(Courtesy of the AP)
(Originally published at IIATMS/TYA)
It was quite the weekend for the Bronx Bombers in the Grapefruit League. The beat the Phillies on Saturday and the Blue Jays on Sunday by a combined score of 12-2, showcasing solid pitching from the top of their ST staff to the bottom and plenty of power from both sides of the plate. Of course wins and losses in ST games are the least important things to come out of said games, but winning still beats losing and the Yanks looked good as a team over the last 48 hours.
The highlight of the weekend was the triple-headed 2014 pitching debut of the top of the starting rotation. CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Masahiro Tanaka all threw 2 scoreless innings on Saturday, with Kuroda looking very sharp and efficient in his outing (he only threw 17 pitches) and Tanaka giving everybody a peak at his impressive array of offspeed pitches and plus fastball command on the corners. The only pitcher who wasn't generating positive buzz after the game, despite almost identical results, was Sabathia. In his first game action since last year's disastrous season, Sabathia's fastball lived in the mid-80s and topped out at just 88 MPH. This sent up the emergency alarm in the form of a tweet barrage from the beat writers and set the stage for another spring of hand-wringing over the big guy's velocity. Before everybody starts freaking out, I'd like to kindly ask that you take a deep breath, spend the next 5 minutes reading the rest of this post, and relax.
Keep in mind that this was CC's first real start of the calendar year. Yeah he threw during the offseason and he's had some bullpen and BP sessions early in camp, but Saturday's outing was probably the first time he's thrown at 100% effort since his final start of 2013. As a 33-year-old pitcher with 13 years, 415 regular season starts, 2,775.1 regular season innings, and a recent elbow surgery under his belt, CC isn't approaching ST the way he used to in his mid-20s. It's more about getting loose and feeling good than throwing hard these days, and for a first go after 5 months of not dialing it all the way up to 11, 88 and no aches or pains is a good thing and all he's really looking for.
Keeping with that "older guy" theme, let's also keep in mind that CC did experience a drop in velocity last season. It's not like he's going from 95-96 last September to 88 now. His 4-seamer averaged 91.3 in 2013, so you have to look at 88 in that context. While it's more than reasonable to hope for a slight uptick this season a year removed from surgery, it's unreasonable to expect his first outing of the year to result in 92-94 MPH heat right out of the gate. And for all we know, last year's decrease in velocity could be permanent. 91-92 may be all CC has left in him at this stage in his career, which would make 88 in his first start nothing to be concerned about. If he made this start on May 1st and maxed out at 88, that'd be a different story. But on March 1st it shouldn't even be a story.
Regardless of whether or not the velocity increases over the next month, the most important thing with CC this season and moving forward in his career isn't so much velocity as it is location. A lot of the big hits and homers he gave up last year were on pitches up in the zone and over the middle of the plate. For whatever reason, CC couldn't command his fastball on the corners and he paid for it, same as most other pitchers who have the same problem paid for it (looking at you, Phil Hughes). To be successful this year, at any velocity, CC needs to get back to locating his fastball on the corners for strikes and keeping the ball down in the strike zone. That's something that Larry Rothschild has all his pitchers working on in camp and I'm sure that's a bigger point of emphasis for Sabathia right now than radar gun readings.
Just so everyone knows where I'm coming from, personally I don't expect CC to regain much velocity this season, if any at all. I think low 90s is what we're going to see from him and I fully expect him to be hitting 91-92 by the time ST ends. I also believe that if he can overcome his command issues from last season and locate better, he can be a very good pitcher at 91-92. His slider is still capable of being an overwhelming strikeout pitch, his curveball is still above-average, and better command of the fastball should make his changeup more effective. I understand that his "velo" is an easy way to spark Twitter conversation and draw pageviews, but I think it's way too early to turn it into a major talking point. Let's give it a few weeks and see how he's doing in the middle of the month before we raise the alert level.