When a pitcher struggles in Spring Training, the most convenient thing to do is to blame their velocity. Most pitchers in the middle of March have yet to build up their strength, and some are purposefully holding back to avoid injury. This doesn’t stop the media and fans from criticizing the velocity and building up a doomsday narrative for some pitchers. In the case of CC Sabathia, it’s still early in March, yet I understand that it’s easy to be disappointed with a fastball that’s sitting between 86 and 88 mph.
With a few weeks to go, Sabathia’s performance on Monday fed further into that doomsday narrative. Sabathia was shelled as his fastball continued to sit in the mid-to-upper 80’s. Immediately we saw headlines about how hard he was throwing, but the truth behind the southpaw’s start was that his struggles came from location rather than velocity. It’s easier to make mistakes with pitches up in the zone when you’re throwing in the mid-90’s, but Sabathia has always shown that he’s the type of pitcher to command the ball inside the strike zone. So was Sabathia’s trouble a matter of some age related regression, a loss in strength, his weight, or maybe an injury?
Fans can speculate what they want about his conditioning and health, but the video from Monday gives us the answer we’re looking for. Sabathia’s timing was awful, and to prove it, I took two back-to-back fastballs, one that missed its spot by about a foot and the other that hit its spot perfectly.
I layered the two pitches above, with the pitch inside to Danny Espinosa hitting its spot, and the one outside rising well above the intended location. If you watch his mechanics, you’ll see that one of Sabathia’s arm follows through before the other by a single frame. That same Sabathia that rushes his arm falls to the right side of the mound, indicating that not only was his timing rushed, but that his balance was off on that pitch.
In terms of shoulder rotation, a pitch that misses its location by flying up in the zone is typically released too early and the shoulders are underrotated, while the one that falls down in the zone is overrotated. In this case, Sabathia is underrotating and releasing the ball from his hand too early, causing the ball to fly up and away from where he wants it. As I mentioned above, his poor timing is coupled with poor balance, which could infact be a sign of what some scouts and his own pitching coach said about him in 2013. Sabathia is still uncomfortable with his new body weight, and can’t find the proper balance and timing to match the 40 pounds of weight that he lost over the last two seasons.
The weight scenario is just speculation, but the timing and balance issue is obvious, and an issue that presented itself often in 2013. The problems he showed on Monday are legitimate concerns, but it’s important to note that it was only his second start of the year, and he’s bound to improve. Even Hiroki Kuroda showed the same problems yesterday, and Ivan Nova in his previous start. Timing, balance, and other mechanics are always off at this point in the season, so scrutinizing them so early in March is a silly task.
With all the pessimism in this post, I thought I’d also include some optimism and GIF up the new cutter that Andy Pettitte is teaching him. It had a couple of opportunities to shine in his 3.0 innings of work against the Nationals.