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Explaining CC Sabathia’s Great Start To The 2017 Season
- Updated: April 19, 2017
Last season when CC Sabathia brought his ERA back into the 3s for the first time since 2012, there was hope that he had bounced back. In 2016, Sabathia posted a 3.91 ERA in 179.2 innings. While not an impressive number by any stretch, it gave the New York Yankees hope that Sabathia had finally started to figure out how to pitch effectively with his velocity dwindling. Heading into the final year of Sabathia’s huge contract, the expectation for Sabathia was to be a solid third starter and simply provide stability in a shaky rotation. Many assumed best case scenario would be another season with a 3 ERA, with it probably around the 3.75 area.
Instead, Sabathia has come out of the gates strongly. In his first three starts, the big lefty is 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA. Astonishingly, the former Cy Young winner looks better than he has in years. His ERA is impressive currently, but the way he looks on the mound gives one confidence that this might be more than a hot start. That is not to say that his ERA will remain beneath 2, but it is to say that Sabathia looks as if he could be a top 10 starter within the AL East. His confidence looks to be better and there is slightly more zip on his fastball. Thus far in the season, Sabathia has been the best pitcher in the rotation.
Pitching Deeper Into Games
A constant problem for the Yankees in recent seasons has been the starters’ inability to pitch deep into games. Masahiro Tanaka has been the exception to that standard, however, Sabathia certainly was a part of that problem. Sabathia average less than 6 innings per start last season, which meant the bullpen would normally have to pitch four innings of relief during his starts. This also explains why his ERA seemed a bit high for how well he was pitching.
In 2017, Sabathia has been pitching deeper into games. His first outing only lasted 5 innings, but his next two went at least a full inning beyond that. In fact, CC was the first Yankees starter to throw a pitch in the sixth inning. Sabathia has 18.1 innings pitched in his three starts. If Sabathia can pitch consistently through 6 innings, that will be a massive help to the bullpen.
Mixing His Pitches
When Sabathia was in his prime, he relied on his overpowering fastball to get batters out. Before 2016, Sabathia would throw his fastball a heavy majority of the time. The lowest percentage of fastballs thrown in a season for Sabathia prior to 2o16 was 54%, coming in 2012. In that season, his average velocity on his fastball was 92.4 mph. For a left-handed pitcher, that is pretty good. Last season, Sabathia finally adjusted his pitching style to make up for the dropping velocity. Dropping his fastball percentage drastically from the season prior, Sabathia only relied on his fastball 34.4% of his total pitches. In the previous season, Sabathia was at 56.3%.
The problem with Sabathia was never his dropping velocity. To be frank, velocity is an added bonus to pitcher, but not a necessity. Greg Maddux is considered one of the best pitchers of this past generation and he did not throw an overpowering fastball. Sabathia’s problem for the past few seasons was that he still relied on his fastball as if it still had the same velocity as his younger years. This season, Sabathia has thrown much more offspeed pitches than usual. In his three starts, Sabathia has thrown his fastball 32.9%, slider 29.3%, and cutter 28.6% of the time. Rather than trying to dominate hitters, Sabathia is relying on keeping them off-balanced.
Weak Contact Over Strikeouts
While he has been very successful thus far, CC Sabathia is not striking waves of hitters out. In 18.1 innings pitched, the lefty only has 11 strikeouts. He has given up more hits (12) than he has struck out batters. Normally, this would mean to sound the alarms and wait for doom. However, Sabathia has been pitching to contact and it has been paying off. A major part of that is from his increased variety in pitch selection. His ability to keep hitters off-balanced is a large reason why they are not hitting the ball squarely off of him.
As of right now, 72.7% of the balls put in play against Sabathia have not been hit squarely. Sabathia is preventing batters from hitting the ball strongly off of him. With the Yankees’ defense being a good one, allowing hitters to put balls in play is not a bad thing. Perhaps Joe Girardi’s shifting prevents it from being the best thing, but that is an argument for a different time. Even with his opposing line drive percentage up (29.6% compared to his career average of 20.5%), the exit velocity of the ball is down. These line drives are falling into gloves rather than finding the ground (or bleachers).
Pounding the Zone; Forcing Hitters to Swing at His Pitch
As a batter, you are taught to look for “your pitch” to hit when at the plate. Now, certain situations can alter that approach. But for the most part, hitters are not going to swing are what is not their pitch before two strikes (unless you are Starlin Castro). However, if a pitcher is commanding his pitches and pounding the strike zone, that changes things. Sabathia has been working in the zone during his first three starts. This is causing opposing batters to swing at pitches low in the zone. These pitches are considered the “pitcher’s pitches.” This would be another reason to why opposing batters are not squaring balls up against Sabathia. If they have to swing at balls in the zone that might not be their ideal pitch, then there is going to be less solid contact as a result.
Can CC Sabathia Keep This Up?
At his current rate? No. CC Sabathia will not finish the season with a Cy Young caliber year. It is always possible, but I would safely bet against that. However, can Sabathia post his best season since 2012? Yes. To go even further than that, I believe Sabathia can perform so well this season that he will be in All-Star selection contention. Sabathia has seemed to figure out how to pitch without an overpowering fastball. He learned this ability in late 2015 and got better at it last year. Now, he seems to have almost mastered it. The lack of strikeouts will hurt the big lefty, but not to the point where it will ruin his season. To go a step further, I believe that Sabathia will finish in the top 15 of ERA among AL starting pitchers. If this is his last season in pinstripes, here’s hoping that it is one last good season.
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