Friday, April 17, 2009

Chokin' Charlie Sabathia?

Yesterday afternoon, the lowly tribe of diamond denizens from Cleveland etched their collective names in history by winning the first regular season game at the new Yankee Stadium. Let's speak in plain language: it was not a nail-biting affair. At day's end, the bright, state-of-the-art scoreboard proclaimed a grim 10-2 result, and the Yanks fell back to .500.

Carsten Charles Sabathia started the game, and left in the sixth with only one run conceded. However, his only clean inning was the first, and it took some keen defensive work to bail him out of subsequent jams. Cody Ransom made a diving stop on a sharp grounder and threw out a runner at home; Jeter turned a pretty double play when Cleveland's hit-and-run was undermined by a fly ball; Jose Molina caught Grady Sizemore stealing just before a DeRosa hit would have sent him home; Phil Coke retired Sizemore to strand Sabathia's last eligible baserunner. Cleveland left eight runners on base during the big man's innings. In short, CC got lucky.

Girardi yanked him after 5 and 2/3, and his final line did not impress. 120 pitches, 5 hits, 5 walks, and only 4 strikeouts. Just like in the first game at Baltimore, he couldn't locate his fastball. It led to walks, reduced velocity, pitches up in the zone, and a lot of trouble.

To be fair to CC, he didn't blow the game. That task fell to Jose Veras (initials: JV), who is officially the latest, greatest bullpen liability. The minute he entered the game, life at the new stadium took a turn for the painful. Our philosophy of bend-but-don't-break quickly turned into 'desperately avoid further humiliation.' Hopefully, Veras' appearance represented a last chance of sorts; Girardi handing him the ball for a final shot at atonement. Redemption did not come to pass. If he enters a close game in the late innings any time in the next few weeks with the score tied or the Yanks up, it'll be on the skipper's shoulders. Fool me once, et cetera et cetera.

But let's return to the fat man. For the second time in three starts, CC stunk. What was the difference, you might wonder, between those two efforts and his impressive outing against Kansas City last weekend?

Simply put, in the two games where he struggled, the pressure was on. The Orioles debacle was opening day and his first Yankee start, while yesterday's atrocity was the inaugural game in a ballyhooed new park. After all the publicity of CC's monster contract, and the fact that he was joining baseball's most successful franchise in an unforgiving city, expectations soared. This early in the season, no other pitcher in baseball has fallen under so much scrutiny. That, combined with the enormity of the situations in Baltimore and New York, begot a boiling cauldron of stress.

Coming in to the season, the biggest knock on Sabathia was that he couldn't deliver in the clutch. His postseason starts had ranged from mediocre to abysmal. Yankee fans even had personal experience with his shortcomings; in 2007, he matched up with our resident choker, Chien-Ming Wang, in the divisional series. We knocked old CC around pretty good, chasing him in 5 innings after 2 home runs and 6 walks, but Wang out-dueled him on the crackup scale, giving up 8 earned runs in 4 innings of work. And now they're on the same team! Huzzah!

Okay, now I'm going to start delving into some stats. I apologize if things get muddled. Statistics are not my strong suit, and in general it's better for all concerned if I don't go beyond trying to memorize the formula for batting average. By the end of this post, I may be half-naked, clutching my hair, being dragged out of my office by security guards and screaming that Archimedes proved the evil of the world.

That being said...

If we go by my theory, that pressure played a part in CC's failures in Baltimore and New York, we have to find the symptoms. In this case, it's easy. CC had no control. Like all pitchers, he's largely ineffective when he can't throw his fastball for a strike. Hitters can be more patient, the pitcher is forced to reduce velocity in the interest of accuracy, and the arsenal of pitches is severely diminished. Most of all, though, poor control leads to that old cardinal sin- walks. Against the Orioles, CC walked 5 batters in 4+ innings. Against the Indians yesterday, he walked 5 in 5+. If it's true that pressure induces a lack of control, we'd expect a pattern of higher walk totals than average in 'pressure' games.

For his career, CC averages .31 walks per inning, or just under one walk every three innings. A respectable total by any account. Now let's check how he did in the playoffs:

In 5 starts, he pitched 25 innings and walked 22 batters. That's an average of .88 walks per inning, an astronomical total, and almost triple his usual number. In two pressure performances so far this year, his BB/9 is an even 1.0. You could argue that the playoff sample size is still too small, but I tend to disagree. Five games is enough to establish a pattern, and this one ain't good.

The rest of the stats follow suit. In regular season games, he gave up .93 hits per inning. In the playoffs, 1.32. Regular season ERA: 3.65. Playoffs: 7.92. Regular season WHIP: 1.25. Playoffs: 2.2. Strikeout to walk ratio, regular season: 2.63. Playoffs: 1.09.

You get the point, so enough math (for at least a year). Suffice it to say, his stats this year align more closely with those miserable playoff numbers than with the regular season Sabathia we hoped to see in pinstripes.

Your response to all this might be, fine, but even if he continues the negative playoff trend, he should settle down as the season progresses and return to his old self at least until October.

Here's the problem with that (aside from the fact that we're already chock-full of shrinking violets): Unlike Cleveland or Milwaukee, the New York media is constantly out for blood. After his poor start in Baltimore, this was the Post's back cover:

Birdbathia. And the sad part is, I'm sure the gung-ho wackos at the Post had been saving that headline for days and months, just waiting for his first setback. That's the silent undercurrent which makes the New York media even more sinister; there's a tangible glee in watching the bigwigs fall, and if they can do their part to bring about the collapse, so much the better.

And believe me, the strain is only going to mount. There have been a slew of great ballplayers who couldn't excel in the cutthroat New York market. It didn't suit their dispositions. Generally, these were players who also tended to struggle under extreme pressure.

The heat is on for CC, and so far he's looked like a man who'd rather stay out of the kitchen. Am I worried that increasing frustration and anxiety will turn every one of his starts into some kind of trial by fire? That he'll wither under the glare of the blinding New York spotlight? You betcha. The good ship CC needs to be righted, post-haste, or he'll be shark bait in no time flat.

Enjoy the weekend, see you Monday.


  1. Your theory is dumb. You are clearly stupid about baseball with your "pressure" nonsense. CC carried a team to the playoffs last season, but of course you have a billion qualifiers and caveats trying to define down pressure in some instances while ratcheting it up in others. That's what people like you do - you are uninformed so you make crap up as you go along. This pressure isn't really pressure (pitching the Brewers to the playoffs), but this pressure is for really real pressure (pitching int he playoffs).

    Just the fact that you are using phrases like "Suffice it to say, his stats this year align more closely with those miserable playoff numbers than with the regular season Sabathia we hoped to see in pinstripes." when his stats this year consist of two starts.

    You keep harping on his playoff stats, but ignore the fact that he pitched an inordinate amount of innings in those seasons, which probably had much more to do with his playoff failure than fear or pressure or whatever nonsense people like you attribute to major league athletes.

    Go learn something about baseball if you're going to write about it. Just a suggestion.

  2. i love idiots like you will call a game in April "high pressure" when it fits your argument, but then dismiss anything someone like A-Rod does in April.

    ps. Duke sucks. how bout them Heels sucka?!