2013 Statistics: 211.0 IP, 4.78 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 3.95 SIERA, 4.10 FIP, 7.5 K:9, 2.8 BB:9, 2.7 fWAR
2014 Contract Status: Signed for $23 million. Three years and $76 million remaining with a 2017 vesting option worth $25 million
Missing: Six-foot-seven, 290 lb. lefty ace, known to wear his hat tilted a bit to the side. From 2009 through 2012, pitched over 900 innings and posted ERA of 3.22, FIP of 3.28 and WHIP of 1.18, while accumulating 22.2 fWAR and striking out 8.16 per nine innings. Last spotted throwing complete game, four hit gem in game five of the 2012 ALDS. May be found holding 2007 American League Cy Young Award or 2009 ALCS MVP trophy. If you have any information, please contact Brian Cashman at 1-800-I-MISS-CC.
Slow starts to seasons haven't been uncommon throughout CC Sabathia's career. His ERA in September has been, on average, a run lower than in April, so it's not surprising that most Yankee fans weren't too concerned when their number one starter was hovering around 4.00 at the end of May in 2013. His velocity hadn't yet reached its midsummer form and CC seemed to still be shaking off off-season cobwebs. But as the temperature rose this year, things got worse, not better. The fastball never recovered - its 91.3 average speed was well below its typical level. The Yankees' hefty lefty managed just five quality starts out of thirteen between June 22nd and August 30th - an unheard of marathon of fail for a pitcher who's historically been a model of consistency. As the season progressed it became more and more evident that the CC we were seeing on the mound was not the same one who'd anchored the Yankees' staff for the previous four seasons.
It's not difficult to find key stats in which the Sabathia imposter achieved career worsts in 2013. In his age 32-33 campaign, the big man struck low water marks in ERA, WHIP, hits-per-nine innings (9.6), left-on-base rate (67.4%) and RAA (-16). His 122 runs allowed were the most in baseball, his 224 hits surrendered were fourth and his 28 home runs were seventh.
Yikes. It wasn't long ago that the seven-year, $161 million contract Sabathia signed with the Yankees and the five-year, $122 mil extension he inked after opting out post-2011 seemed like rare free agent successes. In a turn typical of 2013, that's changed drastically. The three or probably four years CC still has to go - his 2017 option will vest as long as he doesn't miss time in 2016 with a shoulder injury - are starting to look like another albatross commitment.
Did CC Sabathia really morph from one of the top aces in the game into a middling innings-eater in a mere season's time? There are a few points of hope that might suggest otherwise. CC's 2013 BABIP against was .308, above his career average of .292. Opponents achieved an .856 OPS with runners in scoring position, .086 higher than normal, resulting in the low LOB rate mentioned above. His HR:FB rate soared to a career-worst 13.0 despite the fact that his fly ball and ground ball percentages held fairly steady at 33.0 and 44.7 percent respectively. Hitters weren't getting the ball in the air more often, but they were finding the seats more often when they did. All in all, CC pitched to some bad luck. His adjusted numbers (3.95 SIERA, 3.76 xFIP) weren't terribly far below their usual plateau.
It's also worth noting that even as his stuff and his good fortune failed him in 2013, Sabathia's health did not. CC showed up at camp this past spring looking significantly more svelte than ever before. There were some who irrationally blamed his velocity decrease on his off-season weight loss but getting in better shape was an adjustment he needed to make if he hopes to avoid nagging knee and back woes as he enters his mid-thirties. The 211 innings he threw led the Yankees as he eclipsed the 200-inning line for the seventh consecutive year. His 32 games started were tied with Hiroki Kuroda for staff best. Only four times all year did Sabathia not last into the sixth inning. Though he struggled, CC did his part to unburden a bullpen often taxed by Hughesian shenanigans. For those of you who care about these sorts of things, CC's durability helped him extend his streak of double-digit win seasons to thirteen straight. He managed an above-.500 record, also for the thirteenth straight year.
Sabathia's season was disappointing, but it wasn't a total disaster. If he throws the same way next year, pitches the same number of innings and has slightly better luck, his numbers will probably look a lot more like what we've grown accustomed to. Still, the weakened fastball is unlikely to be a one-time thing. The tribulations of 2013 highlight that changes need happen if CC's going regain his rank as a frontline starter. Beyond whatever mechanical tinkering he and Larry Rothschild do next spring, pitch selection could be a key. CC's slider has been his most effective pitch throughout his career. In 2013 it was the only bullet in his chamber that maintained a positive value (1.66 RAA/100 according to Fangraphs). Yet curiously, he went to the slider less often in 2013 than in 2012 while throwing more fastballs and change-ups. He left 47.1 percent of his pitches inside the strike zone, his highest rate since 2009, and not surprisingly he saw his swing and miss rate drop below 10 percent for just the fourth time in his career.
Diminished stuff and more pitches in the zone equal more balls put in play and better contact. That's something Sabathia needs to avoid as he transitions from a power arm into more of a finesse pitcher. He'll need to go inside more with his fastball to set up bad swings at sliders away. That's an oversimplified way of looking at it, of course, but CC is known as a diligent worker and a cerebral student of the game. It's not hard to be confident that he'll make the adjustments needed and remain a huge part of the Yankees' rotation going forward. Top-five Cy Young finishes might be a thing of the past, but Sabathia can and should continue to contribute as long as he's physically able.
To use an old Joe Torre cliché, CC Sabathia "battled" through a lot of adversity in 2013. If nothing else, he remained standing while his teammates crumbled around him. For that he earns a solid "C".