The Truth About CC Sabathia’s Weight
Written on November 19, 2013 at 11:29 am, by Eric Cressey
Earlier this week, the New York Times published Joe Brescia's article, For Yankees' Sabathia, It Appears Less (Weight) is Less (Success). It stirred up quite a bit of controversy among those "in the know" in the baseball world, particularly those with a knowledge of how the body actually works. As is often the case with articles targeted toward the lay population, this piece didn't delve into the specifics in too much detail, so I thought I'd use this post to do so. Be sure to read the article before proceeding, if you haven't already.
The Body Mass – Pitching Velocity Relationship
To begin, research has demonstrated a clear relationship between body mass and pitching velocity, so this is at least a question that has to be asked. However, I think it needs to be answered fairly – via a compilation of anecdotal reports and actual research. And, most importantly, nobody except CC Sabathia knows how he feels at different body weights – and certainly nobody can speak to his injury history better than he can. Instead, we got some heavily dated and biased opinions with some cherry-picked interviews by Mr. Brescia.
The problem with cherry-picked interviews in this realm is that they always seem to fall back on a sample size of just a few pitchers. "Greg Maddux did this, so everyone has to do this." The problem is that not everyone has Greg Maddux's abilities with respect to pitching location, movement, and sequencing. Other guys need to make it up with athleticism, especially in today's game – where fastball velocities blow those of yesterday out of the water. The game has changed dramatically; it's played with faster throwing, running, and swinging velocities than ever before (one of MANY reasons for the increase in injuries, contrary to what Lou Piniella and Leo Mazzone seem to think) – and if you want to compete at the MLB level, you don't have the option of not pushing your body to be better. With that in mind, we have to look at what the majority of players have done to get to improve their bodies. To speak to Piniella's assertions, players don't get hurt or fall off in performance simply because they train; these problems occur when they train incorrectly, whether it's poor exercise technique, excessive volume, imbalanced programming, inappropriate loading, lack of attention to mobility and soft tissue quality, or any of a host of other factors.
I've devoted my career to helping players get better and stay healthy by avoiding these common errors. To that end, at Cressey Performance, I work with over 100 professional players each off-season on top of a large college, high school, and middle school clientele – so I feel that I'm in a good position to give valid anecdotal evidence in the context of this weight gain vs. weight loss discussion.
While weight gain is almost universally beneficial at the younger ranks, as kids get past ages 17-18, things shift a bit. As an example, in our professional pitchers crowd, I'd estimate that about 70% can really benefit from gaining weight. Roughly 20% are at a good weight – and need to focus on improving body composition rather than actually making the scale go up or down. Finally, only about 10% need to actually lose weight.
As it relates to throwing, weight gain is a perfect example of the Inverted-U curve. In his latest book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell writes,
Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic. There's the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better. There's the flat middle, where doing more doesn't make much of a difference. And there's the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse.
In other words, there is a weight that helps performance, but gaining more doesn't help past a point. Here's what the inverted U looks like graphically, with body weight on the x-axis and performance on the y-axis:
The 40 pounds Tim Collins has put on at Cressey Performance since he was drafted have had a profound impact on his pitching velocity, as he's gone from 82mph to the mid-90s. So, as you can imagine, I look to take advantage of this weight gain window whenever possible.
The Body Mass – Pitching Stress Relationship
Unlike examples like Collins, I don't think Sabathia is a candidate to thrive with weight gain. You see, pitching is a combination of absolute and relative strength and power. From an absolute standpoint, more body weight equates to more force to push off the mound, and more momentum moving downhill; that's why gaining weight can have such a profound impact on pitching velocity.
On the other hand, from a relative strength and power standpoint, you eventually have to "accept" all the force you create. We know that there are substantial ground reaction forces taken on by the front leg, and research has demonstrated that they are (not surprisingly) directly impacted by body weight. Additionally, according to 1998 research on professional pitchers from Werner et al., at ball release, the distraction forces on the shoulder are approximately 108% of body weight. You could also make the argument that these forces are even higher now, as average fastball velocity has crept up significantly since 1998, and the subjects in that study averaged only 89mph. As is the case with body weight increases, as arm speed rises, so do shoulder distraction. With this research in mind, there should be no question that carrying extra body weight at this critical instant in the delivery wasn't helping his cause:
And, at risk of playing Monday Morning Quarterback, if you look at his recent injury history, you shouldn't be surprised. He had torn meniscus in his right (landing) leg repaired in 2010, and bone spurs removed from his left elbow in 2012. Both are ball release/deceleration mechanism injuries to passive restraints. In other words, they take place because the active restraints (muscles and tendons) can't keep up with the workload placed on them. If you can't keep up with shoulder distraction forces, you only have two options, when you're in panic mode and trying to get big league hitters out:
1. Let your arm fly off your body.
2. Crank your elbow into more aggressive extension, increasing the likelihood of bony injury (loose bodies) or protective adaptation (spurs).
