CC Sabathia Is Doing Some Things Right, Believe It Or Not

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:

sabathia_removed

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:

sabathia_pitch-types

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:

myers_insidethepark

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.

sabathia_bad-inning

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.



Print This Post



Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
efb
Guest
efb
2 years 1 month ago

So when is Mike Petriello getting a raise?

TangoAlphaLima
Guest
TangoAlphaLima
2 years 1 month ago

I’m not sure why everyone is so concerned about the velocity drop considering Sabathia has a SIERA of 2.92 and an xFIP of 2.95. It sure looks to me like he’s adjusted to pitching without relying on an overpowering fastball, he’s just been unlucky and not seen the results pan out yet. I have to think we’ll see his earned runs normalize at some point.

ChrisS
Guest
ChrisS
2 years 1 month ago

At some point, the HR/FB rate is either actual or aberrant. Currently, and for the last 20-30 games, when he leaves pitches in the zone, they get clobbered.

I wonder how much of the extreme HR/FB unsustainability is a result of sample size bias. Pitchers who continue (beyond being just unlucky) to give up lots of HRs don’t usually stick around long.

TangoAlphaLima
Guest
TangoAlphaLima
2 years 1 month ago

Well, Sabathia’s HR/FB ratio trended upwards in 2012 and 2013, at 12.5% and 13% respectively, up from a previous career mark in the neighborhood of 8 or 9%. But this year he’s at an astronomical 21.9%. If he were even back to his 2012/13 form as far as HR/FB ratio, he’d be much better off, especially since his ground ball ratio has increased.

There are just so many signs that he’s been unlucky. .361 BABIP, a career high. 21.9% HR/FB ratio, a career high. 67.7% LOB, a near career worst. Yet he has his best K/9 ratio ever and one of his best BB/9 ratios ever.

I may be proven wrong, but all signs seem to point to Sabathia’s current struggles as nothing more than an anomaly.

geefee
Guest
geefee
2 years 1 month ago

well it’s probably gonna be high…but it’s not going to be 21.9%, there’s just no way

It’s possible that soft-tossing Sabathia is gonna be one of those pitchers whose ERA far exceeds what his “peripheral” numbers would indicate that it should be, but there’s outliers, and then there would be him – he certainly isn’t going to reliably post an ERA that exceeds his xFIP by 2, let alone 3 runs.

David
Member
Member
David
2 years 1 month ago

Because CC this season may not get enough inning for things to normalize or for the Big Numbers of Baseball to work it all out. He could just have a terrible year.

Madoff Withurmoni
Member
Madoff Withurmoni
2 years 1 month ago

I think the word “luck” and all it’s derivatives are our greatest enemy in trying to get our points across to the casual fan. Watch a game with one and try to explain that the 89 mph mistake that C.C. left out over the plate that just got clobbered was bad luck.

It’s really hard to justify when that’s what has continuously happened over the past year when the lack of velocity doesn’t allow him to get away with those mistakes often anymore.

I would way rather we use words like sustainable/unsustainable instead. It makes it so much easier in translation. And it’s really not all bad luck. He’s making a lot of terrible pitches that are being crushed. I think this article nailed it though.

TangoAlphaLima
Guest
TangoAlphaLima
2 years 1 month ago

The difference between a 390 foot warning track shot and a 400 foot home run is luck. You can act like luck has nothing to do with the game of baseball, but you’d be wrong. It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why in a small sample size we see one of the worst HR/FB ratios ever.

Madoff Withurmoni
Guest
Madoff Withurmoni
2 years 1 month ago

I’m kind of agreeing here when you talk about a single observed event, but whether its 390 or 400 the guy is still getting hammered when he serves up meatballs. Is it sustainable? Probably not because he’s either going to stop or be gone. (Was Joe Blanton unlucky or just serving up too many fat pitches to go with his elite K/BB?)

You can call a player lucky/unlucky on any given specific pitch/at bat. Bad call, good pitch got hit, blooper drops in.

It’s harder to explain to someone bad luck just by looking at a guy’s BABIP & HR/FB when all you see when you watch is the guy throwing meatballs and getting torched. Even worse if you haven’t seen him pitch at all and are just coming to this conclusion looking at a number. That’s when we should think about using sustainable/unsustainable instead is all I’m saying.

The off-speed stuff he’s getting the whiffs with are good pitches. They are not the same pitches that are getting hammered. Those are mistakes that he can no longer make and he makes several of those a game now along with the good pitches. If he keeps doing that, the results are likely to be the same. That’s not really unlucky, that’s what should happen.

TangoAlphaLima
Guest
TangoAlphaLima
2 years 1 month ago

But even the best pitchers in baseball throw a bad pitch from time to time. It’s not like Kershaw and Fernandez haven’t given up home runs before. I’ve only seen a few Sabathia starts myself, and he’s looked reasonably good in them. It’s possible he left a few more meatballs out there than the average pitcher, but that would be purely speculative, anecdotal evidence, and not something I would rely on to analyze this issue.

