Is CC Sabathia still an ace?

Is Sabathia still an ace? The answer may be in CC's head, not his left arm. - Jim McIsaac

The Yankees entered the 2013 season with a lot of question marks, but so far, the pitching staff has had all the answers. The Yankees currently lead the American League in ERA, and boast what would be one of the highest ERA+ rates in franchise history, so, needless to say, the mound has not been an area of concern. However, the Yankees do have a few first world pitching problems. One of them is named CC Sabathia.

CC Sabathia’s Average Velocity, 2007 to YTD 2013
Sabvelo_medium


Note: click here for illustrative charts of Sabathia’s pitch characteristics and here for a chart displaying average velocity by month.
Source: fangraphs.com

The rest of the league isn’t going to take up a collection for Sabathia, whose 3.43 ERA is in line with his career rate, but it’s been hard not to come away from his outings with some minor concerns. The most obvious red flag has been the big lefty’s diminished velocity, which has been down approximately 4mph off recent highs and two ticks from last year’s average speed. Granted, Sabathia’s fastball is still north of 90mph, and plenty of pitchers have been successful at that speed, but, as the gap with his change-up narrows, the left hander may need to compensate in some other way. Although the sample size is admittedly small for such an evaluation, Sabathia’s fastball and change are each rated below average in terms of pitch type linear weights, and the lack of deception could be one of the causes (one of the effects could be a lower swing rate on pitches out of the zone).

CC Sabathia: Various Peripheral Pitching Rates, 2007 to YTD 2013

Sabrates_medium

Note: O-swing% is percentage of balls out of the strike zone at which a hitter swings. Except for ERA+, all rates are normalized around the average of the period (1 = average).
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

In terms of earned runs allowed, Sabathia hasn’t suffered too much because of the lost zip on his fastball. However, the peripherals are a little more ominous. In particular, the lefty has been allowing more hits (despite inducing fewer ground balls) and home runs, while striking out fewer, which, in the current climate, is perhaps the most meaningful bellwether. If these trends continue, statistical models suggest the impact will eventually take a toll on Sabathia’s ERA.

It’s still early, and Sabathia is only months removed from off season surgery, so, once the weather warms up, the left hander may start lightening up the radar gun once again. If so, the early season worries about his velocity and less than stellar performance will seem rather silly. However, as the only starting pitcher under contract after this season, Sabathia remains a vital component of the Yankees’ present and future. That’s why even irrational concern about the lefty is not completely unfounded, and the following question has resonance: is CC Sabathia still an ace?

Even if Sabathia is starting to veer off a bit, it’s important to remember he is coming from a Hall of Fame path. That leaves the big left hander plenty of wiggle room to maintain his effectiveness even in the face of diminished skills. Nonetheless, it isn’t unreasonable to wonder if Sabathia’s days as an elite ace are waning, or even in the past. At 32 years old, it would be more of surprise if he wasn’t forced to make a concession to age, but because he has been so reliable and consistent, it might be hard for Yankee fans to accept this inevitability. However, the real issue is whether Sabathia can accept it. If so, and he adapts accordingly, the questions about Sabathia’s status as an ace just might be answered affirmatively.

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