Clearly, gaining weight won't do much for his longevity – and, to be fair, the New York Times piece did discuss that. I'd also argue that it'd make it more difficult to field his position and run the bases during interleague play. Plus, his fat loss will make any future diagnostic tests – MRIs, x-rays, etc. – more accurate, should he encounter additional musculoskeletal problems. Here's what radiologist Dr. Jason Hodges had to say when I interviewed him five years ago:
By far, the biggest limitation is obesity. All of the imaging modalities are limited by it, mostly for technical reasons. An ultrasound beam can only penetrate so far into the soft tissues. X-rays and CT scans are degraded by scattered radiation, which leads to a higher radiation dose and grainy images. Also, the time it takes to do the study increases, which gives a higher incidence of motion blur.
I also found it interesting that there was no mention of the reduced risk of chronic problems like heart disease and diabetes; I give him a ton of credit for getting the weight off so that he can be a healthy role model for his kids (not to mention fans who've witnessed his transformation).
Your velocity doesn't matter if you're on the disabled list…period. However, we have to ask the question of whether CC's velocity drop in 2013 was really just a function of him losing weight.
Finding the Right Body Weight to Maximize Velocity
If there are two thing I've learned over years of working with pitchers, it's that no two deliveries are alike, and every body is unique. What works for Steve Cishek (6-6, 220lbs) won't work for Tim Collins (5-7, 170lbs).
Beyond just height and weight differences, some guys have more joint laxity than others. Each pitcher has a unique injury history. Some throwers have more retroversion in their throwing shoulders, or a larger valgus carrying angle at the elbow.
I could go on and on about these individuals differences, but the point is that it's dangerous to assume that all guys will respond exactly the same to a given stimulus – whether it's a mechanical adjustment, modified throwing program, added athleticism, a change in body weight, or something else.
On the body weight side of things, I've had a few years to develop a sample size of where pitchers seem to fit in best weight-wise. Obviously, there are individual differences in body weight distrubtion, limb length, and body composition, but we can generalize a bit if you think about the average build of a professional pitcher. Being about 220-225 pounds for a 6-3 pitcher, as an example, seems to be a sweet spot. If their weight drops, so does their velocity. If their weight climbs, they don't necessarily benefit – and may actually feel worse.
By contrast, go to someone who is 6-5, and 240-245 pounds seems to be a good spot – so you could make the argument that each inch equates to about 10 pounds. At 6-7, I'd estimate 260-270 pounds. This is something that's been reflected in my conversations with the really tall guys I've trained over the years:
Really tall guys simply don't thrive with weight gain like shorter guys do.
While there are obviously exceptions to this rule, in the 6-7 and above pitchers I've encountered, we're usually focusing a lot more on improving body composition (dropping some body fat while gaining muscle mass, even if the scale weight doesn't change). It all depends on their starting points – but I can't say that I've ever pushed hard for a guy to go from 250 to 270 pounds.
I should also note: interpreting online height/weight listings in MLB pitchers is tricky, as guys are always listed about an inch tall without a change in body weight. Plus, they are rarely updated – and guys don't grow much after they enter pro ball, but they do gain weight. As an example, Felix Doubrant is currently listed at 165 pounds by Yahoo Sports, but ESPN.com and MLB.com have him at 225 pounds.
Obviously, there are exceptions to the "norms" I just set forth. As an example, Cishek is more comfortable slightly lighter than typical 6-6 guys because he drops down and throws across his body, landing really closed off. This gives him more deception and movement, but also requires a lot more mobility and athleticism than a big donkey who just stands upright and throws downhill. That same argument could be made for Jered Weaver and Andrew Miller, who are both listed at 6-7, 210 pounds.
Based on what I've heard and seen in his delivery, Sabathia is also a super athletic guy – and you can tell from the way he really gets down the mound. I'd argue that he's better off at 270; it's a happy medium between velocity and health, in my eyes – and that's the Holy Grail of pitching we're always working to find.
