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Big question for Yankees: Can CC Sabathia return to ace form?

After a rough 2013, CC Sabathia needs a good start to the new season. (Charlie Neibergall/AP) After a rough 2013, CC Sabathia needs a good start to the new season. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

When the Yankees take the field on Tuesday against the Astros, they'll have a vastly different look than the 2013 model, with just one position player returning from last year's Opening Day lineup* — Brett Gardner — and at a different position to boot. The only player returning to the same spot is starting pitcher CC Sabathia, and the Yankees have every reason to hope they see change there as well.

Though he made 32 starts and threw 211 innings in 2013, the 33-year-old Sabathia is coming off a career-worst season in terms of ERA (4.78), home run rate (1.2 per nine) and Wins Above Replacement (0.3), one that ended with him on the sidelines due to a hamstring strain. Coming off winter surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, his average fastball velocity was down 2.95 mph from 2011. Though he was generally solid in the first six weeks of the season, he was knocked around against the Red Sox on Opening Day, yielding eight hits, four walks and four runs in five innings of an 8-2 defeat, the latest in a long line of season-opening struggles.

Indeed, Opening Day struggles are nothing new for Sabathia, who has taken the ball in a team's first game of the season 10 times in his career, five for the Indians between 2003-08 and five for the Yankees since signing with them as a free agent in December 2008. He's currently in a five-way tie for 12th in terms of such starts, and with Tuesday's draw against the Astros, will move into a tie for eighth:

Rk Player GS W-L% ERA IP HR/9BB/9SO/9
1Tom Seaver167-23.13100.70.71.87.2
2TJack Morris148-63.39106.30.83.36.3
Randy Johnson147-22.4997.70.83.59.9
Steve Carlton143-94.3092.01.12.86.5
5TRobin Roberts135-74.03105.01.02.03.2
Roger Clemens136-34.0888.30.63.87.3
7Bert Blyleven123-33.2187.00.72.75.9
8TDennis Martinez112-53.6569.01.33.46.3
Walter Johnson117-41.5698.00.12.25.8
Fergie Jenkins113-42.5880.30.81.25.3
Pete Alexander118-32.7090.00.41.84.0
12TWarren Spahn104-43.1081.30.92.34.2
CC Sabathia101-25.8054.31.04.37.8
Juan Marichal106-21.7383.00.42.26.2
Roy Halladay105-33.3168.01.31.66.8
Bob Gibson102-23.0075.00.82.87.3

What's striking is Sabathia's lack of success in this context. Forget the fact that he's come away with just one win and note that his ERA is 1.5 runs per nine higher than the next-worst showing among this group, which includes 10 Hall of Famers and four others who could be there some day. Martinez is the exception, with Morris awaiting the call from the Expansion Era committee after expiring on the BBWAA ballot, Clemens still in BBWAA limbo, and both the Big Unit and Doc Halladay awaiting their turns in front of voters.

Sabathia has the lowest average innings per turn (5.4) as well as the highest walk rate, and in fact his peripherals are way out of whack compared to his regular season norms (0.8, 2.7 and 7.7 per nine, respectively). Some of it may be bad luck; his ERA is about a run higher than his 4.90 FIP in this context. It's still nothing inspiring, and a closer look shows that after delivering three quality starts in his first four turns from 2003-07, he's managed to do so just one in his last six tries, that being 2011 against Detroit (6 6 3 2 2 7).

Sabathia isn't entirely alone in terms of less-than-stellar Opening Day showings among those who kept getting the call; he's one of 12 with at least six assignments and an ERA above 5.00 on a list that includes some familiar names:

Rk Player GSW-L% ERA ▾ IP HR/9BB/9SO/9
1Phil Niekro90-77.3144.31.83.25.5
2Carlos Zambrano61-26.9928.32.26.48.6
3Early Wynn62-26.2040.71.13.31.3
4Jon Lieber72-25.8738.31.21.94.7
5CC Sabathia101-25.8054.31.04.37.8
6Camilo Pascual61-45.8035.73.33.58.8
7Chris Carpenter63-15.4033.32.21.95.1
8Sad Sam Jones63-35.2741.00.23.12.4
9John Burkett62-25.1435.01.01.34.6
10James Shields61-25.0535.72.03.05.6
11Derek Lowe63-35.0535.71.33.36.1
12Mike Moore62-15.0036.01.56.03.8

