Sabermetric Outlook: CC Sabathia
By Matt Hunter
We get to talk about pitching today! Specifically, New York Yankees’ starting pitcher, CC Sabathia. Finally. To be honest, I was getting tired of doing these posts for hitters. It’s fun to look at batted ball types and plate discipline and all that, but sabermetric pitching statistics are just so much more interesting. Batters really only have to make one choice – swing or don’t swing – but pitchers have almost unlimited choices with every pitch – vertical location, horizontal location, velocity, and spin are just some of them.
And that all happens before the ball gets to the batter. Then there’s the fun task of deciding how to evaluate the pitcher’s performance. Strikeouts, walks, and home runs are certainly under the pitcher’s control, but what about the other balls in play? Should we blame a pitcher when an outfielder can’t get to a fly ball in time? What about an infield single? Whereas batters face different defenses all the time, a pitcher has, for the most part, one defense behind him. If it’s a good defense, those balls in play are going to turn into outs, but if not, they’ll be hits and the pitcher’s ERA will suffer. So for CC Sabathia and the rest of the pitchers I’ll be writing about, we not only have to look at their pitches, but determine how much the results should be credited to them. It’s a tough task, but if you’re up for it, so am I. Let’s jump in.
If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to first check out the primer that I wrote for this series, which outlines some of the most important statistics that I’ll employ in this post and others. If you’re unfamiliar with sabermetrics, or you’re not sure about a particular statistic I mention, check out that post (if you still don’t understand, please leave a comment below or email me and I’d be happy to help).
You may also notice that I’m also skipping left field and DH. Since the Yankees have used so many different players to fill those spots, most of whom are temporary pieces, I figured analyzing them sabermetrically just wouldn’t be that exciting. If you really want me to cover Raul Ibanez or Andruw Jones let me know and I’ll write up a post for one or both of them.
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Let’s start with the sabermetric basics. These are the stats that I look at first whenever I’m examining a pitcher, and give you a pretty good sense of a pitcher’s performance right off the bat.
Sabathia’s peripherals (from K% to GB%) look pretty good. His strikeout and walk rates are better than his career numbers, which is impressive given normal pitcher aging curves. However, Sabathia’s home run rate is up, and is actually the highest of his career. He is still getting a lot of ground balls, though, so the main reason for this elevated home run rate is a high home run per fly ball rate.
The “luck factors” (the next three) all show Sabathia to be getting a little unlucky this season. His BABIP is slightly above career levels, and he is stranding fewer runners than usual. But as I said above, the HR/FB% has been the biggest detriment for Sabathia so far. One might think that the career number for this stat is lower than it should be because he wasn’t pitching in Yankee Stadium until 3 years ago, but his HR/FB% has actually been about the same in New York as it was in Cleveland.
The slight bad luck for Sabathia can be seen in his various pitching metrics (the last 4). His ERA is higher than his FIP because of the BABIP and LOB% – that is, more balls in play are turning into hits and more runners are scoring than average. His FIP is higher than his xFIP and SIERA because of the high HR/FB%.
I put “luck factors” in quotes above because it is not always clear whether they are actually luck or under the pitcher’s control. For a less seasoned pitcher with less innings under his belt, I would be less inclined to attribute a bad BABIP or HR/FB to bad luck, but because Sabathia has been around for so long, we have a pretty good idea of what those numbers should look like.
Because of this, Sabathia has probably been pitching closer to his FIP than his ERA, and the difference is due to bad luck and/or bad defense. Although his HR/FB is high, he has still given up the home runs, and deserves blame for them. However, we shouldn’t expect this elevated home run rate to continue because of his high ground ball rate. As long as Sabathia is keeping the ball on the ground, the home runs will slow down, and his ERA will move closer to his xFIP and SIERA.
I know I’ve written a lot of words so far, but I want to also quickly look at some of Sabathia’s pitch selection and velocity numbers, mostly just because I find that kind of stuff interesting.
There are two main conclusions to draw from this table. First, Sabathia’s fastball velocity has decreased pretty significantly from last year and his career. It’s normal for fastball velocity to have a pretty steep downward slope as pitchers get into their early to mid-thirties, but a 1.5 MPH drop is a little disconcerting. It’s possible that Sabathia’s various injuries are part of the reason for this drop, so hopefully that number will increase in September and next year.
The other thing that jumps out is CC’s increased slider usage. This might be related to the lower fastball velocity, but Sabathia is throwing the slider more than he ever has before. This is a trend that will probably continue as he transitions, like countless other pitchers have, from being a power to a finesse pitcher. It’s encouraging to see positive results from Sabathia despite the different pitch selection, indicating to me that he’ll have to problem making this transition.
CC Sabathia has gotten a little unlucky this season, but he looks to be pitching just as well as usual. As he gets older, his fastball velocity is decreasing, but he is already taking steps to adjust, throwing more sliders and curveballs instead of fastballs and changeups. If he can continue to adjust well to this transition from a finesse rather than a power pitcher, Sabathia should be very valuable to the Yankees for years to come. And the Yankees sure hope that I’m right, because he’s being paid the big bucks for four more years.