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The Fall of a Giant: Why CC Sabathia Is in Decline

The magic of Sabathia's glorious gut seems to have lessened over the past few years.

The magic of Sabathia’s glorious gut seems to have lessened over the past few years.

Lets see if you can guess which Yankee I’m talking about. He’s been one of the best players at his position for years, but now, as he’s starting to get older, he’s declined precipitously. Unfortunately for the Yankees, he has 3 years and $71 million guaranteed on his contract.

Is it Derek Jeter? Alex Rodriguez? Mark Teixeira?

Nope, it’s none of them. It’s CC Sabathia, one of the most durable pitchers of his era.

(Side note: The fact that there are three other potential answers to that question is not good news for the franchise, but that’s another story for another site. Here we concern ourselves with fantasy baseball.)

For years Sabathia has been the most durable pitcher in baseball. He has seven consecutive seasons with 200+ innings and 14 consecutive seasons of 180+ innings, and that doesn’t even include his postseason numbers. At 33 years old and with 2,775.1 professional innings under his size 50 belt (fourth amongst active pitchers), it seems like workload has finally caught up with him.

Last year, Sabathia posted disastrous numbers, easily the worst of his career: 4.78 ERA (career worst), 1.37 WHIP (career worst), and 14 wins (lowest total since 2006).

Blame it on the fastball

The culprit seems pretty easy to locate — his decreased fastball velocity. In 2012, Sabathia’s fastball declined from a previous average in the high-93 range to low-93 range to 92.4 mph. This was a concern, but the hope was that offseason elbow surgery to remove bone spurs would cure what ailed him. That wasn’t the case. Last year the downward trend continued as Sabathia’s fastball velocity fell further to 91.3.

The chart below (courtesy of shows Sabathia’s velocities over the last three years. Though he’s been able to maintain or increase his velocity as seasons have worn on, the beginning of each year is noticeably lower than any point in the prior season.



Departure from dominance

What’s most concerning is that Sabathia failed to put up any dominant stretches during the year. Those that have watched him regularly know that he normally has a month or so that’s sub par, but then he goes on these stretches of absolute dominance. For instance, in 2011 he pitched to a 0.92 ERA in July, and in 2010 he had a sub-2.30 ERA in both June and July.

In 2013, the best he could muster was a March and April with a 3.35 ERA.

The bottom line

The years have caught up with C.C. Sabathia. All those innings have slowed his fastball velocity, which not only makes that pitch less effective, but also dulls the effectiveness of his change-up as the differential in speed narrows. Even when he’s able to muster his usual gap in velocity between his fastball and his change, batters can now look offspeed and react to a fastball, something that anyone who’s faced a 97-mph hurler will tell you is next to impossible.

I wouldn’t draft Sabathia anywhere above the 12th-15th round. Sure, it’s possible he can reshape his repertoire and be a more effective pitcher than he was in 2013, but those dominating days of guaranteed 18-20 win seasons are behind him.


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