CC changes from ace to wild card

CC Sabathia enters this year with plenty of questions marks around his new approach on the mound. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

HOUSTON -- On one hand, CC Sabathia is potentially a future Hall of Famer. On the other, no one knows exactly what he is anymore.

His own GM, Brian Cashman, said that after Sabathia’s 2013 slide, he can no longer be classified as an ace. Cashman didn’t say exactly what Sabathia is these days, but he was actually being kind because the 2013 Sabathia was one of the worst starters in baseball.

Cashman knows it. Sabathia knows it. By now, everyone knows it.

Entering 2014, Sabathia has moved from an ace to a wild card. With his loss of weight and velocity, no one knows exactly what he is, but Sabathia thinks he has the plan. The change is all about the change.

Sabathia, 33, thinks he can overcome his fastball dropping from the mid-90s to the high 80s by going to his changeup early and often. The idea was originally hatched late last season by since-fired advanced scout Charlie Wonsowicz to not ignore the changeup.

In his final start, Sabathia limited the San Francisco Giants to one run on seven hits over seven innings.

On Tuesday night, Sabathia takes the hill for the first time in 2014, against the Houston Astros. We will begin to learn if Sabathia’s worst season was the beginning of a career free-fall scarier than the Tower of Terror or a speed bump in his otherwise terrific major league run.

After setting up hitters with his fastball-change combo, his slider will be reserved for mostly a finishing pitch. He also plans to mix in some cutters he borrowed from Andy Pettitte.

This is how Sabathia has chosen to attack his move from a power guy to more of a finesse pitcher. While it is hard to be as dominant when you switch from the fast lane, you can still be effective.

Mark Teixeira cited Mark Buehrle and Roy Halladay as guys who maintained their effectiveness even after their velo went down.

“A guy like Mark Buehrle has pitched in the low 90s for most of his career,” Teixeira said. “Now, he is a guy in the mid-80s still getting a lot of outs. You see guys like Roy Halladay, who early in his career was 95-96 [mph] and late in his career he was pitching at 88-90 and still was getting a lot of outs. Velocity is only important if you can’t locate. If you throw 96, you are still going to get a lot of outs. If you can’t locate at 88, chances are you are going to get hit.”

Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana are two more examples.

“Early in his career at 95, [Santana] was completely unhittable,” Teixeira said. “When he had his good stuff at 88-90, he could still get a lot of outs. That’s another good example.”

Sabathia really can only go up after last year. There were only five starters who gave up more home runs than Sabathia in 2013. There were only four who had a worse ERA than his 4.78.

Sabathia now says he was concerned about his ability by the end of last spring. Between his weight and his elbow surgery, he thought he was a little off.

Still, despite his velocity faltering on Opening Day against the Red Sox, he produced to begin the 2013 season. His ERA in his first 10 starts was 3.43, which was actually a tick better than his career ERA entering 2013 (3.44).

“Getting lucky,” Sabathia said with a small laugh. “I was just grinding.”

Over the final four months, doubt overcame guile. Sabathia dealt with the largest sustained failure of his career. In his final 21 starts before the last one against the Giants, he was 9-10 with a 5.60 ERA.

On Tuesday night, we might learn something, but it might not be much because Sabathia isn't exactly facing Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.

The new plan will be action. The start of the reclamation of an ace or the beginning of the end.

“We’ll find out,” Cashman said. “An ace is a term you can throw around to eight people in the game. It is a very small club. We’ll see what happens.”