The similarities between between Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia are striking. They’ve both won Cy Young Awards, they’ve both signed the richest contract ever given to a pitcher, and in 2013, they’ve both simultaneously forgotten how to pitch.
The numbers aren’t pretty. CC is sporting a career high 4.81 ERA, striking out less batters than ever before. If the status quo holds, he will have the highest WHIP of his career. Verlander is doing a bit better, but not by much. Arguably the fourth best starter on his team, the Tiger’s ace in name only has yet to pitch a complete game, and unless a miracle occurs, will almost assuredly post a career high in ERA.
What the hell happened? Tigers manager and baseball elder Jim Leyland is stumped, saying in a recent interview that “[Verlander] is a great pitcher with great stuff who is having a freak year…We can talk about it until the cows come home, and I still won’t know what to tell you.” Sabathia put his mysterious struggles more succinctly, referring to the 2013 season as “one big inning.”
And as the pundits watch these two squirm with great interest, wondering if they can right the ship in time for a playoff run, perhaps the real question is not whether they can remember how to pitch, but whether they can learn to pitch at all.
Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. These guys obviously know what they’re doing – You don’t win a Cy Young award on stuff alone. But with CC and Verlander both hitting a rough patch precisely in step with a dip in velocity – they’re averaging 91.2 mph and 93.3 mph this season respectively – you have to wonder whether they’re going to be able to make the adjustments necessary to sustain a long career.
It’s certainly been done before. Andy Pettitte, a man who believe it or not once threw just as hard as CC, experienced a similar early 30’s drop off. He posted a career high in ERA at 34, giving up more hits and homeruns than ever. Six years later? Andy put up the best ERA of his career, a stunning 2.87 mark at the ripe old age of 40. Learning to change speed rather than attain it, to finesse rather than overpower, Andy posted the second best strike out rate of his career and cemented his legacy as one of the Yankees’ all time best.
That’s pitching. And it’s also only one of two ways CC and Verlander’s story could end. Another member of the “richest contract given to a pitcher” club is Barry Zito, who famously lost his touch after signing a $126 million contract with the Giants, only to regain it for a 2012 World Series run before inexplicably losing it again in 2013. At age 35, he has pitched himself out of a starting role and will almost certainly be let go at season’s end. Wherever he catches on next year, you can be sure he’s not going to command the $20 million per he’s grown accustomed to.
Which route is it going to be for CC and Verlander? Only time will tell. The only thing that’s certain is that if they want to regain their dominant form, they’re going to have to accept their limitations and adapt.