Can the Yankees Trust CC Sabathia in 2014 After Dominant Spring Finish?

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia throws during the first inning of a Legend Series exhibition baseball game with the Miami Marlins, a game in honor of Mariano Rivera at the Rod Carew Stadium in Panama City, Sunday, March 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
Arnulfo Franco/Associated Press

CC Sabathia and the 2013 New York Yankees had a lot in common. Both looked old, broken down, overpriced and like shells of their once-great selves. 

The Yankees missed the playoffs last year for just the second time since 1995. Sabathia had the highest ERA (4.18), home run rate (1.19), home run to fly ball ratio (13.0 percent), WHIP (1.37) and hits per nine innings (9.6) of his career. 

It was a year to forget for everyone in New York, especially Sabathia, but now there are reasons for optimism as the big left-hander heads into the regular season. Take a look at his numbers from the last three spring starts, courtesy of scout David P. on Twitter. 

CC Sabathia's last 3 starts: 16 IP, 7H, 0R, 0ER, 1BB, 12K

— Yankeesource (@YankeeSource) March 27, 2014

In fact, four of Sabathia's five spring appearances have ended with no runs allowed. The only game that the left-hander got hit around was against Washington on March 11 with three runs allowed on four hits. 

As impressive as the results have been for Sabathia, it is still spring training. Putting stock in what happens this time of year will lead to inevitable disappointment when the games start counting. 

After all, Grady Sizemore, Sabathia's old teammate in Cleveland, is hitting .306/.342/.417 this spring after not playing in an MLB game since September 2011. Does this mean the 31-year-old should play center field and hit leadoff for the Red Sox?

But for Sabathia, the expectations can be raised because of his history. Unfortunately, the version of him that was once great is gone forever. It's visible in the way he pitches, the quality of his fastball and his body. 

The 2007 American League Cy Young winner has undergone a physical transformation, looking like a completely different person this spring even though he weighs the same 275 pounds that he did one year ago. 

Sabathia's body has always been a huge talking point even dating back to his time in Cleveland, but it appeared to catch up to him in the second half of 2013. 

CC Sabathia 2013 Second-Half Stats
Baseball Reference

Also alarming for Sabathia and the Yankees was the continued decline of his fastball, which has gone from 93.8 mph in 2011 to 92.3 mph in 2012 to 91.1 mph last year. This also made his changeup, which used to be a plus pitch, more hittable than ever. 

2013 Opponent Stats vs. CC Sabathia's Changeup

Sabathia's fastball has been a hot topic of conversation this spring, which was to be expected after last season. ESPN's Jayson Stark updated the world on the left-hander's heater following a March 21 start against Pittsburgh. 

Scouts had CC Sabathia's fastball at 87-90 mph yesterday, mostly in high 80s. But still dialed in with delivery, command & offspeed mix

— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) March 22, 2014

As Stark noted, it's good that Sabathia was able to throw strikes and mix in his other pitches. That doesn't mean hitters aren't squaring up the fastball though, as Matthew Pouliot of pointed out during Sabathia's March 27 start against the Pirates

Every fastball CC Sabathia threw that inning was hit hard by the Pirates. Fortunately, two were hit right at the shortstop.

— Matthew Pouliot (@matthewpouliot) March 27, 2014

Eventually, those balls hit at defenders are going to find holes or go over the fence. Pitchers can't live allowing hard contact, and since Sabathia doesn't have the fastball to miss bats at the rate he once did, manipulating the ball becomes more vital to his success. 

Erik Boland of Newsday reported in early March that former Yankee Andy Pettitte was working with Sabathia on adding a cutter to his repertoire. 

"I used it today and it worked pretty good," Sabathia told Boldand, "so I'm anxious to take it into a game. This is going to try to be a true cutter."

If any franchise knows the value of a cutter, it's the Yankees. According to FanGraphs' measurements, Pettitte started throwing the cutter in 2004 and made it a significant part of his arsenal in 2005. 

According to Brooks Baseball, Pettitte generated more swings and misses from 2007-13 and the lowest slugging percentage against in 2007, 2009-10 and 2013 with his cutter than any other pitch. But it is worth nothing that Pettitte didn't fully trust his cutter until the second year it was in his arsenal (2005). 

Unless Sabathia has been secretly working on the cutter for a year behind the scenes, the odds of it being a huge part of his repertoire in 2014 are slim. That leaves him with the same assortment of pitches this year that he ended with last year. 

Another aspect of Sabathia's game that has changed in recent seasons is the way he attacks hitters. He used to be a fastball-slider pitcher, throwing those two pitches at least 80 percent of the time from 2009-12, per FanGraphs

CC Sabathia Pitch Usage Percentage, 2013

Sabathia's changeup was used more in 2013 than the previous two seasons, but when he threw it more in 2011, his fastball still averaged 93.8 mph. With the decreased fastball velocity, his changeup wasn't fooling hitters like it used to. 

All of these changes lead to the ultimate question of whether the Yankees can trust Sabathia this season.

It's not an easy question to answer because there will always be people who look at Sabathia's salary—$23 million in 2014—and assume that since he's being paid like an ace, he's got to pitch like one. 

The Yankees knew what they were getting into signing Sabathia through his age-36 season, so their expectations have to be adjusted.

Gone are the days where Sabathia is an annual Cy Young contender. But that doesn't mean the left-hander can't reinvent himself like Pettitte did in his mid-30s with Houston and New York. 

If that's the expectation for Sabathia in 2014, he should have no problems carrying over his spring performance into the regular season. 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter .


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