After watching him struggle through his first start of the 2014 regular season against the lowly Houston Astros on Tuesday night, CC Sabathia apologists will say it's only one game. Sabathia critics, meanwhile, will say it's more like 33—and counting.
In picking up the loss in what turned out to be a 6-2 final, Sabathia went six innings, surrendering all six runs on eight hits and generally looking a lot like the same pitcher who endured 32 mostly bad starts in 2013, the worst season of his career.
Although Sabathia did manage a respectable six-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio, it's not wrong to say that even his unimpressive overall line was somewhat misleading, as Sabathia certainly looked worse than his final numbers, especially early on.
Sabathia gave up all six runs in an ugly first two frames—four in the first and two in the second—that were marked by several poorly located (i.e., high) fastballs from him and thus, an inability to throw quality strikes, despite 68 of 99 registering in the zone overall. Oh, he also gave up a pair of home runs and threw in a wild pitch before getting the sixth out.
It didn't help that the Yankees as a whole looked out of sorts on both offense and defense, as the bats were stifled by Scott Feldman and the glove work was less than crisp, even if they only made one error on the evening.
The concern here, though, centers on Sabathia, specifically considering he had so much trouble with an Astros team that has been the worst in the sport each of the past three seasons, that he nearly didn't make it out of the second inning.
For what it's worth, these Astros scored just 3.8 runs per game in 2013—"good" for fourth-worst in the league—and set a major league record with 1,535 strikeouts as a team.
This is more than just a forgettable opener for Sabathia, whose reduced velocity has been a troubling story for a couple of seasons now. It remained a hot topic throughout spring training, as fellow MLB Lead Writer Zachary D. Rymer covered last month, even though the big left-hander actually sported great stats in March (1.29 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 16:3 K:BB in 21.0 IP).
On Tuesday night, Sabathia registered a miles-per-hour reading that began with a "9" exactly 15 times out of his 99 total pitches and topped out at 91—on all of four occasions. Here's the breakdown by inning, according to MLB.com's pitchF/X data from Gameday:
|Number of times CC Sabathia hit 90 MPH In First Start|
|INNING||# 90-MPH PITCHES||PEAK VELOCITY|
|TOTAL||15 of 99 pitches||91 (4x)|
Certainly this is a problem, as there's no guarantee that Sabathia, now 33 years old and with 2,781.1 innings—third-most among all active pitchers—on his arm (not counting the playoffs), will suddenly find a few ticks on the radar gun.
To be sure, plenty of former power pitchers have succeeded with reduced MPH, but that requires improvement in control and, especially, command—something Sabathia didn't show Tuesday night. Or for that matter, much of last season, when he was busy putting up career-worsts in ERA (4.78) and WHIP (1.37).
Which brings up the biggest concern: home runs. In 2013, Sabathia gave up a career-high 28 in 211.0 frames, and in the first of his starts this year, he allowed two more in his six innings. They were hit by such esteemed sluggers as Jesus Guzman and L.J. Hoes, who tallied the 24th and fourth homers of their careers.
But here's the big-picture concern for the Yankees: If Sabathia can't get right, then there will be a trickle-down effect on the rest of the rotation.
Sabathia acknowledged the significance of his performance this season, as well as those of his fellow Yankees starters, when he told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News prior to Tuesday's start: "I think our rotation has a chance to carry us, and hopefully we can. It starts with us, we’re the key to this thing."
Sure, veteran Hiroki Kuroda, who was the club's best pitcher for most of 2013, should be fine, but there will be much more pressure resting on Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda, all of whom are promising young arms but not without a question or two of their own that need to be answered.
At this stage of his career, the hope is that Sabathia can at least still be consistently effective in an innings-eater kind of way, and perhaps occasionally brilliant when everything is working.
It's pretty clear, however, that Sabathia is no longer the stud starter he was in his first three seasons with New York. Sabathia and the Yankees need to realize that. What neither should accept, though, is that he continues to decline at the scary pace he's set over his last 33 starts.
To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11