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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 TexasLeaguers.com, 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.