The Mathematics of Sabathia's Weight Loss
According to the New York Times piece, Sabathia has lost 45 pounds over the past two years – effectively bringing him from 315 to 270 pounds. If these numbers are accurate, he lost 14% of his body weight over the course of 24 months – and that's certainly a notable reduction that has to raise his eyebrows.
However, those eyebrows are only raised if you look at things in absolute terms. A 14% loss for a 6-3, 225-pound pitcher would be 31.5 pounds – and would certainly equate to a huge drop in velocity. However, that 225-pound pitcher wasn't starting out from a point of what could actually be classified as obesity. The 45-pound drop brought Sabathia back to a more normal range, whereas the 31.5-pound drop would put a 6-3 pitcher far too light to thrive. Unless he's got an insanely quick arm, it's not going to work.
This parallels my own experiences in cutting weight as a competitive powerlifter. Losing 5-10 pounds would lower my lifts dramatically, but I knew guys in the 242-, 275-, 308-pound weight classes (and super heavyweights) who could do it in a matter of minutes without noticing a thing. The heavier you are, the less sensitive you are to changes – especially when they happen over the course of two years.
Heavy people (especially taller ones) who diet don't experience the serious lethargy and lack of satisfaction lighter-weight dieters notice because of the total amount of calories that are still being taken in. I remember talking to a world-class bench presser who wanted to stay above 350 pounds to shorten the distance the bar had to travel while pressing. He told me he was drinking three gallons of Powerade a day on top of his normal diet just to keep his weight up – and was absolutely miserable. He also couldn't go for a 1/4 mile walk without his lower back tightening up. So, we can kill off the myth that CC was starving himself to take the weight off; he was probably just making better food choices – which actually meant he probably ate a higher volume of food.
Regarding mechanical changes that occur with significant weight gain or loss, I simply haven't seen it. I've put 25 pounds on guys in off-seasons on countless occasions, and can't ever recall someone saying it interfered with their mechanics. I've also had guys lose that same amount, without ever complaining about it throwing them off. It's a much more dramatic change at these lighter weights, too. Losing 20 pounds during an off-season when you're 320 pounds doesn't dramatically change your mechanics. And, even if it did, a high-level, intelligent athlete like Sabathia would sort it out, particularly with the video analysis resources at his fingertips.
In fact, I'd actually argue that his weight loss would improve his ability to get to the positions he needs to be successful with his delivery, as Sabathia lost a lot of abdominal fat.
When you carry a lot of weight in your midsection, there is a tendency to slip into lumbar extension (lower back arching) to counteract it. This is one reason why pregnant women often have back pain; beyond the mechanical impingement on the posterior aspect of the spine, the muscles of the anterior core are excessively lengthen as the pelvis tips forward and rib cage slides up. CP pitching coordinator Matt Blake and I discussed this common fault in our recent series, Understanding Trunk Position at Foot Strike (part 1, part 2, and part 3). A larger belly would shift a guy like Sabathia into a more extended (arched) posture – similar to what we see with Lincecum on the right – as opposed to to the more neutral core positioning we see on the left with Zach Greinke.
Greinke is older and has thrown more innings over the past two years than Lincecum, yet his average fastball velocity this year was 1.5mph higher. According to Fangraphs (Lincecum vs. Greinke), since 2007, Lincecum has dropped from 94.2mph to 90.2mph, while Greinke has dropped from 94.0mph to 91.7mph. This is one of many factors that may contribute to Greinke's ability to sustain his velocity better than Lincecum has, but I'll take a neutral core posture and clean drive line over the long haul over a heavily extended one – and that's where CC's larger abdomen was shifting him.
Finally, from a common sense standpoint, I don't think anyone would call 6-7, 270 pounds "light" – especially when we're talking about a guy who still looks pretty damn intimidating on the mound. His body weight is fine, people – as much as that doesn't sell controversy in the New York Times.
How, then, do you explain his loss in velocity? Read on.
Fatigue Masks Fitness
As the Lincecum vs. Greinke example demonstrates, getting older and throwing a lot of innings means a velocity drop. Sabathia's average fastball velocity is consistent with this trend, going from 94.7mph in 2005 to 91.1mph in 2013. Let's have a look at the active leaders in innings pitched (courtesy of Baseball Reference):
As you can see, Sabathia is an outlier. He was among the youngest on this list (if not THE youngest) to make the big leagues – and he's certainly the only one with a track record of sustained success without missing considerable time due to injury.
