Not the strikes we're looking for.
Mood Music: Just Because by Jane's Addiction
If there's one thing about the Yankees that causes more irritation and gnashing of teeth than it should, it's failures with runners in scoring position. Then too many home runs. Maybe throw in strikeouts, the odd practice of warming up relievers every day but never using them and the bottom half of the lineup construction against lefties. Somewhere in that mess of obnoxious stuff you would almost have to include pitch count. Nowhere in particular, it's just nice to be included.
No, this isn't going to be a bunch of snark and venting about Joe Girardi's binder. Maybe a little, but not much. The team always seems to have a preoccupation with pitch count; probably with good cause, but I'm not privy to what it is. Right around that 80-85 pitch mark, everyone gets antsy. You can sense the hook coming. It's especially noticeable when Ivan Nova pitches. Dominating with ground balls, getting hit hard; it never seems to matter. Near 100 pitches? Done.
There's almost always an exception to the rule, though. The Yankees have a big exemption to the pitch count marker. CC Sabathia is, for the most part, given the opportunity to operate outside of a pitch limit. It's probably a good thing as Sabathia has racked up huge numbers of pitches in the early innings this season. But, like we hope the ace of the staff would, he finds a way to do a little bit extra to give the team a chance to win.
Sabathia's numbers are down so far this season. By that, of course, I mean his numbers are up. He's having a down season because his numbers are up. What a nice problem to have that a 3.81 ERA, 3.41 FIP is down year to date. He hasn't been his usual self, struggling with command and giving up home runs well above his career average, but still consistently solid. A big reason for the quality numbers: an incredible ability to shrug off slow starts and pitch deep into games.
Just a selection of the quality starts thrown by Sabathia this year. It's being intentionally selective, but the situation calls for chart brevity. If there's a problem with a pitcher having too many quality starts, this is it. For all the charts: at Rangers, vs. Tigers, at Royals, vs. Rays, at Reds, vs. Rays again and at Braves. I really doubt anyone clicks on all of those.
The roller coaster imagery is overused, but it's hard to think of something more fitting for what has been happening. Maybe an inverted bungee jump. Sabathia has struggled early on in games; that much we know. As you would expect with such inflated pitch numbers, teams have tagged him for a 5.54 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP in the first three innings this season. Not exactly sure how, but something clicks after that point. As the pitch count, for the most part, drops in innings four through six, the numbers drop to a 1.85 ERA with a .974 WHIP. The numbers rise a bit in the late innings, (3.77 ERA, 1.33 WHIP) but that's to be expected even from the best pitchers. What's impressive is that he's able to cut his pitch count so drastically, allowing him to pitch into those later innings.
At base level, it's all about command. Sporadic control is driving up his pitch count, forcing him to battle to reach the late innings. Frustrating to watch as a fan, but maybe this is a positive for the long haul.
Getting the obvious out of the way now, if Sabathia can harness his command earlier we could venture an educated guess that he will return to form as the pitcher we're used to seeing. The early inning struggles are such a stark departure from his career numbers that it's hard not to imagine a return to form. What is good to see is that, in the absence of his good command, he is able to battle and be effective in other ways.
Sabathia isn't going to be able to dominate with pure stuff forever. At some point he's going to have to make adjustments to offset the decline and maintain effectiveness. We may be seeing the early stages of those adjustments this season. Even with a clear drop in pitch velocity and iffy command, he finds a way. It's the mark of a great pitcher. If, and it's obviously a big if, he can adjust in the first innings as he has late, it bodes well for the remainder of this, and future season. Like any long term contract for 30-plus player, it's going to be rough towards the end. Changing things up will help take the sting out of the fall. It's all about damage control.
It's strange to think of Sabathia as a grinder. You typically don't think of your ace as a guy who has to scratch and claw to finish strong. But it's what our ace has done, and hopefully will continue to do. It would be nice to see things start off a little easier, but it's hard to complain about a guy who fight until his last pitch, give the pen a night off and keep the team in position to win. That's all you can ask from your best pitcher, and that's what we've gotten from our best.