Why the New and Improved CC Sabathia is Here to Stay

New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Yankee Stadium. (Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports Images)
Following his third straight quality start, CC Sabathia is finally pitching with confidence again.

A league-average 5th starter in the AL East isn’t expected to do much. Maybe a .500 record, a 4.40 ERA, and 160 innings is acceptable for such a low-leverage spot.

CC Sabathia came into the 2016 season expected to be just that, a league-average AL East 5th starter, despite his excellent track record and near $25 million salary.

But so far, the 6’6″, 300 lb southpaw has been even more than that for the Yankees. In fact, he’s pitched like the team’s ace since the last year’s All-Star Break.

Since then, he has pitched 19 games and gone 5-5 with a 3.33 ERA and 108.3 innings pitched (about 185 IP over a full season). What exactly has Sabathia changed, and is it here to last?

CC’s struggles have been well-documented. The former AL Cy Young Award winner had collectively put up a 23-27 record with a 4.82 ERA and 1.40 WHIP over his last three seasons before this year, numbers hardly reminiscent of the former ace.

But things have changed for the hefty lefty this year, and the changes finally look sustainable. Through 7 starts, Sabathia is 3-3 with a 2.83 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. He has lost even more velocity off of his fastball, but his willingness to pitch like a crafty lefty and not a power pitcher has helped Sabathia convert into not just a league-average 5th starter, but possibly a middle-of-the-rotation horse again.

I wrote about CC last year after seeing him dominate the Seattle Mariners in July of last year, surmising that, “This combination of 2-Seamers, cutters, and finally an offspeed pitch is a formula to get hitters out.”

After years of despair and attempting to pitch the way he always had, Sabathia has finally accepted that times have changed and that he needs to adapt to the above strategy. For the first time ever, Sabathia is throwing his 2-seam fastball and new cut fastball significantly more than his 4-seamer, which has become as rare as a blue moon this season.

While he is only averaging 88 mph on his new fastballs, he is limiting hard contact. His sinker has produced a ton of ground balls, and his cutter bears in on righties enough to break bats and miss the sweet spot. Sabathia in the past had still thrown his waning 4-seamer the most, and it was hammered like a batting practice fastball. Now that he has added this movement, he has been reborn.

This in turn has made CC’s offspeed pitches sharper. His sweeping slider and dynamite changeup had been hit harder than usual when he was struggling, but are now only being hit at a .172 and .207 clip, respectively. Sabathia himself has noticed the impact that his changeup has had.

“It’s just pounding the strike zone… Changeup has gotten a lot better over the past couple of weeks.”

“I want to continue to keep building and getting better.”

His changeup has reduced in speed from 86 mph to about 83 this year, but that is actually preferable thanks to Sabathia’s diminished fastball. The fact that he has kept a 6-8 mph difference between his fastball and changeup is keeping that pitch relevant as a strikeout offering.

The same thing has also happened to CC’s slider. It too has dropped from about 81 mph to 78 mph, but Sabathia is using it more precisely than ever before.

For CC Sabathia to remain a starter in this league, he had to adapt the way in which he pitched. And finally, after 3 down years and a trip to alcohol rehab, the Yankees’ horse is back to  his old dominating self. If Sabathia keeps up with this style of pitching, he may be able to salvage the last two years of his Yankee contract.

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