CC's cruise control set low
April, 1, 2013
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com
OK, so we knew the Yankees' Opening Day lineup wasn't exactly Murderers' Row. And we knew with Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix at shortstop and third, respectively, the defense could be a little suspect. And despite Joe Girardi's protestations to the contrary, it is going to take the manager a few games to get the feel for manufacturing runs with his new batting order rather than sitting around and waiting for a three-run homer.
Those are facts of life the Yankees are going to have to live with, at least until Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson get released from the purgatory of the disabled list.
But CC Sabathia living in the slow lane?
That, they may not be able to live with.
(AP Photo/Kathy WillensCC Sabathia threw five innings, allowing eight hits and four earned runs, on Opening Day against the Red Sox.
No, we don't want to make too much of one game out of 162, and yes, Sabathia has the reputation of being a slow early-season starter, and sure, his spring training was somewhat abbreviated by the Yankees, who were concerned about pushing his surgically cleaned-out elbow too hard, too soon.
But once again, CC's fastball loitered in the 89-91 mph range, and despite the fact that Girardi says he is not worried about it and Sabathia said that is normal for this time of the season, there is also evidence that says it is not.
The best evidence is BrooksBaseball.net's PitchFX tool, which analyzes every pitch thrown by every pitcher in every big league game.
And even though Sabathia said it is not unusual for his velocity to be this low at this time of the year, today he was down several miles per hour on all pitches from his first start of 2012. Last April 6 against the Tampa Bay Rays, Sabathia's four-seam fastball ranged between 92.5 and 94 mph. His sinker ranged from 92 to 94.5. His changeup ran from 86 to 89, and his slider from 80 to 83. And on Opening Day 2011, his fastball hit 95 mph.
Today, his fastballs averaged 88-90 mph, his changeup sat at around 84 and his slider, the only pitch that didn't show any significant drop-off, moseyed in at around 82. He got up as high as 92 only twice -- on a ball four to Jackie Bradley Jr. in the second inning, and on a 3-2 pitch that Jarrod Saltalamacchia turned on and lashed into the left-field corner for a fifth-inning double.
Although Sabathia had just one truly bad inning, the second, when the Red Sox jumped out to a 4-0 lead on four hits, one an infield single, and a couple of walks, at no point in the game could Sabathia ever be called overpowering.
"I think that was probably the case last year as well early on," Girardi said. "Early on you don't see a lot of velocity from him. It seems to take him really a month for that velocity to bump up. We saw 93s in spring training, so I think you'll see it go up as time goes on, but we're pretty used to seeing him not have the same velocity in April as he does in June and July."
"Maybe he got a slow start with the speed," said Francisco Cervelli, who caught Sabathia today. "But I think when the weather changes and we get into the summer, he starts to throw 95 and the heavy ball. This is just the first time."
Both of those statements, of course, are untrue, as demonstrated by the evidence above.
And while early-season low velocity could mean nothing, let's not forget that the Yankees downplayed Michael Pineda's power outage last spring. It wasn't a problem, they insisted, until finally, it was, and he wound up having season-ending shoulder surgery.
I'm not suggesting that anything like that is in Sabathia's future, only that history should tell us that those who ignore velocity fluctuations in starting pitchers do so at their peril. This is not an issue to be alarmed over yet, but it certainly bears watching.
What is probably closer to the truth is what Sabathia himself said after the game.
"I'm sure that the velocity will keep coming back and the arm strength will keep building up the more I throw," he said. "Healthwise, I feel fine, elbow, shoulder and everything. It's just time I guess to build the arm strength back up."
The Yankees decided to prepare Sabathia for Opening Day with just 10 innings of real competition this spring, in just two starts. He also threw a couple of simulated games, but any pitcher will tell you those don't even come close to approximating the intensity of a real game, even in the preseason.
So in a season that will depend more than ever upon the effectiveness of their starting pitching, the Yankees decided the best course of action was to send their ace out short.
That may work out to their advantage over the long haul. But on Opening Day, it wasn't only the lineup that lacked power.
It was the ace's left arm, and that is a situation that will have to change, and fast.