In one way, CC Sabathia is having the best season we’ve seen him have in years. In another, much more real way, he’s having the worst season of his long and valuable career. Baseball is a weird game sometimes.
When you look at the current ERA standings, from worst to first, a few things jump out at you. (Yes, besides, “ERA is dumb,” because for the moment this is more about what has happened than what might have happened.) You see Kevin Correia and Ricky Nolasco showing absurdly low strikeout numbers (along with Kyle Gibson, the Twins have the three lowest K% pitchers, because Twins) and you understand that pitching to contact in front of a lousy defense might not result in runs being prevented. You see a lot of high BABIP (I see you, Homer Bailey‘s .385), and guys who have had a disaster start or two that inflate the number (Bartolo Colon), and guys who either can’t miss bats (John Danks) or throw strikes (John Danks) and find that the end result is poor (John Danks). As it turns out, there’s a lot of different ways to allow runs to score in Major League Baseball.
But there’s also Sabathia, stuck in third-worst with a 5.75 ERA, and what stands out for him is the 9.74 K/9, along with the 1.99 BB/9, resulting in a 4.89 K/BB, his best since his Cy Young season of 2007. When two of the three things that a pitcher has the most control over, taken together, are the best since the best year of a great career, and it’s still not working out, well, that seems like something you might want to look into further. Remember, this is the same Sabathia who was supposedly cooked coming off a career-worst 2013, thanks to velocity issues, and I’m pretty sure that the Yankees would have taken a greatly improved K/9 rate (up from 7.46 last year), K% (24.0, up from 19.3) and a better walk rate (down from 2.77) in a heartbeat. His xFIP, for what it’s worth, is 2.95. So… what gives?
There was an endless amount of hand-wringing over Sabathia’s 2013 velocity, and for good reason. After more than a decade in the bigs and over 3,000 professional innings on his arm, Sabathia’s velocity dropped from the 95 mph range to around 92 last year. After a winter of stories about how much weight he’d lost in an attempt to get back into better shape, he’s down even further to an average of 90.54 mph. Though that should improve somewhat — for most pitchers, April velocity is lower than the following months, and he has improved in his lone May start — he’s thrown only 10 pitches that have even reached 91. He’s thrown zero at 92 or, obviously, above. His velocity isn’t going to return, nor should anyone have expected it to.
Of course, that was never the plan this year. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte talked in the spring about how adjustments needed to be made as a pitcher aged and velocity was lost. In March, they worked on adding a cutter. After Sabathia was knocked out in the fourth inning against the Rays on Sunday, Joe Girardi said, “I still think he’s evolving into a different type of pitcher.”
Before Girardi said that, he had to actually make the walk out to the mound and tell Sabathia he was leaving before the end of the fourth for the first time since 2009. Sabathia may not have agreed:
Though Sabathia was indeed lousy on Sunday — pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Sabathia “was out of sync from the get-go,” and that he “didn’t warm up particularly well” –Girardi is right. Sabathia’s response to a fastball that was arguably the worst pitch in baseball last year is to simply not throw it so much, in favor of a sinker and change:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his groundball percentage is up to a career-high 50.8 percent. His flyball rate is down to a career-low 25.8 percent. Last year, 45.1 percent of the 1,314 fastballs he threw were high in the zone. This year, plenty of those fastballs are turning into low sinkers. On lots of teams, that’s a good thing. On a team with an ever-revolving infield and Derek Jeter looking every bit of his soon-to-be 40-years-old at shortstop, it’s turned out to be less useful. It’s not the only reason that Sabathia’s BABIP is .361, far above anything he’s ever had before — a career-worst line drive percentage plays into that as well — but it’s certainly part of it. He’s also throwing first-pitch strikes 70 percent of the time, third-best in baseball, and we know that first-pitch strikes are worth over 100 points in both batting average and on-base percentage.
It’s really because of the sinker that the strikeouts are coming. Sabathia has thrown it 208 times this year, and picked up 66 strikes (44 called / 22 swinging) on it, good for a 31.7 rate. Of his 44 strikeouts, 19 have come via the sinker, more than any other pitch, including his slider, which has always been his go-to. For a pitch he’s relying on for the first time, the results have been surprising. It’s not perfect — seven extra-base hits on it — but it’s worth exploring further.
So far, these are mostly positive data points. More strikeouts. Fewer walks. More groundballs. More first-pitch strikes. A new pitch that seems to play. But still: the runs.
If there’s a problem here, it’s the home run and the big inning, which are understandably intertwined. Sabathia’s HR/FB percentage is 21.9, tied for the most in the majors. That is, objectively, bad. But also, it’s maybe not as bad as it sounds. Remember that he’s allowing fewer flyballs, meaning each homer hits this percentage harder. Note also that he’s tied with Masahiro Tanaka and Homer Bailey, each very well-compensated and productive pitchers. He’s also tied with Brandon McCarthy, less compensated and productive, though still valuable. Zack Greinke is in the top 10. So is Gerrit Cole. So is Jenrry Mejia, who has his share of fans, and Tim Lincecum & Shelby Miller, who used to. David Price isn’t far behind. Johnny Cueto is on the first page. It’s obviously not great to give up homers, but it doesn’t have to be fatal, either, and either way it’s difficult if not impossible to keep that kind of rate up all season. Over the last 10 seasons, only four pitchers have even been at 18 percent or higher.
Obviously, that comes with some selection bias. If you’re allowing homers on 20 percent of your fly balls for very long, you’re either going to fix that or no longer be a big league pitcher. I’m not sure we’re ready to say that about Sabathia, particularly with the increasing reliance on sinkers and grounders, so one would think that number is likely to come down. One might also notice this about Sabathia’s homer problem — one of them, to Wil Myers yesterday, didn’t even leave the park. The ball was smoked and very nearly did get out, so we’re not going to absolve Sabathia of all blame, but you can also time Carlos Beltran‘s journey to the ball in weeks rather than seconds, followed by an underwhelming throw that killed any chance of a play at the plate:
Here’s another, off the bat of L.J. Hoes on April 1:
With a true distance of 344 feet, only 11 other homers have been shorter this year. 819 have been longer. It still counts as damage, because baseball, but obviously not all homers were created the same. In Sabathia’s case, he hasn’t actually had a ball leave the park in his last three starts. As mentioned before, a HR/FB rate north of 20 isn’t sustainable. This is the beginning of that coming down. When it does, you’d expect the “one terrible inning” — helpfully illustrated on the YES broadcast below — to come down as well.
Because of his name, his salary, and the fact that Tanaka is the sole Yankee starter who is currently both healthy and productive, Sabathia isn’t going to run out of chances in the rotation any time soon. It should go without saying, of course, that he’s never going to be the elite ace he used to be. It’s as likely that the Yankees would prefer to have the $83 million they owe him between 2015-17 (assuming a likely 2017 vesting clause activates) available for other purposes. The new Sabathia isn’t doing enough right to win, but he’s doing a certain amount of things right, more than the “third-worst ERA in baseball” would indicate. As Sabathia gets more comfortable with who he is, and gets a little more batted ball luck, there’s enough happening here for a useful pitcher to emerge. That might not be want the Yankees want or need. It’s what they have, and considering how the rest of the rotation is going, they’ll have to take it.
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