Throwing a baseball is the single-fastest motion in all of sports, and CC Sabathia has done it at the highest level more than anyone else on the planet over the past 13 years.
It's virtually impossible to compare him to anyone on this list in terms of both innings pitched, admirable health, age and consistently. The only four parallels who can help for the sake of this discussion are Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, Jake Peavy, and Mark Buerhle.
Haren is the same age as Sabathia and also made his MLB debut at age 21. While he's averaged 186 innings per year over the past 11 years, he's thrown 729 innings (almost four full seasons worth) less than Sabathia, who has averaged 213 over the past 13. Haren's average fastball velocity has declined from a peak of 91.9mph in 2005 to 88.9mph in 2013.
Beckett, like Sabathia, was an absolute stud in his early 20s and threw a ton of innings over his first decade in the big leagues – but his 149IP/year rate can't touch CC's because of the amount of time he's spent on the disabled list, especially in light of this year's season ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. He is a good comparison for Sabathia in terms of velocity, though, as Beckett's average fastball velocity dropped from 94.7mph in 2006 to 91.4mph in 2012 (his last full season).
Jake Peavy is the same age as Sabathia, but got to the big leagues a year later than CC, and like Beckett, Peavy has missed too much time with injuries to really be a valid comparison (averaging 162IP/year). Peavy's average fastball velocity drop has been more subtle – 92.5mph in 2007 down to 90.7mph in 2013 – but you have to wonder where it would be if he'd thrown over 800 innings more during that time period – as Sabathia has.
Buerhle is a bit different, though, as he's averaged 205IP per season over the past 14 years – making him the only guy who can touch Sabathia's streak of longevity and performance. The main difference? Sabathia throws a lot harder than Buerhle, and that's a lot more stress. Make no mistake about it: you don't pull your hamstrings if you don't run fast (even Lou Piniella's strength and conditioning approach supports that) – and the same applies to pitching. Still, Buerhle's average fastball velocity has dropped from a peak of 87.1mph in 2004 to 84.2mph in 2013.
I've often heard that many front office people in baseball consider the prime of a player to be age 26-31. It's the point at which increased knowledge of the game coincides with peak athleticism and recovery ability. After 31 – as each of these examples shows, things start to decline. It stands to reason that power pitchers like Beckett and Sabathia, who rely heavily on athleticism, will fall off faster than those like Buerhle and Peavy, who rely more on location and movement. I'd also add that those with considerable congenital laxity (loose joints) will fall off the fastest (more strength = more stability = better force transfer) – and based on what I've seen of Beckett and Sabathia, they are both freakishly flexible. Getting old sucks.
What do these examples – and literally hundreds more in guys who weren't even close to as successful as Sabathia – show us? Fatigue masks fitness. If you throw a ton of innings (impose fatigue) and get older (reduce recovery capacity), your performance suffers. We saw it early this season after Justin Verlander's heavy workload in the playoffs last year. And, this is true of every single sport in the history of mankind.
That is, of course, unless you're CC Sabathia, in which case it's only because you lost some fat, at least according to a few of Brescia's cherry-picked interviewees. To me, it's proof that there are scenarios where professional athletes can never win with the media. Sabathia should be lauded for taking control of his health – and for taking the ball every time his team needed him to do so, pitching in some cases on three days rest. We hear complaining all the time about how today's pitchers are soft and can't do what the pitchers of yesterday did. How about praise for a guy who has made more sacrifices on the mound for his teams than anyone in MLB over the past 13 years?
And, who is to say that he would have pitched at all in these past few years if he hadn't taken the weight off? If he'd come back and reaggravated the meniscus, then everyone would have been calling him too fat to perform. There's literally no way to win without having the ability to predict the future – and that's why you have to apply common sense, anecdotal evidence, and research – none of which support the idea that being over 300 pounds is healthy or productive for a pitcher.
I, for one, am a huge CC Sabathia fan and think he can be a successful pitcher at this body weight given the right management in the years to come. It's unfair, however, to expect him to throw 200+ innings per year in perpetuity and not anticipate a velocity loss to ever kick in.
And, more specific to the New York Times piece, it's incredibly shortsighted and borderline irresponsible to even attempt to to blame it on weight loss – which in all likelihood was necessary for him to continue to be able to perform at a high level in spite of the insane physical demands placed on him.
Note: A big thanks goes out to Matt Blake for the great photos from Right View Pro, and to the good folks at Fangraphs.com, who provide awesome stats info in the baseball world.
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