Every time CC Sabathia takes the mound for the New York Yankees this season, fans will find themselves staring at the radar gun. It should not be unexpected, and is certainly not unusual, for a pitcher to lose velocity as he advances through his 30’s. Sabathia will turn 34 this season, and opening day showed that he still has adjustments to make to his game. He did not look good all-around, but Sabathia’s fastball in particular was a problem for him as the Houston Astros battered the Yankees 6-2.
The first and most obvious issue with dropping pitch speed is it allows batters more time to make contact with the pitch. No matter how good a pitcher’s repertoire is, the fastball is going to be his dominant pitch, the one he throws the most. It is the most natural way to throw, and for most is the easiest to locate. A good fastball is something that, if located correctly, can be thrown past a batter even when they are looking for it. Sabathia no longer has the ability to dial a pitch into the mid-to-upper 90’s; he is down a weapon. Sabathia’s first opponent of the season teed up on his mediocre offerings, going six for 15 against his fastball with two doubles and a home run.
Another issue that looked apparent is Sabathia’s dropping fastball is causing command issues. The home run, hit by Astros Jesus Guzman, came on an elevated pitch. Sabathia may be accommodating for his lost ability by overthrowing, which could mean his actual velocity drop is even greater than it seems. While Sabathia had an excellent spring, he did seem to have lost a bit of zip.
Last season, Sabathia’s velocity got better as the year wore on. Early, he was throwing 89-90 mph. By August his fastball velocity was up to a much more comfortable 92-93 mph, although the results were still mixed. One other concern with fastball issues is how it affects other pitch types. Sabathia is dependent on three pitches: his fastball (of which he has a four-seam and two-seam variety), a slider, and a changeup. He also has a curveball that he had used infrequently as a Yankee, but has been increasing his dependence on since last season. The loss in fastball speed has caused the difference between his fastball and changeup to drop, from about eight mph to about six mph. Losing his fastball is causing Sabathia to lose his changeup as well, which could be one reason why the curve is coming back into play since last season.
Like a lot of Yankees, Sabathia is losing effectiveness but is still owed a ton of cash. He is still owed $71 million between 2014 and 2016, with a $25 million vesting option for the year after that. After game one is absolutely not the time to panic over someone who has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for most of his career, but after last season’s troubles there is already a pattern that has been established. Sabathia is still a talented pitcher, but unless he can solve his velocity problems or find a way to work around them, he and the Yankees are in for another tough season.
Commentary by Brian Moore
Guardian Liberty Voice Sports writer for New York Baseball