Apparently, it took Hall of Famer Phil Niekro a little while to work out the kinks on his knuckleball; he was routinely pounded on Opening Day, making just one quality start out of nine. Fellow Hall of Famer and 300-game winner Early Wynn took only two particularly gruesome early losses in this context. In 1947, he was left in to allow 15 hits and seven runs in eight innings for the Senators against the Red Sox, and he was even worse the following year, when he was shellacked for 16 hits and 12 runs (10 earned) in 8 1/3 innings against the Yankees. More recently, fellow Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter had his share of struggles, as have James Shields and Derek Lowe. Just outside of this frame are Kevin Brown (4.83 in seven starts) and Justin Verlander (4.76 in seven starts). It happens.

As to why, who knows? Beyond the variance possible in small sample sizes, a combination of cooler-than-normal temperatures and the difficulty of getting the mechanics of a 6-foot-7-inch, 300ish-pound behemoth in sync probably has something to do with it. I'm generally more than reluctant to cite spring training stats (I gave them up for Lent this year, and stuck to that commitment), but his MLB.com page shows a total of 41 starts and 157 innings of exhibition work dating back to 2006, with a 4.75 ERA. That too is nearly full run higher than his FIP in that context (3.77), but whether that's more bad luck or just a sign on him focusing on certain elements of his preparation isn't something we can divine from those spring stats.

What we do know is that Sabathia's full body of work last year was worse than his peripherals, which amounted to a 4.12 FIP; notably, his BABIP jumped to .312 from .290 the year before, and he surrendered 12 homers with men on base, compared to 10 in the previous two seasons. With an MLB-high average of 233 innings per year across the previous six seasons, it's possible the mileage finally caught up to him, but it's also worth noting that he was coming off surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, his first arm surgery of any kind. While he came to camp having shed a reported 25 pounds (down to 290) by cutting out Cap'n Crunch cereal, the consensus among those who watched him all season long was that he lacked his typical strength. This winter, he took a new tack, reportedly losing 40 pounds (to 275) by cutting carbohydrates and increasing the intensity of his workouts. As he told ESPN New York's Wallace Matthews:

"I think it was just losing that much weight and trying to play a professional sport,'' Sabathia said [of 2013]. "I probably did it the wrong way going into a baseball season last year. I was joking in there with [trainer Stevie Donohue] that I felt like 'The Biggest Loser' last year.

"I lost a lot of weight, but I wasn't physically ready to go out and play. So this year was just all about training and getting ready to play."

Such talk may amount to the usual "Best Shape of His Life" pablum that dominates so many spring training conversations, but it is worth keeping in mind as Sabathia comes into 2014. Perhaps of more interest is his addition of a cut fastball to his repertoire, something learned this spring from former teammate Andy Pettitte, a pitcher who knows more than a few things about adapting to life in the mound as the velocity of youth fades. As to the magnitude of that velo drop, rather than dwelling on a smattering of spring reports from random radar guns at a time when he's still ramping up his intensity, it's worth waiting to see what PITCHf/x says about it under game conditions, when the adrenaline is really flowing.

Whatever his velocity is, Sabathia and the Yankees will have to learn to work with it. The big southpaw is due $78 million through 2016, including a $5 million buyout on a $25 million vesting option for 2017 that mainly has to do with avoiding the DL due to a shoulder injury. With the jury still out on Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka, no ready-made ace in the Yankees' farm system and a dearth of frontline pitchers on the free agent market in the coming years — Max Scherzer, maybe David Price and who knows who else — the Yankees need Sabathia to step up. Whether he can give them something along the lines of the 3.22 ERA, 226 innings and 5.5 WAR he averaged from 2009-2012 while helping the team get back to the playoffs might be — wait for it — their biggest question of all.

*Seriously, check this out:

Pos20132014
CCervelliMcCann
1BYoukilisTeixeira
2BCanoRoberts
3BNixJohnson
SSNunezJeter
LFWellsGardner
CFGardnerEllsbury
RFSuzukiBeltran
PSabathiaSabathia
DHFranciscoSoriano

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