Even with Hiroki Kuroda re-signed and Masahiro Tanaka headed to the Bronx, CC Sabathia will be the ace and leader of this Yankee rotation. Though the team survived a year with Sabathia performing poorly, it took a miraculous final season by Andy Pettitte and a breakout year by Ivan Nova to keep the rotation intact. Sabathia will likely remain the Yankees' opening day starter in 2014, and it'll be his chance to prove that 2013 was a fluke season.
We'll start this analysis by going back to Sabathia's first season with the Yankees. In 2009, the southpaw put up a 3.37 ERA with a 3.39 FIP and a 3.77 xFIP. Perhaps worried about how his flyball rate could translate into Yankee Stadium, Sabtahia not only added a sinker into his repertoire, but he began to lower his arm angle. The results put a nice additional vertical drop on his pitches, and Sabathia's ground ball rate rose from 42.9% to 50.7% in 2010. From 2010 to 2012, Sabathia pitched 675.0 regular season innings with a 3.17 ERA, 135 ERA+, a 2.4 BB/9 and an 8.3 K/9. This successful stint was inspired by a strong relationship with ground balls, and thus we saw his FIP and home run numbers remain relatively low.
In the 2012-2013 offseason, Sabathia and the Yankees agreed that he should lose weight, and the left-hander went on to over lose 30 pounds. At the same time, Sabathia had surgery on a bone spur in his throwing elbow, preventing him from doing his normal offseason upper body workouts. The combination of weight loss and arm inactivity manifested itself in decreased velocity by opening day. It was evident that a significant portion of Sabathia's weight loss was likely from muscle. In fact, in April, Sabathia was averaging just around 89 mph between his sinker and four-seamer. As the season went on, Sabathia's velocity rebounded as he grew stronger, and by August, Sabathia averaged 92.3 mph on his four-seamer, which was exactly what he averaged in 2012.
One major fault that some scouts saw form Sabathia was an unbalanced delivery. Many attributed this to his decreased weight, however I believe that the left-hander was often over-rotating to compensate for his diminished velocity. It resulted in an increase in his BB/9, from 1.98 in 2012 to 2.77 in 2013. It's far from awful, however it was an indication that his location was not the same. The numbers do not do his poor command justice, as he was effectively wild within the zone. When Sabathia couldn't locate his fastball, he would often throw a pitch right down the middle to prevent a walk.
Another issue that Sabathia had in 2013 was his pitch usage. Perhaps to increase his overall velocity, Sabathia threw less sinkers and sliders, and more four-seams and changeups. It resulted in less ground balls, more fly balls, and more home runs/harder contact. More home runs and harder contact meant fewer runners left on base, and fewer runners left on base meant a much higher ERA in comparison to both his FIP and xFIP.
This offseason, Sabathia looks even trimmer than last offseason, but the left-hander claims he hasn't lost any weight, and in fact he's worked all offseason to put on muscle. The results are a much healthier, trimmer, and stronger southpaw. Although we're just entering "Best Shape of His Life" season, Sabathia legitimately needed an offseason where he rebounded from his extreme weight loss. Though I wouldn't expect Sabathia to come out of the gate averaging 95 mph on his fastball, I think the 92 to 93 mph fastball from 2012 and late 2013 is what we'll see in Spring Training.
With an improved pitch framing and pitch calling catcher behind the plate, with improved outfield defense, and perhaps improved infield defense, Sabathia should look for a lower ERA in 2014. Though Derek Jeter will likely remain whatever the opposite of a black hole is at shortstop. Brian Roberts should give the Yankees about the same defense at second base as Robinson Cano did, and Kelly Johnson and Mark Teixeira should be improvements at the corners. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury should be one of the best run saving combos in the outfield, while Alfonso Soriano has some surprisingly good marks in the outfield lately.
It'll be tough to find any projection for Sabathia that doesn't think he'll rebound. He figures to have a more stable velocity in 2014, better defense, and less bad luck with leaving men on base. Sabathia has four seasons of successfully pitching in Yankee Stadium under his belt, but even with that, I can't say he'll return to his 3.22 ERA from 2009 to 2012. Pitching in the AL East and in the Bronx is extremely tough. I could very well see him posting his first below-3.00 ERA in his Yankee career, but more realistically, I will project him at a 3.75 ERA with a 3.80 FIP. My biggest concern for 2014 is his recent injury troubles, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is the first season since 2006 that Sabathia doesn't see 200.0 innings pitched.