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Jarrell: Sabathia Still A Solid Despite Struggles



In my eyes, CC Sabathia can do no wrong. He was the ace of a World Series winner his first year in New York, and an All-Star performer for multiple seasons after that. He’s reinvented himself into a serviceable rotation option over the last few years by learning new pitches and transitioning from a hard thrower to a finesse lefty. He is, by all accounts, a wonderful and protective teammate with a winning attitude and fierce competitive spirit. If it were up to me, he’d be firmly ensconced in Monument Park the moment he retires and his number 52 would never again be worn in pinstripes.

Needless to say, I’m happy he’s back! Sabathia’s return from a short IL stint renders the bullpen days unnecessary and adds depth to a rotation that’s dealt with the absence of Luis Severino and a period without James Paxton too. Domingo Germán has been carrying the team, but has faltered somewhat of late and the organization remains cognizant of his workload. So, welcome back to the big fella. Always fun to see him out there cussing out umps and, at times, opposing players.

In the eight starts Sabathia made before ending up on the shelf, we saw much of the same content that he’s become known for over the last two or three years. He relies on his cutter against righties to induce soft contact and uses his slider as an out pitch. The results have been more or less what you’d expect: Sabathia is in the borderline-elite 82nd percentile in average exit velocity of opposing hitters’ contact, at 86.2 miles per hour, and the 66th percentile in hard-hit percentage. He boasts a 77 ERA- (23 percent better than league average) and a .222 batting average against, heading into Sunday’s start against Boston. Great stuff.

Sadly, Sabathia’s peripherals aren’t as strong as they were last year. Though they’re solid, his exit velocity and hard hit figures pale in comparison to last year’s 98th and 97th percentiles. His expected batting average, slugging, and wOBA against all eclipsed the 65th percentile in 2018, while so far this year, they hover right around league average. Sabathia is posting the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, and benefitting from a 90 percent strand rate and a .212 BABIP, both unsustainable even when factoring in the soft contact that he excels at generating. Add it all up, and you’ve got a 134 FIP- (34 percent worse than league average).

Sabathia’s competition has been able to elevate contact much more successfully this year. The average launch angle against him has risen from 12.6 degrees to 17.9, and his ground ball rate has dropped from the mid 40s-to-50 percent range over the last four seasons to just 37 percent. His slider induced grounders at a 40 percent clip last year; that rate has dropped by nearly 16 percentage points, and Sabathia has already surrendered six home runs off sliders after giving up seven in all of 2018. On the other hand, he’s been able to generate whiffs and strikeouts at the same rate as last year on the slider, and the average exit velocity off the pitch is exactly the same 86.6 MPH that it was in 2018. It’s the hanging mistake pitches that are killing him there.

The cutter is a more interesting case. Statcast records a 3.3 mile per hour rise in average exit velocity off the cutter between 2018 and 2019. His K rate and whiff percentage using the pitch have also dropped, and similarly to the slider, more contact has been elevated. Here’s heat maps for the locations of Sabathia’s cutters, with last year above, and this year below.

 

He’s throwing fewer cutters up in the zone this year, and for Sabathia, the elevated cutter generates the best results. Another set of heat maps: these illustrate the locations of cutters against which the batter swung and missed. Again, 2018 above, 2019 below.

In both seasons, Sabathia’s generating the whiffs on the cutter at the top of the zone. With the way that the pitch cuts hard in on the hands of righties, it’s much harder for them to extend their arms and create lift when it’s elevated. That, if you will, is the bread and butter cutter.

The sooner CC returns to his 2018 form, the better the Yankees will be. Hopefully he’s worked through his knee issues and returns from the IL with better command, but even if he’s half the pitcher he was last year, his presence on the mound will be a welcome sight for the Yankees. In his first start back on Sunday, we saw some of the good and the bad: Sabathia struck out eight and looked dominant at times, but also surrendered two homers on – you guessed it – a belt-high cutter and a hanging slider. In all likelihood, this is going to be Sabathia’s last season and we should enjoy him while we can. He’s given us ten memorable years, three All-Star seasons, an ALCS MVP, and a championship. As he himself might say, but without the expletive this time, that’s for us.