Sabathia, 32, is hardly a junkballer as he embarks on his 13th big league season. But neither is he the power pitcher who, as recently as 2011, averaged nearly 94 mph on his fastball. He now sits around 90, which is plenty for a pitcher with his command, movement and offspeed offerings.
It was certainly enough to keep the D-backs off balance on Wednesday, even after Arizona jumped to an early 2-0 lead. Sabathia clamped down, and got a little luckier, en route to career win No. 194.
"Everything looked so good, and all of a sudden you swing and it wasn't there," said D-backs catcher Miguel Montero. "That's what he is."
Much has been made of Sabathia's declining velocity, and it's real. He lost 1.5 mph on his fastball from 2011 to '12, and thus far is down more than two mph so far in '13. Some of this year's dip could be a result of chilly weather and simply not being at full strength yet, but some of it is just what happens over time.
Even Sabathia himself admitted that the miles on his arm may be catching up to him. He's thrown more than 2,500 innings in the Major Leagues, reaching the 200-inning threshold in each of the past six seasons.
"I've been pitching for a long time," he said. "There's nothing I can do about it. I can't throw any harder."
The thing is, he may not need to. Every pitcher could benefit from a little extra velocity to help get away with mistakes, but velocity isn't the only definition of good stuff. Sabathia has four pitches that he can throw for strikes and that move. It makes him one of the most challenging at-bats a hitter can have, whether he's at 90 or 94.
"He doesn't throw as hard, but he's got more stuff in my opinion," said Arizona manager Kirk Gibson. "Movement, location, more pitches."
Sabathia's value to the Yankees has never been quite so pronounced. The back of their rotation once again looks a bit shaky. Their offense has been effective thus far, but it's down several key contributors. New York needs its big man to be just about a sure thing every five days.
In the early going on Wednesday, it looked like that wouldn't be the case. A.J. Pollock dropped in a perfectly placed bloop double. Paul Goldschmidt jumped a hanging changeup and hit it out to right field, and it was 2-0 in an instant. After a walk to Montero and a Cody Ross single, it appeared Sabathia was in trouble.
He wasn't. He retired the next 10 batters in order, and but for Brett Gardner barely missing a catch on Josh Wilson's liner and Gerardo Parra's bunt single, Sabathia was all but perfect the rest of the way. Three batters reached base over Sabathia's last 7 2/3 innings.
"He's smart," said Martin Prado, who was 0-for-4. "He knows how to pitch. He's been doing it for a long time. It seems like he doesn't have the same pattern all the time. He finds different ways to get you out. That's why he's one of the best."
Sabathia hit every radar-gun reading between 72 and 80, and 15 different numbers on the gun overall between 72 and 90. He threw fastballs early, and more sliders and changeups late.
"He pitches in all quadrants," Gibson said. "So if you're a hitter, certain guys do certain things, and you recognize things early. It's very tough to do so with him. He throws his fastball, four-seam, turns it over, then he's got a slider, breaking ball, good changeup, and it all comes out of the same spot."
On Wednesday, and on most nights, that's more than enough, regardless of the velocity.