Batters will have to wait until 2014 to kick CC Sabathia around some more

Elsa

So just in case things weren't going poorly enough for the Yankees already -- you know, they're basically out of the playoffs now -- they've just lost their supposed ace starting pitcher for the rest of the season:

The Yankees announced Monday morning that Sabathia suffered a Grade 2 strain in his left hamstring when he beat the Giants on Friday night at the Stadium. The injury requires eight weeks to recover, the club said.

Sabathia finishes a disappointing season 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA. Both the losses and the ERA are the worst marks the lefthander has had during a single season.

Another career-worst mark: Sabathia's 0.2 Wins Above Replacement. Worst of his career by a lot. Via Baseball-Reference.com, anyway. FanGraphs likes him a bit more this season, because FanGraphs cares less about ERA-related results than fielding-independent pitching numbers. But FanGraphs' 2.7 Wins+ for Sabathia is also the worst of his career. And while Sabathia wasn't great last year, his 2012 was reasonably in line with the rest of his career.

So is something seriously wrong with him? This question is particularly relevant because the Yankees owe Sabathia $71 million over the next three years, plus another $5 million if they don't want to pay him $25 million in 2017. It's also relevant because Sabathia's easily our best hope for another 300-game winner; right now he's still 95 wins short, which is six or seven more really good seasons ... or eight or nine decent years.

The good news is that Sabathia's probably pitched a lot better than his ERA suggests. He's given up a .308 batting average on batted balls in play, which is roughly 15 points worth of bad luck. He's given up home runs on 14 percent of the fly balls he's allowed, which has been roughly six home runs of bad luck. In fairness (to luck), more of Sabathia's baserunners have been stranded than chance would predict. But the fundamental conclusion stands: Sabathia's not really a 4.78 pitcher; he's something like a 4.00 pitcher ... which might make him one of the 20 best starters in the American League.

Probably not. But maybe.

The bad news is that Sabathia's issue seems to be systemic rather than random. He's simply not throwing the ball like he used to. While he's throwing the same pitches at roughly the same frequencies, he's lost a bunch off his fastball. From 2007 through '11, he habitually averaged around 94 miles an hour on his four-seam fastball. Last year it was close to 92, and this year it's been around 91. Meanwhile, his two-seamer's down a couple of miles an hour, too.

Oddly, his slider hasn't fallen off much at all. But it doesn't seem to have been as effective lately, perhaps because there's not as much separation between his slider and fastball, or perhaps because he's over-throwing it, or perhaps because of something well beyond my ken to understand.

Still, the slider's been a good pitch. The fastballs have not been good pitches. And it's difficult to win without effective fastballs.

It's way too early to give up on Sabathia. But considering what we've seen these last two years, there's no obvious reason to think he's going to turn things around. Leaving aside this hamstring strain, we should expect Sabathia to remain a rotation workhorse until he's not.

But look at the Yankees' situation. Hiroki Kuroda has become the Yankees' ace. He's a free agent this winter. Andy Pettitte pitched well this season. He's quitting. Phil Hughes is 4-13 this season. Ivan Nova's pitched well, but nobody really trusts him yet. Down in the minors, their only immediate starting prospect is Michael Pineda, who pitched well in six starts with Scranton after recovering from shoulder surgery.

Really, though, the only sure things for the Yankees' rotation next season are Sabathia and Nova. You need more than two just to play, and you need more than half an ace if you're going to win 90 games. Should be an interesting winter, as Sabathia tries to figure out what happened to his fastball and Brian Cashman tries to figure out who's going to fill all those slots in the rotation next spring.

For much more about the Yankees, please visit SB Nation's Pinstriped Bible.

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