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Breaking down CC Sabathia’s recent struggles

Sabathia has regressed after a strong start to the season. Can he rediscover his groove as quickly as he lost it?

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

CC Sabathia was a strong candidate for Comeback Player of the Year in 2016. He remodeled himself to become a crafty southpaw, utilizing location and movement to initiate soft contact. His drastic rebound from a poor 2015 campaign showed signs of a pitcher who was embracing his new style, and it was paying off on the mound.

This narrative held up through Sabathia’s first three starts in 2017, as the left-hander boasted a 1.47 ERA through 18.1 innings of work. That story, however, has changed in a hurry as Sabathia’s last three starts have been disappointments. He has allowed 17 earned runs over his last 14.2 innings. He even walked four batters during his most recent outing.

Luckily for Sabathia, the Yankees’ bats have bailed him out in his last two starts. Still, he can’t expect that kind of run support every time he takes the mound. Something needs to be fixed, and thankfully it doesn’t seem like anything major.

I mentioned the walks, which is something that may have been foreshadowed in his second start of the season. He also issued four walks during that game. Sabathia was able to overcome that, however, and escape with just two earned runs over six innings.

Sabathia didn’t experience the same good fortune in his last start, nor will he on a consistent basis if he fails to hit his spots. This new finesse version of Sabathia doesn’t have the same life behind his pitches anymore. He can’t bail himself out with velocity if he misses the corners, even by a narrow margin. With crafty pitchers, location is everything. Sabathia just hasn’t had it lately.

In terms of velocity, all of Sabathia’s pitches in 2017 are within one mph of his 2016 averages. Clearly, there has been no decline in that regard. If we look at his locations in his first three starts against his last three, you can see a noticeable difference.

Here’s his last three starts:

The corners are key here. Sabathia was hitting both corners at a higher rate in his first three starts, and seems to be missing low during his last three outings. His most recent start highlights this, as Sabathia fell behind 11 of the hitters he faced. He acknowledged after the game that he was doing a better job commanding the inside corners earlier in the year, and has struggled to do so recently.

This is on display with Steve Pearce’s home run on Wednesday night. Kyle Higashioka set up on the inside corner, but Sabathia’s slider hovered over the heart of the plate. Pearce then made him pay by sending it into the visitor’s bullpen.

Opposing hitters will continue to make Sabathia pay if he cannot get back to nipping the corners and commanding the outlines of the strike zone. His velocity has held steady since last year. That has nothing to do with his current struggles. It just comes down to hitting his spots.

Fortunately for Sabathia, location is something that can be fixed as quickly as he lost it. If he can regain his control, he will be just fine. A positive for Sabathia is how he seems to eat up innings even when he is struggling. This gives him more time to figure out his arm slot, release point, or whatever is causing his missed spots. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets back on track as quickly as he seemed to lose his command. In the meantime, hopefully his teammates continue to back him up with a bunch of dingers.