To all the fans who had lost faith in CC Sabathia, please stand up! It’s alright, I wholeheartedly consider myself one of the many who were marking off the days on the calendar in anticipation of Sabathia’s contractual expiration date. But with the season that the 35-year-old left-hander is putting together for the New York Yankees, here’s hoping there is room in CC’s heart to forgive us for ever doubting him.
Four years ago, Sabathia was the unquestioned leader of the Yankees’ starting rotation. After all, from 2009-2012, the southpaw compiled an impressive win-loss record of 74-29. But since then, Sabathia has struggled with a debilitating knee injury, diminished velocity, and alcoholism. Those issues were reflected in the lefty’s performance from 2013-2015. During that span Sabathia’s record was an unremarkable 23-27, easily the worst stretch of games in his career.
However, something has clicked for Sabathia this season. Since returning from the disabled list on Friday, May 20, for a groin injury, CC has been the Yankees most dominant starting pitcher. In four starts post-disabled list, Sabathia has been stingy, allowing just three earned runs in 24 innings including 24 strikeouts. In his most recent start on Sunday afternoon, Sabathia delivered five shutout innings against a potent Baltimore Orioles offense. His command was a bit rough, but he still got the job done.
CC has been more than just dominant, he has also been consistent. Sabathia has not allowed more than three runs in any of his nine starts this season. You wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at his 3-4 record thanks to the Yankees’ spotty offense, but Sabathia’s other numbers are there. Overall the pitcher has thrown 52.1 innings and has struck out 45 batters. The lefty also sports a sparkling 2.58 ERA which leads the team, and his 3.39 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, and .224 BAA aren’t too shabby either. But is this the CC we should expect going forward, or is it just one of this season’s early anomalies?
When analyzing Sabathia’s resurgence it’s important to note that the lefty is not having success the way he used to. What I mean is, Sabathia is pitching with a completely different mindset and arsenal than he did during his prime. Also important are the steps in which he arrived at this point in his career.
Sabathia’s knee troubles and reduced velocity have been largely responsible for the lefty’s injuries and ineffectiveness since 2013. However, after being fitted with a new knee brace during a trip to the disabled list in late August of 2015, Sabathia returned to the mound in September and ended the regular season on a high note. In his final five starts, CC pitched to a 2.17 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 29 innings. Sabathia credited his newfound success to the brace which the left-hander said allowed him to land with his full weight on the knee. However, while the knee brace was effective in helping Sabathia on the field, it would take much more to help the big lefty off of it.
Entering the month of October just days before the Yankees’ 2015 Wild Card playoff match against the Houston Astros, Sabathia announced that he was checking himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center and that he would be unavailable for the remainder of the postseason. Given the timing of the announcement, Sabathia’s dismissal from the team was met with a mix of outrage and sympathy. While it turned out the Yankees would be eliminated from the postseason by the Astros just a few days later, Sabathia’s sudden absence from the team to address his bouts with alcoholism left uncertainty in the left-hander’s big-league future.
Sabathia’s treatment for alcoholism came at a time when the Yankees needed him the most, but it was a decision that the left-hander said he had to make immediately if he was to follow through with the program. Sabathia chronicled his struggle with alcohol abuse in an article he submitted to the Player’s Tribune in early March of 2016, and while it’s uncertain how much of his recovery has had an impact on his performance as a player, it has certainly provided him clarity as an individual and a new mindset as a pitcher.
“I think (what) I went through at the beginning of the year last year (was) I was kind of trying to pitch like my old self,” Sabathia said. “I came off the DL in August and I just kind of found that place where I need to be and how I need to pitch. I’m excited about this year and the challenge of getting guys out.”
With Sabathia having picked up where he left off at the end of 2015, it might be a bit tempting for fans to think they are getting vintage Sabathia, but make no mistake, this CC is brand new.
The New CC
When Sabathia was originally acquired in the 2008-2009 offseason, the left-hander brought with him a fastball with an average velocity of roughly 94 mph. That fastball average dipped all the way down to 90.3 mph in 2015 according to fangraphs, which became part of the reason for the left-hander’s struggles. So how do you explain Sabathia’s success in 2016 when his fastball has averaged just over 88 mph? Brendan Kuty of NJ.com, believes that the 35-year-old’s performance at the end of the 2015 season was a result of the left-hander learning to pitch without the velocity that had been the trademark for much of his career, and it’s an adjustment that Sabathia has clearly taken into 2016.
Sabathia would not be the first Yankee ace to reinvent himself amidst decreasing velocity. Ex-Yankee right-hander, Mike Mussina, struggled in a similar manner with his fastball which dipped from 89.2 mph in 2002 to 86.4 mph in 2008, the final season of his career. Although 2008 represented a career low in velocity, Mussina managed to win 20 games for the first and only time of his career at the age of 39.
Clearly less speed can get the job done, but if Sabathia has not been blowing away hitters with heaters, how has he been getting them out? Well, when you are a Yankee, you tend to have many resources very close at hand. For Sabathia, Andy Pettitte has been that resource. If you have watched any of Sabathia’s starts this season, you may have noticed some cutting action on his fastball. That’s not an illusion, Sabathia has been using a cut-fastball, and with great regularity.
In 2014, Sabathia began to use that same cut-fastball, but the lefty only used the pitch about two percent of the time that year, and increased it ever so slightly to three percent in 2015. However, this season Sabathia has ramped up his usage of the pitch to 29.8 percent according to fangraphs, a rate very comparable to Pettitte’s 29.9 percent usage of the cutter during his final season in 2013. As you may know, the cutter was Pettitte’s bread and butter which he used to compliment his curveball. Sabathia has used the cutter in a similar manner except that he has used it to compliment his slider.
By adding the cutter to his repertoire, Sabathia has relied less on his waning four-seam fastball, which the lefty has used at a career low 36.9 percent. Ironically, Sabathia’s cut-fastball is even slower, just 86.3 mph on average, but the movement of the pitch has made all the difference, allowing Sabathia to have more success attacking the corners of the strike zone, specifically low and away to right-handed batters.
Not surprisingly, better location of pitches has resulted in a huge leap in Sabathia’s soft contact rate which sits at 23.6 percent, up from 16.5 percent in 2015, and easily the pitcher’s best mark since 2011 when he produced a soft contact rate of 27.2 percent. But arguably the most distinguishing statistic of all is the enormous drop in Sabathia’s home runs per fly ball ratio (HR/FB). This season it sits at a career low of 3.7 percent when just last season it was at 16.6 percent, and honestly there is really no other year that can compare. The second lowest HR/FB rate that Sabathia produced was his first season with the Yankees in 2009 when his HR/FB rate was 7.4 percent.
What do all these numbers mean? In simpler terms, by diversifying his fastball options between the four-seam and cutter, Sabathia has increased his command of the strike zone, induced weaker contact from opposing batters, and has dramatically reduced the rate at which he has allowed home runs. And to think, the left-hander has done all of this with the slowest fastball of his career.
In an age when teams have placed a premium on acquiring and developing pitchers with fastballs approaching or even hitting triple-digits, it’s refreshing to see Sabathia reinvent himself and have success using less speed and more finesse. But it’s even more amazing when you recognize the long road and the tough battles that Sabathia has endured and has ultimately triumphed from to reach this point in his career and his life.