What I’d really like to see is some batted ball distance data on Sabathia to compare him to other pitchers right now, but I can’t seem to find any resource for that. If your assumption that Sabathia’s just leaving too many meatballs out there that are getting crushed, I’d have to think that his average batted fly ball distance would be above league average. However, I can’t find any source for this data. Does anyone have any ideas? Am I missing a source for this?

derp
Guest
derp
2 years 1 month ago

less weight, less mass to use as leverage, less velocity. Get back to eating the quadruple bacon cheeseburgers.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 1 month ago

More muscle?

Prince F
Guest
Prince F
2 years 1 month ago

Yes…..muscle.

Matthew
Member
Member
2 years 1 month ago

Somebody forgot to tell Yordano Ventura.

Peter 2
Guest
Peter 2
2 years 1 month ago

ERA notwithstanding, he had looked pretty good to me in previous starts in a lot of ways. Two starts ago, in particular, his two-seamer had some great movement on it (though he possibly fell in love with it a little too much).

Yesterday, however, he had nothing. He just threw BP for a few innings.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 1 month ago

I am pete 2 on another blog, nice to meet you. While he did look good against Boston one wonders if that was not more about their offensive struggles at the time.

VB
Guest
VB
2 years 1 month ago

From what I`ve understood:

1) He misses bats better
2) He`s improved his control
3) When he doesn`t miss a bat, his LD% and HR/FB% are very high, meaning it leaves the bat in a hurry.

Other than strikeouts, how does he ensure that opponents are not hitting the ball hard off of him?

Jim
Guest
Jim
2 years 1 month ago

Not exactly the most obvious physical comparison but this is exactly the same trajectory and narrative that we’ve seen with Tim Lincecum. Both had their last dominant season when their average fastball was >92 (Lincecum 2011, Sabathia 2012). Since then both showing decent xFIP but steadily worsening HR/FB% and so ERA way up.

Lincecum HR/FB%, last 5 years: 9.9, 8.0, 14.6, 12.1, 18.2
Sabathia HR/FB%, last 5 years: 8.6, 8.4, 12.5, 13.0, 21.9

Obviously there are critical differences (Sabathia’s lower BB/9 being the obvious one) but in both cases when the new, slower fastball is in the zone, it’s going a long way.

TangoAlphaLima
Guest
TangoAlphaLima
2 years 1 month ago

I think it’s a great physical comparison. Sabathia lost approximately one Lincecum in weight this offseason.

Matthew
Member
Member
2 years 1 month ago

Actually, his velocity has up last night. According to Brooks Baseball, The fastball averaged 91.75mph last night, topping out at close to 93.

I think a big problem for C.C. is release point problem.

http://www.brooksbaseball.net/velo.php?player=282332&b_hand=-1&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=year&minmax=ci&var=z0&s_type=2&startDate=01/01/2011&endDate=05/05/2014

The lower vertical release point means C.C. probably isn’t getting the extension on his delivery he should, making it easier to see the ball come out of his hand and lowering the perceived velocity.

Same with Horizontal release point.

http://www.brooksbaseball.net/velo.php?player=282332&b_hand=-1&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=year&minmax=ci&var=x0&s_type=2&startDate=01/01/2009&endDate=05/05/2014

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 1 month ago

CC’s lower velocity means his mistakes get hit more often. He has a 23.5% LD rate so his BABIP is not entirely bad luck. He has also faced some bad hitting teams or teams that have struggled against LHP’ers. RHB’ers are killing him, he is not pitching well with ROB, and he basically ceases to be effective once he reaches 75 pitches. Losing 4 mph off your fastball in 2 years is not conducive to being a top of the rotation pitcher.

CC needs another pitch, especially against RHB’ers. Maybe Tanaka can teach him the split

Joe Blanton
Guest
Joe Blanton
2 years 1 month ago

Peripherals are overrated.

waynetolleson
Guest
waynetolleson
2 years 1 month ago

You know what? CC Sabathia sucks. He sucked last year and he’s even worse this year. He doesn’t throw as hard and his pitches don’t have the same bite. That’s why he has been getting lit-up for a year.

So, I guess at the end of this year, if he doesn’t improve, CC Sabathia will be 12-16 with a 6.00 ERA, but all the genius analysts here will still be convinced that he’s doing really great, and there’s gonna be some guy who goes 19-7 with a 3.00 ERA and Fangraphs will write six pieces about how that guy actually sucked.

waynetolleson
Guest
waynetolleson
2 years 1 month ago

I retract my previous statement because I am moronic, ignorant, and the best… at being a jerk who’s stupid and my big ugly face is as dumb as a butt!

I Agree
Guest
I Agree
2 years 1 month ago

…with Wayne the second. Wayne the first is a blowhard.

Teknetic
Guest
Teknetic
2 years 1 month ago

CC’s my favorite pitcher of all time behind Aaron Small, Ted Lilly, Andy Hawkins and Al Leiter. He’s going to find a way to pull through this.

wpDiscuz