“What’s up with C.C. Sabathia?”

If I had a nickel for every time I was asked that today, I’d…well, I’d still need a loan for a cup of coffee. But that’s really about the value of a nickel and the dated nature of that particular phrase. At that, though, Sabathia’s latest disaster-nine runs allowed on eight hits and five walks over four innings against the Tigers on Wednesday night-turned up the volume of the conversation about the Indians‘ ace and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.

Let’s start with what I think is the most important point: Sabathia’s four starts to start the season, while terribly ugly, are not out of line as a nadir for his performance. Listed below are Sabathia’s 2008 season stats, four starts’ worth of ugly. What follows on subsequent lines are his worst stretches of pitching in the three seasons prior to this one, including last year’s award-winning effort


      GS    IP   H    R    BB   SO  HR
2008   4   18.0  32   27   14   14   5
2007   3   18.0  30   17    4   11   5
2006   4   19.1  27   22   11   23   4
2005   4   17.2  32   22    8   15   3

The way in which Sabathia has started the ’08 season is certainly his worst stretch of pitching in the last four years. To some extent, that’s because of last year’s success; he has been left in games and taken longer beatings because of his status as a workhorse. The earlier versions of Sabathia probably wouldn’t have been allowed to surrender nine runs in consecutive outings. However, the difference is one of degree, rather than kind; all of these lines are terrible, and if the shape of the 2008 performance is somewhat different, the point-that great pitchers can look terrible for extended stretches-still stands. It’s just more obvious when a pitcher’s ERA goes from nothing to 13.50 in three weeks, as opposed to, say, 3.20 to 3.81, which is what happened when Sabathia had the three starts in July 2007 summarized above.

This effect is a powerful and persistent one, and is the primary reason why I lean so hard on the “small sample size” mantra in April and on into May. The same performance that would perhaps raise eyebrows in June causes a panic in April, simply because there’s no seasonal performance to balance out the stat line. A player can set the storyline for his season with a good or bad April, even though we know that the order of the innings or plate appearances that comprise a player’s season is usually without meaning.

Are there specific reasons why Sabathia’s results are so poor to date? Command certainly seems to be an issue, especially as compared to the last two seasons. Since coming off of the disabled list in May 2006, Sabathia had become, if not a command pitcher, one with much better control than he’d shown before then. It was that improved command that led to his Cy Young season in ’07; Sabathia walked just 37 men and posted a better than 5-to-1 K/BB last year. So the 14 walks in 18 innings over four starts stand out as a problem. Even at his worst in previous seasons, Sabathia didn’t struggle this much with the strike zone. When he’s not walking people, he’s catching too much of the plate. Against the Tigers, he wasn’t getting hammered in hitters’ counts–the Tigers’ eight hits all came with fewer than two balls in the count; three came on first pitches, two came on 0-2. This seems to be a location and command issue, rather than a loss of stuff.

Now, there are reasons to be concerned that this could be more than a typical bad stretch by a good pitcher. Last year, Sabathia threw a career-high 241 innings, then another 15 in the playoffs for a total of 256. That’s 45 more than Sabathia’s previous high (210, in 2002) and 64 more than he threw in ’07. Tom Verducci has put forth the notion that pitchers whose innings totals jump by 30 from one year to the next run into problems in the following season. While this is largely a phenomenon we associate with young pitchers, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Sabathia’s 2007 increase in workload is a reason for his 2008 struggles. One reason I had the Tigers finishing ahead of the Tribe this season was the expectation that Sabathia would regress and be part of the Indians’ allowing 30 more runs than they did in ’07. I didn’t foresee a 13.50 ERA, but I return to the earlier point: it’s a 13.50 ERA in four starts, and while that’s significant-the worst stretches of the best pitchers in the league tend to not be that bad-it’s not enough information to short your C.C. Sabathia futures. He has shown that even when right, he’s capable of pitching very poorly for a few weeks at a time.

So to answer the question…I have no answer. The available information is insufficient to reach a conclusion. Sabathia has had a four-start stretch that is worse than the worst stretches that most good pitchers have in a season, and it features a definite problem with his command. This is on the heels of a season in which he worked more than he ever had before, and as you’ll recall, pitched poorly at the tail end. At the same time, absent specific information about a physical problem, four starts is not enough evidence on which to base a conclusion. That may not be the best way to sell subscriptions, but it is the best answer I’m comfortable providing.

I can tell you this: I’ll be watching next Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET, when Sabathia takes the mound at Kauffman Stadium. The big lefty’s story is one of the most intriguing ones in the game at the moment.

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