CC Sabathia’s Velocity Is Definitely Worth Watching

Every year we hear stories about pitchers whose fastballs don’t seem to have the same life as last year. The most talked about are typically front-line starters that rely on their fastballs. In early 2013, the name that’s being discussed the most is Yankee ace CC Sabathia.

Throughout spring training, Sabathia’s velocity has been a point of concern. Coming off of elbow surgery during the offseason, Sabathia’s first regular season start did nothing to quell that concern. As The Star-Ledger’s Andy McCullough notes:

Sabathia’s fastball topped out at 91.7 mph on Monday, according to Pitch f/x data from Brooks Baseball. On Opening Day in 2012, his fastball hit 94.5 mph. On Opening Day in 2011, his fastball touched 94.7 mph.

(By the way, if you don’t read McCullough on a regular basis you are missing out.)

In the end, McCullough notes that while it’s reasonable to be concerned, Sabathia is likely to improve as the season wears on and has good enough secondary stuff to still be very good.

Overall McCullough is right, however, I think there is greater reason for concern than some may think.

Sabathia was one of the top starters I flagged as at risk for further velocity loss this season based on how far his velocity declined last year. CC lost nearly 1.5 mph off of his fastball in 2012. Pitchers that lose at least 1 mph have, on average, a 39% chance of either getting injured or failing to throw at least 40 IP in the following season. They also have a 91% chance of losing further velocity the following season.

Sabathia is a slow starter, both in terms of performance in velocity. However, in 2012 he simply started with a lesser fastball in April and never quite saw it recover to previous levels:

It’s only one start, but Sabathia’s fastball averaged around 90 mph yesterday. That would place it more than 1mph off his April velocity in 2012. As many pitchers will have slower fastballs in April compared to their overall average from the previous season, we have to compare April velocity in year one to April velocity in year 2. When pitchers are down at least 1 mph from the previous April they are four times as likely to finish the season down at least 1 mph:

So, early season velocity isn’t as much as a signal as later months in terms of a declining fastball, but it should at least raise some eyebrows.

And while Sabathia does possess great secondary stuff, the key for him to pitching with a reduced fastball will be how effective he can be in and around the zone with that pitch. As I wrote last year:

From 2009-2011, Sabathia generated -20.5 runs per 100 fastballs clocked at less than 92.5 mph. This year, Sabathia generated 21.9 runs per 100 fastballs clocked under 92.5–virtually all of his fastballs. Sabathia still put up solid numbers in 2012 (ERA- 81, 23.7% K%, 5.3% BB%), but his HR/FB rate jumped to 12.5%–highest in his career. Eighteen of his 22 home runs allowed came on fastballs (82%). The previous three years? Only 56%. All great pitchers must adjust to reduced velocity at some point, but those adjustments typically take time.

Lossing a tick off his fastball doesn’t necessarily spell doom for CC Sabathia. But given his age, usage, and what we saw last year it is quite reasonable to be more concerned about this April decline than most.

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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.

23 Responses to “CC Sabathia’s Velocity Is Definitely Worth Watching”

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  1. thomas says:

    I suppose it is possible that CC just never got loose in a relatively cold weather game, but this game was very concerning.

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    • Ozzie says:

      At game time it was practically summer weather here in New York with some readings showing above 60deg. Don’t think we can call fault on the weather here.

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      • Jay29 says:

        But CC has always preferred hot weather. Anyone who has seen him pitch in April/May/October/November knows that he likes to wear a heating bad under his jacket in between innings in cooler temperatures. So, while I’m still concerned about his velocity for the reasons Bill and others have stated, 60 degrees is potentially cool enough to make him uncomfortable. (It was just such a relief to those of us in the NE sick of winter.)

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  2. JRM says:

    In this case, the elbow surgery is a positive, because if he’s recovering from that he may regain the velocity. (Velocity losses without such explanation – see Halladay, R. – are cause for more sobbing.)

    That said, I agree that concern is warranted. We’ll see how this plays out.

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  3. geefee says:

    Oddly enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if his substantial weight loss was a contributing factor.

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  4. lester bangs says:

    Excellent piece, asking all the right questions, smartly.

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  5. Tristram Shandy says:

    I believe you meant that “CC lost nearly 1.5 mph off of his fastball in 2012.” You’ve written “2013.”

    Interesting and worrisome article.

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  6. Guns says:

    All good points mentioned above. I would wonder if having the elbow surgery is a positive and not a cause of worry. The surgery was to remove bone spurs which makes me wonder if the velocity will improve the further away he gets from the surgery now that there’s (presumably) no discomfort.

    Also mentioned above, I wouldn’t be surprised if the weight loss is a factor. The Yankees really pushed him to lose weight after signing his extension, which is when his velocity began to decline.

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  7. 8nthatk says:

    Only 10 innings pithed this spring. Considering his history of slow starts and coming off surgery to boot…I’m gonna wait on the panic button.

    Yes, worth watching, but I’ll give him another start or two before declaring a velocity concern.

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  8. 8nthatk says:


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  9. Detroit Michael says:

    In case others are interested too, in 2008, when Sabathia started poorly, the problem wasn’t low velocity. His fastball gained only 0.3 or 0.4 mph from April 2008 to the rest of the year. [Hat tip to Texas Leaguers Pitch F/X tool]

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  10. Mr Punch says:

    Good piece. Agree that it’s too soon for … well, I’m in Boston …. But the 2008 point is interesting – Sabathia faded at the end of 2007 (presumably through overwork) and apparently took a while to bounce back (but did, of course).

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  11. mcbrown says:

    “Worth watching” is, in my opinion, the precisely correct level of concern to raise over CC’s velocity this spring. There are circumstances that could lead us to expect that his velocity will increase more than in a typical seasonal pattern (i.e. that he had a short spring and that he is recovering from elbow surgery), and there are circumstances that could lead us to expect that it won’t (i.e. that he is on the wrong side of the aging curve and that he is recovering from elbow surgery). It is too early to tell which side will win out, but fans are right to monitor the situation.

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  12. DJ says:

    I know this a stupid question but if someone offered me 3 years of sabathia (including this year) for Yusil Puig, how crazy would i be to turn that down?

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  13. Mike Green says:

    The number of sliders he threw took a big jump in 2011. The continued effectiveness in 2011 and 2012 and the elbow problems may be related. I wonder if he will be effective with the slider in 2013, or if he will throw many fewer of them. Reduced velocity on the fastball and increasingly a fastball/change mix is definitely concerning, although there are ways around it. Usually, it takes a pitcher a year or two to make the adaptation.

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  14. Antonio Bananas says:

    His metabolism slows to a crawl when it’s cold out. Sometimes, if its really cold and seems it will be for a while, he eats the dirt and grass from the field, then gobbles up a lot of food and just sleeps.

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  15. nyyfaninlaaland says:

    Good look at this on Chad Jennings Yankees LoHud blog today, re the danger of looking at 1 game.

    I quick observation from there. CC’s velo in Game 1 last year was 94. In game 2 it was 91. They have avg velos from each of 5 April starts for 3 years or so. He shows a decidedly up and down pattern in April.

    Making this an even more wait an see caution – or a major SSS alert.

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  16. Tim says:

    Then again, if velocity drops, you’d want to know what changed this year compared to last, and in CC’s case, he had the surgery. So maybe he’ll get the velocity back. Most pitchers lose some velocity as their career progresses anyhow.

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