So, I hadn’t realized this, but its been a while since I’ve focused my Bear or Bull spotlight on a pitcher. Maybe it’s because some of my pitcher posts haven’t looked too zesty. And when I say zesty, I’m thinking of you, R.A. Dickey. But I’m still sticking with him, because, well, c’mon man. He does Dickeyface. At least Matt Harvey is still living up to what I said, so there is that. So, I’m going to dabble back towards baseball players who throw off the mound for a living today. Furthermore, the pitcher we’ll be taking an intimate look at will be, non-other-than, the Walrus. You may also know him as Carsten Charles. And, you may also know him as a Tomato. Well, that’s more mine than anyone else’s. Anyhow, last, but not least, you may also know him as CC Sabathia. Not only do we know him by all these various names, we also know him as a stable force in our fantasy rotations, giving us quality production year after year. But times are a changing, and now two months into the season, we are not receiving what was expected. Is this going to continue? Is all hope lost? AM I FREAKING OUT HERE? Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s get through this together.
Pretty much the equivalent to a pitching metronome, CC Sabathia has basically provided, on a yearly basis, what his career line is. And that’s a lowish-3 ERA, 17-win, 200-inning, 200-strikeout guy. In some years, he’s been a bit better, some years, he’s been a bit worse. But he’s pretty much been above average across the board. Not this year, though. We all know that everything ends, nothing lasts forever, something smart about Sylvia Plath, blah-blah, etc.-etc. And in this case, at the age of 32, Sabathia occupies a spot on the baseball aging curve where it all starts to go downhill from here on out. There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but we could be seeing that ‘beginning’ of the end, and, along this path, any number of things could be going on. Sudden erosion of skills, hidden injury, small sample size errors, or, you know, nothing could be wrong. Maybe it’s just bad luck.
So far in 72.2 innings pitched, Sabathia has provided an ERA of 3.96, a FIP of 4.10 and a K/9 of 7.56 and BB/9 of 1.98. These are neither career highs nor are they career lows in any aspect, but if you own him, you’ve seen something less than, that much is certain. The first area of concern is his K/9 of 7.56, which is quite a bit lower than last year’s 8.87 mark. While I would normally point to this as a sign of impending doom, the 7.56 number is not far off from his career rate of 7.76. However, a drop is a drop is a drop. And, just one more for good measure; is a drop. When I see a drop in K/9 and K%, I immediately look at velocity, then SwStr% (Percentage of Strikes that were swung at and missed) and then Contact%, in that specific order.
Lo and behold, Sabathia’s fastball velocity is down to 90.0 miles per hour, dropping 2.3 MPH from last season. In fact, since 2009, his fastball velocity has been trending down from 94.2 MPH, never a good thing. A yearly 2.3 MPH loss might not sound like much, but it is, in fact, enough to not only affect his fastball, but have a large ripple effect on how well Sabathia’s secondary stuff plays. You can see that in the numbers and anecdotal evidence, as his slider, curveball, and changeup have all suffered. Let’s take a look at this theory in action.
This is what you can do with a 94 MPH fastball.
This is what you can do with an 89 MPH fastball.
That was Yunel Escobar hitting a very long homerun. What say you Captain?
But, of course, velocity is only one aspect to take a look at. Next on the to-do list is Sabathia’s SwStr%, which basically measures how many of his strikes are swung at and missed. Usually with velocity loss, you will see this number correlate. So far this season, it stands at 11.5%. Last year? 11.5%. The year before that? 11.2%. Career? 10.8%. Interesting. What we’ve discovered is that in terms of last season, a three year trend, and career, nothing really has changed.
Contact%, in fact, shows the same non-correlation thing going on. Coming in at 76.1% so far, this is not really out of his norm of 76.6% for his career, and has only raised 0.5% from 2012. There is one thing that catches my eye here, and its Zone% (Percentage of pitches seen inside the strike zone). I think, so far, what the numbers are telling us is that there is a velocity loss, but that hasn’t really damaged Sabathia’s effectiveness. However, when you notice that his Zone% sits at 50.6%, almost a full six percent higher than last seasons 44.7%, therein lies the problem. Perhaps because of that velocity loss, he is trying to compensate by throwing pitches more in the zone, trying to challenge or overpower, or locate a bit too much with less stuff. Or his off speed stuff is hanging a bit more than it should. Or his breaking balls are not breaking as much as they used to. In fact, it is most likely all three of those things combined. The simple conclusion is, Sabathia *has* eroded, but that erosion could certainly be overstated at this point. And it’s not like velocity is static. It *could* increase as the season progresses. As the weather gets warmer, its commonly known that pitchers velocities start to rise, so I wouldn’t rule something like that out. But with almost four years of data showing velocity loss, there is an equal, if not greater chance that his velocity will stay the same, or even continue to lower.
Sometimes, I really dislike spotlighting guys like this, because it’s not like Sabathia has totally fallen into the pit of fantasy oblivion. I’m looking at you Hambone. The changes in his skill set we touched upon is not a complete transformation. More like his ‘edges’ are softening up a bit. While he’s giving up a little too much of the long ball, and his ERA is about a half a run higher than expected, the strikeouts are still happening, and the Yankees, much to my perplexity, are still a powerful force in the AL. Wins are still there for him, along with an ability to put up 200 good innings. Not ‘Walrus’ innings, mind you, but still quality.
For the rest of the season, I would expect 10-6/3.62/1.26/131. In redraft leagues, you’re in a tough spot. You could wait for a stretch of games where he K’s 10+ and looks like his old self, which will still undoubtedly occur, and unload at that moment for what the market bears. Personally, I’m more tempted just keeping him this year and riding out the bumps. Afterall, he was drafted at a tier where it will be almost impossible to get that value back, and while he won’t be the same CC Sabathia, there’s no reason why he still can’t be some measure of something quality like in shape and form. The rest of season numbers are still good enough for a number 2 guy on your staff. For keeper leagues, I’d sell during a hot streak, as I alluded to above for redrafts, but it’s not crazy to just stand pat. I don’t think he’s a lost cause. In the next two years, a median output of 15-10/3.50/1.25/170 isn’t crazy to think about. And while we are most likely seeing the end of Sabathia’s dominant stretch, I think the biggest issue will have to do more with us, in that we have to make sure to reset our own expectations. And sometimes its hard to do with such stable guys like Sabathia. Its tough to admit that something that has been automatic for almost 10 years isn’t so automatic anymore. Talk to any long term Roy Halladay owner if you need context.
So yes, reset your expectations, and no longer draft him as a 200 IP, 3.00 ERA, 200 K, constant 20-win machine. But is there something terribly wrong with a 200 IP, 3.50 ERA, 150K, 15-win machine? Not really. Just make sure to pay for the latter, not the former.