There was a lot of justified concern about CC Sabathia after his 2013 season. For the first time since becoming a major leaguer in 2001, the big lefty was well below average, posting the highest ERA and WHIP of his career. The easy explanation for his rapid decline last year is that age and overuse finally caught up with him. Sabathia turned 33 last year, and only the soft-throwing Mark Buehrle has thrown more big league innings than him over the past 13 years. That must be the reason for his highly publicized drop in velocity and, therefore, his overall decline.
There's also the weight issue. A few years ago when CC was at his most rotund, many felt that losing a few pounds would do him well. Heading into 2013, he dropped a ton of weight thanks to a crash diet during the off-season. Naturally, a lot of folks pointed to the rapid weight loss as the reason for his diminished velocity and production. Even CC himself has admitted that he might have gone about it the wrong way last year by sapping his power and stamina. That seems reasonable considering that a season that was sub-par for him in the first half came apart at the seams in the second half. Maybe he just didn't have anything left in the tank.
Let's put the age, attrition, and weight issues aside for the moment, though, and dig into some of his peripheral numbers. It should be no surprise that batters hit for a higher average against Sabathia last year than ever before. However, basic sabermetric principles say that a pitcher has little control over his batting average against, and let's face it, he mostly had a bunch of replacement level players in the field behind him last season. So what do the three things he has the most control over (home run, strikeout and walk rates) tell us?
In the first half of 2013, Sabathia clung to an average production level despite surrendering home runs at a very high rate (1.38 HR/9 compared to a career rate of 0.8 HR/9). Interestingly enough, when his season spiraled out of control in the second half, his home run rate regressed to the mean as he put up a 0.85 HR/9 rate, right in line with his career average. Even with his early struggles, it appears that the long ball wasn't the bane of his existence last year.
The secret must then lie within his strikeout and walk rates, but before getting to 2013, it helps to see what kind of baseline Sabathia was working with. The graph below shows monthly linear trend lines of SO/9, BB/9 and SO/BB for CC's career through 2012 (data courtesy of Baseball Reference, click image to enlarge).
Ever the tortoise, it looks like in a given season Sabathia would start at a solid if unspectacular 7.0 SO/9 and 3.0 BB/9 and gradually improve those rates with better command and stuff as the year wore on. His reputation as a work horse was well-deserved as he got better the more he threw and was at his best during pennant races. That was clearly not the case in 2013, here's how his monthly rates trended throughout the season:
Uncharacteristically, CC came out of the gate pitching well. His strikeouts were up and his walks were way down, but it was all downhill from there. Instead of gaining steam as the year went on, his strikeout rate declined gradually, though that was nothing compared to his fast and furious loss of control in the second half. More than anything, Sabathia's inability to find the plate was what killed him down the stretch. So for all the talk of his loss in velocity, his loss of command is the much bigger concern.
Sabathia's wildness can probably be attributed to a combination of all the things that have been said about him over the past couple years. An unhealthy weight loss, excess wear and tear, and being a thirty-something can certainly sap the confidence out of a once great ballplayer. Regardless of the cause though, reducing his walks and consistently finding the strike zone will be the key to a bounce-back year for the big guy in 2014.
We know the result was a bad one for CC on Tuesday, but in terms of command he showed vast improvements compared to last year's disaster. In six innings of work, he struck out six and allowed just one free pass. On top of that, 68 of his 99 pitches went for strikes, which is about four percent better than his career ratio. Negative Nancies will point out that it was against a terrible Houston Astros lineup and he still got hit hard for six runs, but we're talking silver linings here, people. There's a lot of season left.