacity since last season when he hit the disabled list on two separate occasions. Sabathia tossed just 200 regular-season innings in 2012, his lowest total since 2006. He had averaged a hair less than 240 innings during the previous five regular seasons.
In 2012, despite battling through injuries, Sabathia performed well. He went 15-6 with a 3.38 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. He struck out 197 batters and held opponents to a .238 batting average. But for the first time in his tenure with the Yankees, Sabathia's stature as ace was being questioned.
His detractors last season pointed to the mounting innings and the injury bug, but when it comes down to it, Sabathia was pretty solid. In my mind, Sabathia was still the top starter in the Yankees' rotation. A lot has changed since.
Sabathia has dealt with weight issues over the years, and this season he reported to spring training as light as he's ever been as a Yankee. Sabathia stands 6 feet 7 inches and is listed at 290 pounds, according to his player profile. Sabathia easily weighed far more than 300 pounds in his previous seasons, but he carried his girth as well as can be expected. His weight never seemed to inhibit his stamina, but, when things would go bad for Sabathia, it was typically mentioned as a plausible issue.
Further, the disabled-list stints last season, gave many fans pause. Was the workload finally catching up to the now-33-year-old's shoulder and elbow? In my view, this was a much more viable concern heading into this season, but Sabathia has dispelled this notion (assuming he is not hiding an injury now) as he has not missed a start this season, taking the ball in 28 straight turns.
Though he is "healthier," there are those who now point to his lighter frame and wonder if he's just not the same because of his lower weight. Sabathia's issues this season go well beyond the scale and point to a pitcher who has failed to make the proper adjustments due to his diminished fastball velocity.
The problems with Sabathia's fastball have increased over the last couple seasons. At his prime, Sabathia threw on average in the 93-94 mph range, according to PITCHf/x data provided by FanGraphs. In 2011, he averaged 93.9 mph on his fastball. That dropped to 92.4 mph in 2012 and sits at just 91.2 mph this season through his last start August 30.
As Sabathia's fastball velocity has decreased, not surprisingly so too has the effectiveness of the pitch. Major-league hitters will undoubtedly have better swings at fastballs in the 91 mph range than those in the 93-94 mph area. What's more problematic for Sabathia is that his placement with the pitch is also lacking. His fastball is worth an alarming -17.9 runs this season. Further, of his complementary pitches, only his slider has produced a positive value (+9.9 runs).
Sabathia's curve ball and changeup have also been ineffective this season. He got by in 2012 with diminished velocity because of these ancillary pitches working for him, but, this season, they are hurting him almost as much as the fastball. Even though his slider still maintains a positive value, it is not as effective as in years past.
With one month left to the season, it is unlikely Sabathia will start dialing it up on the radar gun. But he has the ability to work on his fastball placement and the other pitches in his repertoire over his next four, possibly five starts.
With the Yankees sitting 2.5 games back of the Tampa Bay Rays in the race for the second wild-card spot as they get ready for action Sept. 3, they need Sabathia at his best if they hope to return to the postseason. At the least, they need him to be much better than he has been since mid-June when the wheels seemingly came off an already alarming season. Sabathia's 7.33 ERA, .316 batting average against and .904 OPS against over his last nine starts are indicative of a severely struggling pitcher.
If Sabathia is unable to turn it around as the season winds down, the Yankees will have a bigger issue than missing the postseason. They'll have a huge financial commitment to a pitcher with many innings under his belt who has thus far failed to figure out a way to adjust his style. The team will need to push Sabathia to master his ancillary pitches in the offseason and find a way to make his not-so-fast fastball valuable. If he can't do it, the next Yankees championship will likely not be attributed to Sabathia's once golden left arm, one that could cost them $202 million.
Chris Carelli is a freelance baseball writer/editor. He's been published on Call to the Pen, Redbird Rants, Yanks Go Yard and Big Leagues Magazine. He currently writes MLB pieces for Sportsideo where he is also the Director of Content Strategy. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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