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August 2, 2013
What Happened to CC and JJ?
Last night we recorded episode 10 of TINSTAAPP, and perhaps my favorite segment of the podcast is the “homework” section, in which Paul Sporer and I assign take-home projects to one another that we discuss on the following episode. Typically, my assignments involve a deep-dive into the cases of pitchers who are performing outside of expectations, for better or for worse. To diagnose the symptoms of a struggling pitcher, I plunge into the stats, the PITCHf/x data, and the mechanical trends of the hurler in question. I believe that such an integrated approach is necessary to crawl through the biases that are inherent in each of these three tools, and a clearer picture emerges once we combine the objective data with the subjective experience of watching how those numbers were generated.
I enjoy these assignments so much that I decided to kick off a new series that is inspired by the ]TINSTAAPP homework, and the first two of pitchers under the microscope are both large humans with proven track records of success. CC Sabathia and Josh Johnson are both listed at 6-foot-7 and at least 250 pounds, with CC tipping the scales near three bills, giving them a biological advantage on the mound. However, the 2013 season has been the worst of each pitcher's career to date, and with more than half the season in the books, we have gone past the point where their struggles can be cast aside with excuses of small sample size.
Sabathia has been Mr. Consistency throughout his career. He has pitched at least 180 innings in each of the 12 seasons since his rookie campaign, and is on pace to crack that number before rosters expand in September. He threw 230 or more innings every year from 2007-11, and his two DL stints in 2012 effectively doubled his career total. Last season's elbow issues marked the first time in eight years that his left arm required medical attention, and though he has avoided any follow-up trips to the infirmary this season, his 2013 performance leaves one wondering if all is well on CC's port side.
The 4.65 ERA is the highest single-season mark of CC's career, and sits more than a full run higher than any Sabathia figure since 2006. His K rate is right in line with career marks, while the walk percentage meshes with his low rates of the past two seasons. The statistical outlier is CC's exploding frequency of homers allowed, with a 3.7-percent rate that is a full percentage point higher than any other season of his 13-year career. Sabathia has already surrendered 23 bombs on the year, which is more than he has allowed in any other season (the previous high was 22 homers allowed, set in 2012). He is also allowing hits at the highest rate of his career, adding to the cornucopia of data suggesting that something has changed, thus diminishing the left-hander's overall effectiveness.
From the standpoint of stuff, the biggest culprit behind CC's downfall has been a drop in fastball velocity. Entering this season, Sabathia had averaged 94.5 mph on his fastball during his career, and though one might assume that the figure is elevated by early-career velocity, he had surpassed that threshold as recently as 2011 (94.7-mph average). But the heater lost more than a tick last year, coming in at 93-mph flat, and the downward progression has continued in 2013 with a 91.6-mph average on his four-seamer, down more than three clicks from 2011. This is a significant development for a pitcher who relies on plus velocity from the left side to disguise his late-breaking slider, and while 94-96 mph can generate late swings on its own merit, a pitcher throwing 90-93 mph leaves himself vulnerable if he can't hit the borders of the strike zone.
That said, his raw velo is still above average for a left-handed pitcher, and his secondary stuff is sufficiently nasty to post an ERA that is better than league average, yet he currently stands with an ERA+ of just 87. The co-conspirator in this particular saga is fastball command, and though his walk rate masks Sabathia's accuracy, his ability to hit specific spots within the strike zone is not what it once was. Missed targets are resulting in hard-hit baseballs, and CC lacks the top-end velocity to overcome such egregious mistakes. The proof is in the numbers, as batters are hitting .291 off his fastball this season with a .522 slugging percentage, while the sinker is getting smoked to the tune of .350/.525. Consider the following pair of homers, each of which came on a pitch that missed above the intended target:
The home run by Mike Napoli was supposed to find the number-nine sector of the strike zone (if imagining a telephone key pad), down-and-in to the right-handed hitter, but Sabathia let it land in a zone that allowed Napoli to go Green Monster hunting. The blast by Nate McLouth was also elevated, and in this case it finished right down the pike through the number-five in the zone.
Missed targets are typically the result of a mistimed delivery, and though mechanics are playing a role in Sabathia's struggles, in this case they are merely compounding the risk. There is nothing egregious about his delivery when compared to last season, but the main thing that I noticed is that CC is not finishing his pitches. In other words, he is not reaching full extension at release point, with an arm that is just slightly late, a factor which is playing a key role in those pitches that miss high of the target. Compare the homer run videos to the following pair of pitches from 2012, in which Sabathia finds full extension to hit targets and bury the baseball on or below the lower shelf of the strike zone.
The 94-mph fastball that froze Mike Carp painted leather low and to the glove side, which is an excellent sign of ideal release-point extension for a pitcher. The slider that induced a flail from Corey Seager was vintage CC, tracing an ideal trajectory that follows a fastball path until it is too late for the batter to adjust. This game occurred almost exactly one year ago, on August 3, 2012, and though Sabathia's delivery has not experienced any significant changes, the collaboration of reduced velocity and diminished command have left him more vulnerable to each batter who steps into the box.
