After a trying offseason, former ace CC Sabathia is doing everything he can to keep his spot in the starting rotation. Unfortunately, CC has struggled through spring training, with an ERA of 5.84 in four appearances. With his history of knee problems and constantly decreasing velocity, the Yankees have the difficult job of deciding whether they think something will click for Sabathia during the season.
After his shaky first spring training start, Sabathia was quick to note that he has traditionally struggled in exhibition games, even when he was running on all cylinders. Since 2006, Sabathia has a spring training ERA of 5.01. His struggles actually continue into March/April, during which time he has a career ERA of 4.23. Improving with the warmer weather has been a common trend in CC's career, as his lifetime second-half ERA is at 3.45. In fact, he has a history of sprinting to the finish line, with a career ERA of 2.77 in regular season games played in September and October.
But with his diminishing radar gun readings, it is tough to argue that his historic second half in 2008 means anything now. Even so, recent history suggests that Sabathia is saving his bullets for the middle of the season. Like most pitchers, he traditionally adds velocity throughout the year. But not every pitcher has experienced the same kind of in-season velocity boost as CC over the past few seasons:
In 2013, Sabathia added almost two mph from April to August. After a lingering knee problem sidelined CC in the middle of the 2014 season, he did the same thing in 2015, adding two mph from April to August once again, although that figure tailed off in September. Last August, he hit 94 mph against the Red Sox, and was evidently as excited as we were about it:
On March 24, the MLB Network's Jon Heyman reported that CC was sitting at 88-89 mph. If his last few seasons are any indicator, he should be in the high 80's to start, and could begin to crack the 90's as the season goes on. But if the hope of seeing a 91 mph fastball from Sabathia isn't very exciting, perhaps the adjustments he made last season are.
Like countless pitchers before him, CC's response to losing velocity was to throw more sinkers. If he could keep the ball on the ground and avoid giving up too many home runs, he had the hope of being effective as a starter. Unfortunately, he never had the command that allowed sinkerballers like Roy Halladay and Dallas Keuchel to dominate hitters without elite velocity. But after the 2015 All Star Break, Sabathia started to flash the ability to locate his sinker. Here is how he located the pitch against righties, before and after the All Star Break:
After pounding the strike zone without any semblance of a plan in the first half, CC began burying his sinker down and away to right handed hitters, who were giving him the most amount of trouble. He also began throwing his four-seam fastball more, elevating it to provide a change of pace. His walk rate made the jump from 1.8 BB/9 to an unsightly four walks per nine innings in the second half, but the fact that he was making a more concerted effort to paint the corners is a positive sign.
If the Yankees end up giving CC Sabathia the fifth starter spot, they would be banking on another spike in velocity, a phenomenon that is becoming somewhat of a tradition for the veteran southpaw. But as has been the case since 2013, CC will only be as good as his ability to locate his pitches, especially to right-handed hitters. Since the younger (and cheaper) Ivan Nova has also struggled in spring training, CC will probably win the job. While things might be ugly in the early goings for Sabathia, there is always the hope that second half CC will emerge at some point.
Data is courtesy of MLB.com & FanGraphs.
Graphics are from Brooks Baseball & Baseball Savant.