Sunday night, CC Sabathia started against the Red Sox and lasted five innings plus one batter. His ERA, already substandard by his own standards, jumped to 4.37, which would easily be the highest of his career since the summer he turned 22. Oh, and the Yankees lost. They're now seven games out of first place, and to their list of legitimate worries they might add the possibility that their supposed pitching ace isn't actually a pitching ace any more.
This was written (by David Waldstein in The New York Times) before Sunday night's game:
The last time Sabathia pitched was July 14, when he gave up eight runs (three earned) in four innings of a sloppy 10-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins. After that game Sabathia was highly critical of himself. And since he had not pitched since then, his estimation of his season so far did not change.
"Still terrible and disappointed," he said Saturday before the Yankees played the Red Sox.
Sunday night, Sabathia can begin the process of changing all that. With four therapeutic days to clear his mind and relax, he said he felt refreshed and ready to start pitching more the way he feels he is capable. He will bring a 9-8 record and a 4.07 earned run average into the game.
There is a mechanical problem — his arm is too low on his delivery — and he hopes that by correcting it he will have better command of his pitches, and more success.
I'm always leery of explanations that cite a mechanical problem, simply because most mechanical problems sound easy to diagnose, and if it's easy to diagnose, what took so long?
And is there really anything wrong with Sabathia this season? His strikeout-to-walk ratio this season is substantially higher than his career mark; his strikeout rate is lower than it's been the last couple of seasons, but it's right in line with his career rate.
His problem this season has been home runs. Sunday night, Sabathia allowed two home runs and that's a new career high (23), and he's going to give a lot more of them this season. Bad luck? Sure, maybe some. Before 2012, just six percent of Sabathia's fly balls allowed went for homers; over 2012 and '13, it's been almost 10 percent. But his strikeout rate's down some, while everybody else's is up. Which is going to lead to more fly balls.
Fundamentally, he's still a good pitcher. Not the pitcher the Yankees are paying for, really. But he's still fundamentally a workhorse with a fundamental 3.50 ERA, and there's plenty of value there. What's worth worrying about aren't Sabathia's statistics or his salary. What's worth worrying about is Sabathia's arm. He used to blow guys away, routinely throwing 95 miles an hour. This season his fastball's averaged just 90, with corresponding drops with his other pitches, too.
With 200 wins and some years of brilliance, Sabathia's already got a pretty good Hall of Fame case. He's also slated to earn $76 million from 2014 through '16 if the Yankees don't exercise their 2017 option, so he doesn't have to worry overmuch about paying his bills. I don't doubt that he can pitch effectively with a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, because he's doing it this season. But we might reasonably wonder what sort of pitcher he'll become if that 90 becomes 88, then 86. Unless you're Jamie Moyer, these things do have natural limits.
The good news? According to PITCHf/x (via Brooks Baseball), Sabathia did throw harder Sunday night, averaging roughly 92 miles an hour between his four-seamer and his two-seam sinker. So that's something, anyway.