CC’s Scorched Earth Policy

A few days ago, Dave Cameron pointed out that a trio of New York Yankees starters are striking out fewer batters than in years past. A.J. Burnett, Javier Vazquez, and CC Sabathia are probably drawing the ire of P.C. Richards (fewer whistles!) But, unlike Burnett and Vazquez, CC has compensated for a decline in K’s by waging a ground assault in 2010.

From 2007-2009, Sabathia struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings. Prior to the start of this season, both CHONE and ZiPS projected CC to whiff about 7.7 opponents per nine frames. Instead, Sabathia has 6.9 K/9 through 174.2 innings pitched. The towering lefty’s swinging strike rate, which was 12.2% from 2007-2009, comes in at 8.9% in 2010 (8.4% MLB average this season). CC’s 74.7% contact rate from ’07 to ’09 was lowest among qualified MLB starters, but that mark is up to 79.9% this year (80-81% MLB average).

As Dave C. mentioned, Sabathia is throwing his 93-94 MPH fastball slightly more. Those extra heaters have come early in the count — the 30-year-old has thrown a fastball 72% of the time on the first pitch, compared to 69% in ’09 and 64% in ’08 (the MLB average is about 66%). According to Pitch F/X data from, that fastball is getting fewer whiffs. Hitters are missing the pitch 5.4% of the time that it’s thrown. For comparison, CC induced a whiff 6% of the time with his fastball last year and 6.3% in 2008. The MLB average is around six percent.

But the drop in whiffs is more pronounced on Sabathia’s secondary stuff. Sabathia’s mid-80’s changeup has been whiffed at 17.8%. While the number is still way above the 12.1% big league average, it’s nonetheless a marked drop from his 24.5% figure in ’09 and 24.1% rate in 2008. CC low-80’s slider has a 14.9% whiff rate in 2010, compared to 16% in ’09 and 22.6% in ’08 (13% MLB average).

Despite racking up fewer strikeouts, Sabathia has a quality 3.95 xFIP. How? He’s getting grounders 51.3% of the time this year, up from 44.9% the previous three campaigns. Using Pitch F/X data from Joe Lefkowitz’s site, I broke down Sabathia’s batted ball distribution by pitch type to see from where the extra ground balls are coming. I also included the major league averages by pitch type, provided by Harry Pavlidis.

Sabathia is inducing more grounders with all of his pitches, with the largest increase coming on his fastball. The uptick in grounders has led to more twin killings. Baseball-Reference shows that Sabathia’s double play rate (the number of times he has gotten two or more force outs on a ground ball) is 18%, after ranging from 10-13% from 2007 to 2009. The MLB average is 11%.

CC Sabathia hasn’t been the same overpowering starter this season, using his tumbling changeup and sweeping breaking stuff to garner lots of strikeouts. But he has largely staved off a decline in performance by getting batters to smack the ball into the infield grass more frequently. It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a new phase in Sabathia’s career, as he transitions from a high K hurler to a guy who remains effective due to good control and strong ground ball tendencies. Considering that the Yankees owe CC $23 million per season from 2011-2015, they’ll surely have a close eye on the big man.

Thanks to Dave Allen for leading me in the right direction on this piece.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on and, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

14 Responses to “CC’s Scorched Earth Policy”

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  1. Marc says:

    Could this be a new approach by CC? Maybe he is pacing himself for a deep playoff run?

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  2. Dudley says:

    or pacing himself for all-you-can-eat chicken wings.

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  3. Dan In Philly says:

    Strikesouts are boring. Besides that, they’re facist. CC’s just becoming more democratic, that’s all.

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  4. What’s interesting is that he’s actually throwing a greater amount of four-seamers this year than he was last year:

    2009 FF%/FT%: 44.6%/16.9%
    2010 FF%/FT%: 47.8%/16.2%

    On the four-seamer alone, the groundball rate is up from .354 in 2009 to .460 in 2010.

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  5. phoenix says:

    maybe he is trusting his yankees infield and their gold gloves more than he did Cleveland and Milwaukee. also isn’t he throwing fewer sliders this year as well, so he is trying for grounders rather than the swing and miss? he also seems like he is throwing more strikes and trying to nibble around the corners less, but that’s just observation and not pitch data speaking.

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    • Raf says:

      Given the defense of Rodriguez and Jeter, I’m not sure if trusting the left side of that infield’s a good thing.

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  6. CesarV says:

    Don’t forget that this is a guy who molded his game based on Tom Glavine’s.

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  7. claybeez says:

    Could the approach be tailored to pitching in the new YS?

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    • James says:

      Not really, His FB% isn’t that far off from last year’s (37.3% to 33.3%) he is just inducing less LDs this year. One thing I noticed is that his changeup hasn’t been as dominating this year for whatever reason. My opinion is that he is just getting older.

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  8. Jon says:

    During an interview last year, CC stated that he was working on getting more grounders so that his career would be prolonged and, thus, he would be more effective for a longer period of time.

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  9. TonyC says:

    How do CC’s groundballs have any effect on his xFIP? Doesn’t xFIP not take into account what happens when the ball is put in play? Other than obviously ground balls can’t be home runs, but his HR/9 is .67 this year after being .70 last year, so that drop is pretty negligible.

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  10. AJS says:

    Question about double-play rate — what does that stat as defined above tell us? You’ll have very few ground balls on which you get two or more force outs if you don’t let many guys on base.

    Wouldn’t a better definition for double-play rate the percentage of times you get a double play in potential double play situations (runners in position to be forced, fewer than 2 outs)?

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  11. Tank the Frank says:

    RE: CC’s Strikeouts

    Career K/9 = 7.56
    2010 K/9 = 7.40

    This is a non issue. Only CC’s 8.9 K/9 in 2008 stands out more as an outlier and no doubt aided by his time in the National League. CC – more or less – throughout his career has been a pitcher that strikes out about 7.5 per 9…and he’s doing exactly that this season. I don’t know where he earned this uber strikeout label. It’s most likely due to the confirmation bias having watched him blow almost every batter away during his time with the Brewers and his spectacular Cy Young season. No need to get over-alarmed when he doesn’t repeat these numbers.

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