(Courtesy of the AP)
CC Sabathia made his 11th start of the 2013 season on Sunday night, and if you saw any of it you know that it wasn't pretty. The big fella got smacked around for 7 ER in 7 innings, the most he's given up in one start this season, and currently finds himself with a 4-4 record, a 3.96/4.10/3.76 slash line, and in search of answers. With 2 months of starts under his belt, there is now a big enough sample size to truly start evaluating CC and not much has changed for the better in this second month after many of us wanted to wait and see how CC would look with more work under his belt. His fastball velocity is still underwhelming, his command in the strike zone is still spotty, and he's still way too hittable for anybody to feel as comfortable as they used to when CC takes the mound.
We knew making the adjustment to compensate for his lack of velocity was going to take some time, but CC has looked worse in his more recent starts than he had earlier in the season. What's going on with his transitional period that's making it such a struggle for him?
Well it isn't strikeouts and walks, at least not according to his current rates. CC's 19.6% K rate, while a Yankee career low, isn't that far off from the K rates of his 2009 or 2010 seasons. His 5.1% BB rate is his best since 2007. It also isn't just luck. CC's .306 BABIP against is actually lower than in 2011, his best season as a Yankee. Clearly there is still plenty of stuff here, even if the 4-seamer doesn't have smoke trailing behind it like it used to, and clearly CC still hasn't forgotten how to use it.
What is different is CC's GB rate, down significantly from recent years and the lowest since his early years in Cleveland at 41.9%. Also different is CC's pitch selection, which has gone back to being 4-seamer (42.3%) and changeup (20.1%)-heavy at the expense of his slider and sinker. What started out as a 1-game observation has officially become a trend. CC has cut back on his slider usage big time from last year's career-high rate of 31.8%, and he's using his sinker less than 10% of the time for the first time since 2009. Those changes likely explain the decrease in groundballs and strikeouts. What they don't explain is why CC would make those changes in approach when his fastball has become so diminished.
Of the pitches he throws regularly, CC's 4-seamer easily registers as the weakest this season. According to PitchF/X, opposing hitters are batting .295/.354/.509 against CC's fastball right now, good for a .369 wOBA. He's also got his highest BB rate and lowest K rate with the pitch, so it's not just all about the velocity issue. CC is tied for 2nd in MLB with 11 HR allowed this season, another troubling statistical trend, and 6 of them have come off his fastball. If you aren't going to throw your heater with as much heat on it, you better be locating it in the right spots. So far this season CC hasn't done that and Sunday was clear proof. A CC that's right with his fastball never gives up homers to the likes of Sean Rodriguez and James Loney EVER, let alone in the same game.
After expanding his pitch repertoire over the past few seasons and becoming a more well-rounded pitcher, CC has almost regressed back to a pitch selection breakdown similar to how he worked earlier in his career. He's also turned into a pitcher with a more clearly defined plan of attack against right and left-handed hitters. Against righties this season, CC has been fastball/changeup-heavy (66.9% of all pitches thrown), locating away. Against lefties he's real heavy on slider (43.2%) and fastball (39.1%), with a slight tendency to go down and away. Not bad plans when you're locating a speedy fastball, but much less effective when you're not.
What still doesn't come through here is WHY CC is pitching this way. His slider has been his best swing-and-miss offspeed pitch for years. It's still plenty good this season at an 18.6% whiff rate. His sinker has been a great pitch for CC to get easy GB outs and keep his pitch count down, something he hasn't done with any regularity this season and something that, as pointed out by SJK of NoMaas, brings back to mind concerns about his workload. Why has CC gone away from those pitches and thrown more fastballs? Is he still concerned about his elbow? Is there some lingering pain there that we don't know about? Does he not feel comfortable throwing as many sliders or sinkers if he can't set them up with a good 4-seamer? Only Carsten knows for sure.
CC's probably asking himself as many questions as we are right now as he tries to work through this, and this post is by no means a declaration or implication that CC is done being an effective, ace-type pitcher. He's working through a tough transitional point in his career right now that many pitchers have to deal with. Some of his earlier outings this season and the fact that he still has K and BB rates comparable to his career averages show that he's got plenty left in the tank. Now it's just a matter of figuring out how best to use what's in that tank to complete the journey. Personally, I think the trending towards certain pitches against certain hitters might be working against CC as the book on him this season grows, and he needs to mix up his pitches to keep guys from sitting on his fastball. A return to a more balanced mix and an increase in sinkers and sliders might be just what Sabathia needs to get right.
(All PitchF/X stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Texas Leaguers)