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Began In '96

CC Sabathia and the mystery of the missing fastball

By Joe Schackman

The Yankees’ ace is missing his fastball, and getting hit hard as a result.

Once it starts to fade, a pitcher’s fastball can never be nursed back to full health.

Velocity for a Major Leaguer is the equivalent of an NFL receiver’s extra gear or an NBA guard’s quick first step: It’s what got him to where he is, and most likely will be what forces him out of the game when it falters and then disappears. In between, there is just a small window for figuring out how to adapt.

CC Sabathia sits firmly in that window. He is 32 years old with $76 million remaining on his contract, and is nevertheless far from the athlete who donned pinstripes nearly five years ago. Sabathia’s record so far is 9-8, with a 4.37 ERA and 92 ERA+, and for the first time in his career, looks absolutely nothing like an ace.

The simple reason for that is that his greatest weapon is losing steam. Sabathia once boasted a high-90s heater that exploded from the left arm attached to his massive frame. But a closer look at his performance of late reveals a decline in his fastball as significant as it was sudden.

Sabathia’s signature pitch has averaged 93.2 miles per hour since 2007, when these velocity statistics first became available. His single-season peak was 94.1 mph in 2009. He could ramp it up too when needed, hitting at least 97 in every season from 2007-‘11.

That’s not so this year. Sabathia’s average fastball velocity is just 90.9 mph, and he has yet to touch even 95 on any single pitch so far in 2013.

Now, that wouldn’t matter much if those low-90s fastballs were still zipping by hitters. But already this year, opponents have blasted 23 home runs, more than half coming off of his fastballs. That’s a career high, and there are still three months left in the season. Factor in all the hits Sabathia’s given up, and batters are hitting .291 versus fastballs alone.

The slowdown is creating a domino effect for the other pitches in his arsenal. Sabathia’s changeup, which relies on a hitter’s fear of the fastball, has yielded nearly as many home runs and doubles as ever before. Opponents hit .282 when a changeup crosses the plate, .100 points better than in 2012.

The end result is that hitters are making making contact more, hitting the ball harder and sending it much further than normal. That’s a trifecta of bad signs for any power pitcher.

It’s also not unusual, even for a perennial Cy Young candidate like Sabathia. Athletes deteriorate, skills diminish and eventually age wins out. But that’s little consolation for the Yankees, who likely didn’t expect Sabathia to hit his decline so soon, and at a time when there are few other options to pitch the big games.

Ace-in-waiting Michael Pineda has sat on the sidelines with a shoulder injury almost since New York acquired him. The Yankees have shown little ability for developing front-line starters of their own, and a 2014 free agency pool headlined by the likes of Matt Garza and Ervin Santana is thin, to say the least.

That means their best bet also requires the most work. Sabathia is far from done as a useful starter, but he’ll likely need to reinvent himself to maintain his effectiveness. That often includes better developing the rest of his pitches, and becoming more cerebral in the way he attacks hitters.

It’s a roadmap that players like Pedro Martinez and Roy Oswalt followed to late-career success. The downside is that that same path is littered with the remains of countless careers sunk by fading fastballs.

Joe Schackman is an editor and co-founder of┬áBegan in ‘96.