NEW YORK -- With the Yankees starting pitchers' facing the Orioles and A's enjoying a nice hot streak, CC Sabathia's slightly underwhelming season has not come to the fore. Sabathia has a 10-6 reocrd and a 3.67 ERA, and the Yankees have gone 11-10 in his starts. That's not what the Yankees signed up for when they inked him in the offseason. Should they be worried?
Sabathia isn't going to win the Cy Young Award this season, and to many, he's been a slight disappointment. Seven-year contracts worth $161 million tend to raise expectations, and Sabathia hasn't matched his performance in some of his previous seasons. His statistics do not come close those with which he finished 2008, but they're eerily similar to those he held after 21 starts last year .
If Sabathia is going to come close to matching last year's output, he's going to have to put together a dominant run as he did a year ago. And although Sabathia got off to slow starts in both 2008 and 2009, his opening to 2008 was much worse. That means that, from mid-Mays, he pitched at a level higher than the one he's been at for most of the season.
The Yankees will probably never see Sabathia reprise his 2008 performance. He had career-bests in innings pitched, strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings and ERA+. He also made 17 starts in the
Pacific Coast League National League. Even if the competition there is identical to that in the American League -- which it isn't -- Sabathia still got to face the pitcher multiple times a game.
So why is Sabathia performing more like a good No. 2 starter than a man deserving a $161 million contract? Look at his Three True Outcomes: strikeouts, walks and home runs. Sabathia is underperforming in strikeouts and walks, and his home run rate is dead even to last year.
The walks and strikeouts are the most disconcerting. Sabathia is walking 2.6 batters per nine innings (up from 2.1 and his highest since 2005) and only striking out 6.5 (down from 8.9 and his lowest since 2003). His strikeout to walk ratio is 2.51, a steep dropoff from the 4.25 he posted in 2008 and the 5.65 mark that led the league in 2007, his Cy Young season.
Sabathia's 3.67 ERA isn't killing the Yankees, but it's neither unlucky nor in line with how good the lefty has been in the past. Sabathia's fielding-independent ERA is an almost-identical 3.61. That stat, too, is his highest since 2005.
At 22 games over .500, the Yankees haven't found that many things to worry about. As long as they continue to have the best offense in the Major Leagues -- and that's without the help of Yankee Stadium -- Sabathia's performance probably won't hurt the Yankees in the regular season. As it stands now, the Yankees have better than a 3-in-4 chance of making the postseason. If they don't qualify, the back end of the rotation will likely be the main culprit.
At 29, the lefty shouldn't have to worry about age affecting his performance. This isn't necessarily a sign of things to come. Plenty of players take a season to get their bearings when coming to a new team. Besides, Sabathia has a lot of season left to start a run similar to the one he went on in 2008. On the bright side, he is still going deep into games; he's averaging more than 6 2/3 innings per start. He has "battled" through games when he hasn't had his "best stuff" -- even if that has happened all too often. Through 95 games, he's been the Yankees' best starting pitcher, and despite A.J. Burnett's lucky hot streak, the race for that title is not particularly close.
Sabathia has a track record in the American League. He's been healthy this season except for a biceps injury that forced him out of a start in Florida. As long as he takes the ball every fifth day, the Yankees won't be pressing any panic buttons.
Come playoff time, the difference between Sabathia '08 and Sabathia '09 would be a big one. But the Yankees aren't there yet, despite the chorus of praise coming their way during their X-game winning streak following the All-Star break. Come October or the some critical starts in September, and the Yankees may call on Sabathia for a 2008 performance. If he delivers, no one will care about his ERA or his FIP on July 25.