CC Sabathia's fastball velocity was one the biggest--and most annoying-- stories of the Yankees season last year. Unfortunately, after his first spring training start on Saturday it is a story yet again.
Masahiro Tanaka's dazzling debut took a little of the spotlight off of Sabathia, but it was a still a story after the game that Sabathia's fastball only topped out at 88 MPH.
Despite the low fastball velocity, Sabathia pitched two scoreless inning against Philadelphia, while allowing two hits and striking out one.
"My fastball is what it is," Sabathia told ESPNNewYork.com's Andrew Marchand. "If it gets better, it will. If not, it won't. I can pitch. I'm fine. As long as I'm healthy, I'll be good."
Obviously, it is normal for a pitcher's velocity to be down early in spring training as he builds up arm strength. However, since Sabathia had a velocity issue last year, he will be examined more closely. His fastball velocity averaged 91.1 MPH last year and improved as the season went along, although his performance certainly didn't.
Sabathia's fastball was the major reason he struggled to the tune of a 4.78 ERA and a 4.10 FIP last season. According to FanGraphs, Sabathia's fastball was worth 19.5 runs below the league average. This led to him not being able to put batters away and having his K/9 drop to 7.46. Sabathia's whiff percentage on his fastball was only 5.76%.
While most only point to the velocity as the problem, Sabathia's location was probably a bigger issue. He was missing his location in and out of the zone, as he allowed 2.77 BB/9 and 28 home runs last season. Less velocity means that you have to have pinpoint location, and Sabathia could not find it last season.
The prevailing thought last year was that Sabthia's weight loss was the main reason for his loss of velocity. This was partly correct. He lost the weight without gaining strength due to not being able to workout following offseason elbow surgery.
The hope this year was that a full offseason of strengthening workouts would increase Sabathia's velocity. That didn't happen in his first spring training start, but of course that doesn't mean it will not happen later on.
What lots of people miss when worrying so much about velocity is that location, movement and deception are still very important things. Andy Pettitte proved that for the Yankees last season by pitching to a 3.74 ERA and a 3.70 FIP with only an average fastball speed of 89 MPH.
Velocity allows a pitcher to overcome mistakes over the plate that Sabathia repeatedly made last year. However, if he could hit the corners and keep hitters off balance like Pettitte did last season, he could be as successful.
Sabathia has always had the luxury of being able to throw his fastball by hitters, but if he can no longer do that he will have to learn how to adjust. He has very good secondary pitches in his slider and changeup, which should be able to help him.
The velocity watch was annoying with Joba Chamberlain and it was annoying with Sabathia last season, but it is a necessary evil until Sabathia either starts throwing harder or gets good results without doing so.