He is but two starts into his 2016 season, but so far, there are real reasons to be worried about CC Sabathia. There was some hope entering this season that Sabathia, aided by his magical knee brace, could bounce back to at least a serviceable performance level for the Yankees. A couple weeks into the year, the results haven't been entirely promising.
Only so much can be made about a half-month's worth of stats, but for posterity's sake, here are the numbers: 10.2 innings, a 5.06 ERA, and a 17.0% strikeout rate compared to a 10.6% walk rate. For what it's worth, Sabathia also provided little cause for optimism in spring training, striking out ten while walking seven, allowing 14 runs in 16.1 innings.
Still, more important than the small sample statistics are the underlying factors that lead to them. Those factors beneath the surface have thus far painted an uninspiring picture of Sabathia's campaign. The most concerning and startling development at this juncture of the season is that of Sabathia's declining velocity:
Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, the above chart illustrates the disturbing trend: Sabathia's velocity is disappearing, and fast. Not only has his fastball velocity continued its descent, but his secondary pitches, his changeup and slider, are feeling the sobering effects of age as well.
Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that the dip in velocity appears to have accelerated. Not even the most pessimistic fan or prognosticator would have forecast such a stark loss. After sitting near 95 mph as recently as 2011, and still hovering at a respectable 91.2 mph last season, Sabathia's fastball velocity has downright plummeted, to 88.1 mph this season. FanGraphs' pitch f/x metrics are even less flattering to Sabathia, pegging his average fastball at 87.1 mph.
Sabathia has seemingly acknowledged his diminishing abilities and attempted to adjust, mainly by throwing fewer pitches in the zone. Back in his prime, when he could dominate opposing offenses with an overpowering fastball and a wipe-out slider, Sabathia would throw a huge portion of his pitches in the strike zone. Likely armed with the knowledge that his stuff was excellent, Sabathia pounded the zone during his time in Cleveland, at a rate of 54.6%.
That figure has taken a nosedive. Sabathia's percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone has fallen all the way to 42.6% so far in 2016, after posting marks of 46.6% and 43.0% in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Sabathia has also simply thrown fewer strikes overall. Just 61.6% of his pitches this season have been strikes, compared to 65.0% for his career.
Has that aversion to strike-throwing helped Sabathia limit hard contact? That appears unlikely. According to FanGraphs batted ball data, 41.2% of batted balls off Sabathia this season have been hard hit. Even during the past two seasons, when Sabathia was running ERA figures near five, he was able to keep hitters from making hard contact on less than 30% of batted balls.
This at least makes intuitive sense. Even if Sabathia is being more and more cautious about throwing pitches in the zone, if his fastball is topping out at 88 mph, he is inevitably going to yield well-struck balls when he enters the strike zone. That was evident in his last start against the Mariners. Here's Sabathia going up against former teammate Robinson Cano last Saturday:
Sabathia threw a fastball and kept the pitch down, but it was out over the plate, and Cano had no problem lining it sharply back up the middle. At just 88.1 mph, according to Baseball Savant, it's no surprise that fastball was far from adequate enough to deal with a hitter like Cano.
What about lesser hitters? Same story:
Sabathia threw a 78 mph slider right over the plate, and Leonys Martin, a player known far more for his defensive proclivities rather than his offensive prowess, absolutely tattooed it into the right field bleachers. Sabathia's offerings are no longer strong enough to cover his mistakes. If he errs and leaves pitches out over the plate, as he did against Seattle, major league hitters will make him pay.
Unfortunately, the Yankees don't seem to have much recourse. There was much deliberation throughout spring training about whether Ivan Nova was worthy of supplanting Sabathia in the rotation, but there doesn't seem to be compelling evidence that Nova is a clearly superior candidate. Nova has yet to strengthen his own case, allowing four runs in five 2016 innings.
All of this must be taken with a grain of salt, as the season is obviously still young. Sabathia's velocity almost surely will rise at least a little as the season progresses and the weather warms. However, a drop in velocity this stark cannot be ignored. If Sabathia can't recover any of his lost stuff, getting big league batters out will be a tall task. The early returns have made that evermore clear.
Editor's Note: New players win cash in their first league or get their entry fee refunded! Offered in partnership with FanDuel. Click here to enter.