CC Sabathia is coming off the worst season of his career by far. The strikeout rate (19.3%) was down, the walk rate (7.2%) was slightly up and the HR/9 was over 1 for the first time in his career. It all added up to a 4.78 ERA, 4.10 FIP, and 2.7 fWAR. With Andy Pettitte retiring and question marks surrounding Masahiro Tanaka (new league/team), Hiroki Kuroda (age), Ivan Nova (inconsistency), and Michael Pineda (shoulder surgery), the Yankees desperately needed Sabathia to rebound this season. Especially since he is still due $23 million per year through 2015, $25 million in 2016, and a vesting option for the 2017 season. Sabathia has made some notable changes in the early going. Here’s a look at how Sabathia has done so far:
Pitch Selection: The biggest difference through 4 starts and 26 innings is the drastic reduction in his 4-seam fastball usage. Sabathia used 60% fastballs in 2009. It hovered around 40% from 2010-13. This year? All the way down to 18.5%. Most of that decrease in fastball usage has gone to an increase in sinker usage. Sabathia is up to 31.7% sinker usage, almost twice as much as any previous year. There is also a slight uptick in changeup usage (25.6%) which is more than in any previous year. The increased changeup% is likely a product of facing 97 righties and only 12 lefties thus far. The increased sinker usage, however, appears to be a concerted effort to get more movement as the velocity on the four-seamer has dropped from 94.1 MPH in 2009 to 89.6 MPH in 2014 (although it is only April and velocity tends to tick up as the season wears on). The change from 4-seamers to sinkers is substantial.
Location/hitters’ plate discipline: Through 4 starts Sabathia is throwing more pitches in the strike zone than in past years. 51.0% of his pitches are in the zone, slightly up from the past few years. Hitters are also swinging at fewer of Sabathia’s offerings both in the zone (58.4%) and overall (45.1%) than his career averages. The rest of the plate discipline metrics (out of zone swing %, out of zone contact, in zone contact) are pretty much in-line with career norms. It’s still very early and any deviations could be due to small sample sizes. However, these process-based measures tend to stabilize earlier than the results-based ones.
Results: Sabathia’s strikeout rate (24.8%) and walk rate (4.6%) are fairly different from his career norm. These numbers will certainly regress some. However, the 2.08 HR/9 and hilarious 31.6% HR/FB will also regress for the better. Sabathia is probably not quite this good at commanding the strike zone, but he’s also not this bad at surrendering gopher balls. The 54.5% ground ball% holds some stock as we know about the increased sinker usage and the fact that it tends to stabilize fairly quickly (just 70 balls in play). The days of 7 WAR CC Sabathia are probably over, but a 3-4 win pitcher is well within reason.
The hitter’s plate discipline and Sabathia’s results will certainly change as the season progresses, but the unfamiliar pitch mix is likely here to stay. Mike Mussina and David Cone made the necessary adjustments to continue to succeed into their mid-to-late 30s. Sabathia looks to be doing the same and that’s great for the Yankees.
All metrics from Pitchf/x on fangraphs.com