Turning CC Sabathia into a 5th Starter

There can be more moments like this for CC Sabathia, who is coming off a gem versus the Mariners.
There can be more moments like this for CC Sabathia, who is coming off a gem versus the Mariners that I saw firsthand.

CC Sabathia hasn’t had an easy go at things in 2015, but he can become an effective back-end rotation member with just a few minor tweaks.

CC Sabathia has struggled in 2015, ok?  We all know that, but let’s examine his numbers a bit closer in order to figure out where Sabathia needs improvement and where he is still an ace.  CC’s record stands at 4-8 with a 5.25 ERA.  He has allowed over a hit per inning, good for a 1.40 WHIP and a .299 BAA. Those numbers are ugly, but let’s look at some of his other, more favorable peripherals.  His strikeout to walk ratio of 4.3 K/BB is the best it’s ever been in pinstripes.  His ground ball rate is improving as the year goes on, and he’s thrown 66.5% of his pitches for strikes.  Finally, his splits versus lefties and righties are very telling.  His BAA versus lefties is an astonishing .189, but his BAA versus righties is a horrifying .330.  CC’s home/road splits also tell a story.  Sabathia’s home stats are 2-3 and 6.80 at Yankee Stadium versus 2-5 and 4.27 on the road.

So what we’ve got here is a pitcher who is still throwing strikes and can get lefties out, but is victimized by righties and his own home ballpark.  This is much the same narrative as his last 1.5 seasons, but for once Sabathia is actually changing the way he attacks hitters this time around.  The Fangraphs PitchFx data that details Sabathia’s pitch types and their effectiveness illustrates a pitcher actively in transition.  For the first time ever, Sabathia is throwing his 2-Seam Fastball more than his 4-Seamer.  This is important because the 2-Seamer generates sink much more than a 4-Seamer (PitchFx actually classifies this pitch as a sinker, but since Sabathia refers to it as a 2-Seamer, we’ll call it that).  His 2-Seamer has been hit more often than his 4-Seamer, but is generating more strikes, and its insanely high .408 BABIP points to some serious bad luck.  Think about when Sabathia has been taken advantage of this year.  While there have been some long homers, he most often gets beaten by cheap homers and dinky hits that fall where there are no fielders present.  Bad luck has something to do with his high hit totals.  Sabathia’s 4-Seamer averages 90.2 mph while his 2-Seamer stands at 89.2 mph on average.  The lack of velocity makes for a tough transition for any pitcher, and CC is no different.  But the fact that Sabathia is using his 2-Seamer more often and inducing more ground balls is a sign that he is becoming more of a pitcher and less of a thrower.

In addition to his 4-and 2-Seam fastballs, Sabathia has recently introduced a cut fastball to his repertoire.  In fact, it has only been around for his last 3 starts.  Not coincidentally, these last three starts were all good starts.  Versus the Angels in Anaheim, Sabathia pitched 7.1 innings of 4-run ball.  Against the Oakland Athletics, Sabathia allowed only 2 runs over 5.1 innings. And his latest start versus the Mariners was a true gem.  Sabathia went 6 innings, struck out 7, allowed just 1 run, and was generally dominant from the first pitch to his last.  The constant in these starts?  Sabathia relied heavily on his cutter to get righties out.  The cutter moves in on right handers, sawing their bats in half and jamming dribblers to Chase Headley at third base.  You know who else had a great cutter like that?  Andy Pettitte.  CC’s ex-teammate is helping him out in his tough time by teaching him how to use the cutter.  Sabathia can learn a great deal from Pettitte as Andy went through a loss in velocity and a transformation into a ground ball pitcher as well.  Pettitte was successful by constantly keeping hitters off-balance with his cutter and his hammer 12-6 curveball.  Sabathia can do the same with his cutter and either his slider or changeup.  CC’s two offspeed pitches have not been hit as hard this year as his fastballs.  His slider is unhittable for a left handed batter, as it dives away from the bat.  His changeup is his main weapon versus righties.  It may have lost velocity, but CC’s changeup still disguises itself as a fat fastball before the hitter realizes that it is a slow changeup.  This combination of 2-Seamers, cutters, and finally an offspeed pitch is a formula to get hitters out.

CC Sabathia will never be the pitcher he once was, pounding the zone at 95 mph, peppering devastating sliders and changeups in just to toy with the batter before gassing him, a formula that won him a  Cy Young in 2007.  But Sabathia can be a productive back-end of the rotation piece, much like his close friend Andy Pettitte was before him. If Sabathia can produce a .500 season with a 4.60 ERA, he is more or less an average AL 5th starter.  While the Yankees are paying for the ace Sabathia, they will have to take what they can get: a watered-down but still effective southpaw, capable of winning games.

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