There’s no denying that CC Sabathia has lost a significant amount of velocity over the last few years. While we’ll likely see him sitting in the low-90′s by June or July, those hoping that he ever regains his mid-90′s fastball are headed for disappointment over the next three seasons. After a rough 2013 season, Sabathia needs to regain the confidence of his fanbase despite velocity.
Indeed, it looks like Sabathia’s biggest weakness in 2013 was his command and lack of whiffs, both of which just slightly declined for the left-hander. His pitching coach attributed this to his new body weight and poor balance and timing on the mound. But these problems have so far been settled in 2014, as his K/9 sits at an excellent 9.35, and his BB/9 at 1.73. His ERA might be 5.19, but taken into account his absurdly high home run rate, his xFIP has him at 2.56.
Home runs will make or break Sabathia this year, as the AL East and Yankee Stadium are notoriously friendly to the long ball. To open up the 2014 season, Sabathia has made some corrections in his mechanics to avoid these long fly balls. Although he’s leading the league with six home runs, he’s earning a 54.5% ground ball rate, which is nearly 10% higher than his career ground ball numbers. Sabathia is trying his best to keep the ball out of the air, and while it’s working to some extent, he’s still waiting to see his home run rates normalize.
So how has Sabathia adjusted to becoming more of a ground ball pitcher? Over the last few years, we’ve seen the southpaw lower his release point. This is the natural progression of many sinker ball pitchers as they age. The lower release point allows for more horizontal movement into left-handed batters and away from right-handed batters, but it also negates some of the vertical drop. While Sabathia isn’t generating more movement on his sinker, he’s showing less standard sinkerball movement.
Sabathia was still unsuccessful with this movement in 2013, and he’s reacted in 2014 by moving to the third base side of the rubber.
According to Brian Bannister, this move to the third base side is something many two-seamers have learned to do in recent years. Bannister points to Kevin Brown, who also moved to the far side of the rubber after pitching guru Tom House found that he threw more strikes and earned more ground balls from his two-seamer while pitching from the third base side.
Thus far, Sabathia has done just that, his strikeout rates are up, his walk rates are down, and his ground ball rates have skyrocketed. The overall results don’t look as effective due to the six home runs he’s allowed, but Sabathia’s game plan is an undeniable change from what we’ve seen in the past. Unfortunately, the Yankees’ infield defense simply isn’t that impressive at the moment, which has emerged as another contributing factor to the ground ball singles he’s allowed. We’ll need a larger sample size to see how this new adjustment works out, but at the moment, it’s fair to say that Sabathia has emerged as ground ball pitcher in 2014.