The superficial similarities between JJ and CC thin out once we get past the measuring stick, as the right-handed Johnson has been one of the least dependable pitchers in the league when it comes to taking his turn every fifth day. Johnson has broken 200 innings pitched in just one season of a career that dates back to 2005, and he has exceeded the 180-inning threshold just three times. He has visited the disabled list five times in the eight seasons since his 12-inning cameo of 2005, including four stints on the 60-day DL. Two of those trips were linked to Tommy John surgery that spanned parts of the 2007 and '08 seasons, but the total does not include his 28-game hiatus in September of 2011, as roster expansion allowed him to avoid an official move to the DL.
Prior to going under the knife, Johnson's right elbow kept him on the shelf for the first 70 games of the '07 season due to a neurological condition known as ulnar neuritis. With symptoms that include sensations of numbness, tingling, and pain, the malady was a clear precursor to his ensuing UCL replacement surgery. In addition to the elbow woes, Johnson has dealt with inflammation in his throwing shoulder that cost him 150 combined games between 2010 and 2011. He also missed a month-and-a-half of the 2013 season due to inflammation of his triceps, a vague injury description that leaves us wondering if there is lingering damage in JJ's fragile right wing.
Despite the health issues, Johnson has typically performed at elite levels when he does take the mound, but he has been a complete wreck this season. The back of his baseball card tells a similar story to that of Sabathia, with strikeout and walk rates that would inspire confidence if taken in a vacuum, but extreme rates of hits and homers allowed have treated his ERA like a hot air balloon. A pitcher who entered 2013 with a career rate of 0.6 homers allowed per nine innings, Johnson has coughed up a career-high 15 homers in just 76.3 innings this season (that's 1.8 taters per nine for those scoring at home).
His ERA was already standing above six when he took the mound last night versus the Angels, who took advantage of Johnson to the tune of seven runs (six earned), not allowing him to escape the third inning. He only surrendered one homer to the Angels, which is a bright spot when one considers his previous outing against the bottom-feeding Astros. Houston blasted three bombs in the game last Saturday, including this 428-foot shot to dead-center field by Chris Carter:
JJ was trying to stay away from Carter, but the right-hander badly missed the low-outside target of J.P. Arencibia, allowing a 92-mph fastball to drift inside where Carter can drop the hammer. Johnson clearly failed to execute his game plan, an element which became apparent the second time that Carter stepped to the plate:
Johnson badly over-rotated a fastball in the above clip, resulting in a wayward pitch that missed badly wide and under the zone. It was the fourth consecutive pitch that Johnson had misfired, with each offering finishing down and to the glove side of its intended location. He chose to stay completely away Carter but lacked the pitch command to find the outer edge of the strike zone, and the pitch plot looks almost as if JJ was low-balling an intentional walk.
Johnson has pitched alright with the bases empty this year, but he has been lit up like a Disney parade with runners aboard. Opposing batters are hitting .380/.441/.605 when Johnson is forced into the stretch, with a .433 BABIP that has more to do with hard-hit baseballs than any misfortune on defense. His pitch command was a disaster in the Astros game, and as with the case of Sabathia, Johnson lacked the electric stuff of his youth that could potentially overshadow such bouts with accuracy. His velocity still registers at 93.5 mph on average, the same as it was last year, but the 98-mph bullets that he used to fire in Florida are long gone.
The above clip is from a game versus Colorado on July 22, 2010, and Jason Giambi just watches a 98-mph fastball that follows a tractor beam to the catcher's glove, and Giambi has nothing but a tantrum to defend himself as Johnson walks off the mound. The 11-strikeout performance included just one earned run over six-plus frames, at which point JJ's ERA for the season stood at a miniscule 1.61 across more than 130 innings pitched. His ability to not just get the ball down, but to do so on-target with the catcher's set-up, played a large role in Johnson's previous success. Command of elite velocity is perhaps the greatest weapon that a pitcher can possess.
Johnson's secondary pitches have also taken a step backward from his peak, and one glaring discrepancy is the disappearance of his change-up. El cambio used to be a weapon that Johnson would bust out more than 15-percent of the time when a lefty strode to the plate, but that frequency is down to five percent in 2013, and the pitch has been hammered on those occasions that it makes an appearance. Now it is extremely rare to see him uncork a change-up with the deception and fade that he was able to generate with regularity just a few years ago.
In its stead, Johnson has added a curveball to complement his fastball-slider combination, going to the hammer twice as often versus left-handed batters than when facing right-handers. The curve has actually been Johnson's most effective pitch this season from a batted-ball standpoint, helping to cover for the lost change. Back in 2010, all three of JJ's offerings were similarly effective at quieting bats, but the 2013 version has watched his fastball get roped around the yard, including 13 of his 15 homers on the year, and once again a lack of command is at the center of the controversy.
An inability to hit spots with the fastball can be life or death in the big leagues, and though mechanical timing is at the root of issues with pitch command, Johnson once again resembles Sabathia in that his mechanics are still considered an asset to his profile as a pitcher. The intricate timing pattern of a pitcher's delivery is incredibly sensitive, and the results can be devastating when a player loses his grasp on the delivery. The phenomenon is most apparent as a pitcher ages, as the elite stuff that once allowed him to survive such issues gives way to a more modest arsenal of pitches, and those who fail to adapt inevitably suffer the consequences on the field.