CC Sabathia's first pitch of the year was a sinker at 87.8 mph according to PITCHf/x. The low velocity became the talk of Twitter, most Yankee fans, and even the broadcast booth during the game. I'd like to argue that the velocity on his high-80's fastball was extraneous, rather the poor command of this pitch presented the biggest obstacle. As you can see from the GIF of his first pitch above, the ball flies up and away from his intended location. Watching Sabathia's first two innings of struggles last night made it clear that this recurred on most of his pitches, which manifested into poor counts and hard hit balls.
Last year, when Sabathia dropped his initial weight by 40 pounds, he entered the first game of the year with a four-seam fastball that averaged 90.6 mph and a sinker at 89.9 mph. Last night, his four-seam fastball averaged 90.1 mph and the sinker 89.1 mph. The velocity matched remarkably close to what he threw in last year's opening day, and although an equal amount of velocity complaints propped up during his first 2013 start, it's a little unnerving to still hear fans are surprised that Sabathia averaged just a 90 mph fastball.
For the most part, Sabathia's four-seam and sinker looked to have similar velocity in his first start of 2013 and 2014, but there were also other discouraging similarities. Sabathia's biggest issue last season was not his velocity, but his rough command of his pitches led to hard contact. The argument made by his own pitching coach was that Sabathia could not adapt to his new body weight, and he struggled in 2013 to find the right timing and repetition on the mound. But just a couple of weeks ago, I warned that Sabathia again showed these mechanical problems, and the fastball flew up and away from right handed hitters. Here's the GIF I used to show the mechanical differences in his timing.
If you watch closely, one Sabathia arm follows through before the second arm finishes. Sabathia's problem on the mound here is that he releases the fastball too early, which scouts call under rotating the shoulders. Last year, Sabathia under rotated his shoulders, during this year's Spring Training, Sabathia showed signs of under rotating his shoulders, and last night, Sabathia under rotated his shoulders during the first two innings. The good news is that, during Spring Training and last night, Sabathia did so with much less frequency as he did in 2013. After the second inning, Sabathia not only found his timing, but he corrected the problem entirely.
Velocity and mechanics go hand in hand, and if Sabathia under rotates his shoulders, theoretically he should lose a couple ticks in his velocity. Once Sabathia found his timing after the second inning, you'll see an immediate improvement in his velocity.
The chart is courtesy of BrooksBaseball, and according to their numbers, Sabathia averaged just 89.92 mph and 90.05 mph on his four-seam fastball in the first and second innings. Sabathia showed much better command after these innings, and the resulting velocity of his fastball after that was 90.63 mph in the third, 89.51 mph in the fourth, 90.47 mph in the fifth, and 90.74 mph in the sixth. There seems to be a correlation between nailing his shoulder axis rotation and increased velocity.
After the game, Girardi and Sabathia recognized his mechanical issues, and while the big lefty attributed it to being too hyped up, Girardi said that he "cut his pitches." I've seen Girardi refer to this with Michael Pineda before, and although he's not necessarily getting cutter action, he's missing his location as if he threw a cutter instead of a sinker/four-seam. Sabathia added this.
“I wanted to try to back off and not overthrow,” he said. “When I do that, I tend to cut myself short and that’s when the balls cut. My changeup cuts, my fastball was cutting. It’s just me not really getting extended and letting the ball go out in front. It’s just cutting it off and that’s what makes it cut.”
So the doom and gloom over last night's game was largely suppressed after he improved in the second half of his start, but that hasn't stopped fans and writers from blaming his struggles on velocity. Indeed, velocity correlates with his poor performances, but that's only because his poor mechanics cause both diminished velocity and poor command. The good news is that he looks much more improved thus far in 2014 than he in 2013, and hopefully he'll prove that he has adapted to his new body weight in his next few starts. And for those still worried about his velocity, there is more good news, as Sabathia gained around 2 to 3 mph since his mid-March Spring Training starts. Be it better mechanics or strength, I think we're still in line for a typical Sabathia year where we'll see some struggles early on, but he'll hit his peak when it counts in the summer months.