CC's decline in velocity no big surprise or worry
Veteran Yankees southpaw one of many aces to see drop in mph on radar guns
CLEVELAND -- CC Sabathia's average fastball velocity was 89.9 mph in his first start of the season and 90.9 in his second.
Seven years ago, these are numbers that would have made the big man sweat.
"I probably would have been going crazy, losing sleep," Sabathia said. "Now, as long as I'm getting guys out, I don't care."
Sabathia had a rough outing on Opening Day against the Red Sox, but he was dazzling in Detroit on Sunday, despite the lack of zip on his primary pitch. He held the vaunted Tigers lineup scoreless on four hits with three walks and four strikeouts over seven innings.
So when Sabathia makes his next start Friday night against the Orioles, there won't be all that much angst in the Yankees' inner circle over the radar gun readings.
"I'm fine," said Sabathia, who averaged 94.1 mph with his fastball as recently as 2009, and 92.4 last season. "My arm feels fine, I'm healthy. If there was a problem, I'd be worried about it, but there's nothing I can do. I'm 32 years old, going on 33, and this is my 13th year, so my velocity is going to drop at some point."
It's too early to read too much into the readings, but Sabathia is unwittingly part of a greater trend in the game right now: Stars lacking their usual stuff.
No, Roy Halladay is not the only one. Consider this data from Brooks Baseball's PitchFX readings:
• Jered Weaver, before breaking his non-throwing elbow in Texas on Sunday, was averaging just 86.1 mph after an 88.8 average in 2012.
• Felix Hernandez entered Thursday's start against the Rangers having averaged 91.4 mph on his fastball after a 93.1 average in 2012.
• Justin Verlander enters Saturday's start in Oakland with a 93.6 mph average after routinely touching 95.1 in 2012.
Velocity loss can come naturally, or it can be a sign of an injury. It can crop up early in the year and dissipate quickly, or it can be a red flag, a warning of more troublesome developments ahead.
That's why teams take a big, hard gulp before signing the longest of long-term extensions with even the most accomplished of aces (and Sabathia, Verlander and Hernandez have the three largest contracts ever bestowed upon pitchers). The arm, after all, can only handle so much abuse.
The difficulty, though, is knowing when to pay attention to the radar and knowing what to make of it.
Context matters, of course. Sabathia, we must remember, is coming off an elbow procedure that impacted his offseason conditioning, while Verlander, we must consider, is known to build up his velocity as both the season and his starts progress.
The more troubling cases might belong to Hernandez, whose velocity has declined in four of the past five seasons, according to FanGraphs data, and Weaver, whose homer rate has risen drastically in his past 17 starts as his velocity has dropped.
Great pitchers rely on more than just their fastball speed to succeed, so it's important to remember that velocity readings have different meaning to different guys. But the ease of availability of the numbers on sites like FanGraphs or in MLB.com's Gameday application -- to say nothing of the in-park readings flashed on the JumboTrons -- certainly puts more focus on the subject and, sometimes, invites more overreaction.
"Even your grandmother in Australia knows your velocity now," Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "I don't know if it's because there's more analysis now and there's more information, or if there's something else going on causing guys to lose velocity more often. I don't know the answer to that. But we've had it in certain cases and tried to figure it out."
The Yanks don't feel they have much to figure out with Sabathia. Rothschild entered the season anticipating a dip from 2012, when Sabathia's fastball hit as high as 94.5 mph. Sure enough, CC topped out at 91.7 in this year's opener.
"He's a guy that thrives on work," Rothschild said. "He worked in Spring Training, but we had colder weather down there and he's a hot-weather guy. I can give you a variety of reasons. He's better when he gets to that 115-pitch threshold. In the time he's been here, that's where he's been.
"Now, look, is there a decrease over the years? Yeah, sure. But I'm not sure it's going to be as monumental as it is now, because I think his arm is working pretty well. It's just a matter of getting out there enough and having the reps. I think this year was different for him coming off the surgery, and he missed a couple days of throwing before we got to Spring Training because of a snowstorm. Just little things like that can impact you."
Sabathia admits he'll catch himself peeking at the gun readings in-game from time to time, but he's learned, over the years, to let opposing hitters' swings tell him the real story of his stuff on a particular day.
In the middle of the 2005 season -- his fifth in the bigs -- Sabathia made fundamental changes both to his pitch selection (relying on his breaking pitches more frequently early in counts) and to his temperament (learning to keep his emotions in check). He's been about as dominant as anybody in the game ever since, but that dominance has led to a staggering amount of use. Sabathia has pitched in the postseason each year since 2007, logging 1,512 1/3 innings since Opening Day of that year.
Certainly, then, it stands to reason that Sabathia's velocity will drop. But the rate of decline he and some other aces are experiencing in these early days of 2013 is eye-catching, even if it's too soon to render any of them all that illustrative.
In each of these cases, the radar will be worth keeping an eye on -- and that's not difficult to do.
"There are radar guns in every park, even some Spring Training parks now," Sabathia said. "It's the state of the game we live in. You get caught up in how hard guys throw. It's just natural."
So too, unfortunately, is a velocity decline.