(Courtesy of the AP)
It was a weekend of rotation problems on full display for the Yankees. Hiroki Kuroda continued to get killed on misplaced pitches in the strike zone and lack of offspeed bite on Friday. Ivan Nova looked like an absolute mess on the mound last night, both physically and mentally if you subscribe to Orel Hershiser's way of thinking when looking at pitchers' body language. But by far the biggest rotational black eye was the continued ineffectiveness of CC Sabathia on Saturday. The big guy gave up 13 combined baserunners and 5 ER in 6 innings of work, the latest in a string of poor starts that stretches back months and has shown no signs of being corrected.
Sabathia's season ERA is up to 4.90, which ranks him 79th out of 83 MLB starters who've pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. His 4.12 FIP is not quite as bad, although it does place him firmly in the bottom third of qualified starters. By most statistical measurements, Sabathia has been one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball this season, with the worst of his worst coming post-ASB.
There's no way to sugarcoat a 6.58/4.31 second half split, but what does this downtrend in Sabathia's 2013 performance say about his future? Last night, SJK of NoMaas pointed to CC's K and BB rates as reasons to still believe in CC and expect a bounce back from him in 2013. While it's a valid argument that shows he still has the stuff to pitch successfully, addressing the "how" of that bounce back is really the key to determining just how rapidly CC is going to continue to decline.
By now, any intelligent Yankee fan knows that the fastball has been the source of CC's problems this year. The velocity has come back to a respectable level as the season has gone on, but he no longer has the movement and downward location of the pitch needed to make it effective as a low-90s offering. The prevailing thought on why CC has struggled to find his fastball command this year is the weight he lost in the offseason and kept off during the season affecting his pitching mechanics and delivery. CC has been a big man for a long time, and he still is. He learned to pitch to his weight and now it seems as though the decrease in weight combined with the fastball struggles has him searching for a new release point. He can't continue to throw the fastball the way he did as a bigger guy and he hasn't figured out how to make the necessary adjustment to re-establish command of the pitch.
That adjustment isn't something that Sabathia is going to find during the regular season. It's something he's going to have to work on during the offseason, trying to tailor his delivery and tweaking his mechanics to his smaller body mass. It'd be easy to say he should just put the weight back on, but that's the unhealthier and riskier option. The Yankees should want the slimmest, most in shape CC they can get for the remainder of his contract to mitigate injury risk, and CC himself has said he wants to keep his weight down to be healthier long term for his kids. He's taking the right step in cutting weight to keep his body in the best possible physical condition to pitch well moving forward. The next logical step is working WITH that change in body type to maximize his remaining pitching tools, not around it.
That step is easier said than done, however, and there's a lot that goes into re-working pitching mechanics. As SJK alluded to in his post, CC's strikeout rates show he still has the stuff to get swings and misses. Both his slider and curveball rate as above average pitches this year according to FanGraphs, and his changeup was his second best offspeed offering until this year. CC doesn't want to give up the effectiveness of those out pitches to improve his fastball, so he's got to find a mechanical middle ground where all of his pitches can be effective. He's also got to make sure he can throw everything he wants to throw from a similar release point so as not to give away with he's throwing.
We're talking incremental changes to a delivery that he's been using for over 10 years. There's no guarantee it works, and even if it does there's no guarantee it will lead to a positive turnaround in performance.
Still, it's not like CC is some piece of crap middle rotation starter just trying to hang on. He's a former Cy Young winner, a multi-time All Star, and one of the best starting pitchers of the last 10-15 years. There's reason to expect, even anticipate, that a pitcher of his caliber can put in the work and make the necessary adjustments to his game to bring his fastball back to life. This year has been a trying experience for him to say the least and there's no way he wants to have a repeat of this in 2014, so motivation should not be a problem.
CC's 2013 reminds me a lot of Mike Mussina's 2005 and 2007 seasons. Mussina had to teach himself how to pitch without his old velocity and twice he was able to make the adjustments and come back stronger. With $71 mil guaranteed over the next 3 seasons and a $25 vesting option for 2017, the Yankees are hoping CC can follow Moose's path. There are reasons to be hopeful, as pointed out by SJK. There are also a lot of reasons to be skeptical, even fearful about how CC makes the transition to next year.