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CC Sabathia was baseball’s best starter in one important aspect of the game

The big lefty used a particular skill to lead his 2016 resurgence.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

From 2006 to 2012, there may not have been a better pitcher in baseball than CC Sabathia. Over that period, only one other hurler accrued more fWAR, and the 6’6” hurler was a workhorse in the purest sense. Then, Sabathia stumbled and fell, with three injury-plagued seasons, headlined by a declining fastball, off-the-field problems, and a combined ERA of 4.81. Going into last season, Sabathia’s future was in peril because of a serious knee injury and his spot in the Yankees’ rotation up in the air by the end of spring training. Yet, somehow, he turned in his best performance since 2012, throwing 179.2 innings of 3.91 ERA ball.

The resurgent season left many wondering how Sabathia managed to bounce back in such a big way, and the answer appears to be hiding in plain sight: batters simply didn’t hit the ball hard off him. It sounds obvious, but Sabathia’s ability to manage contact was quite possibly better than any other pitcher in baseball, and is the biggest single reason for his surprising success.

While the answer to how Sabathia managed to limit hard contact is up in the air, the efficacy of his adjustments is without question. The best statistics to gauge a pitcher’s skill in inducing soft contact are, naturally, soft and hard contact rates, as well as average exit velocity and line drive rate. These metrics tell you about all there is to know about Sabathia’s 2015 and 2016, when it comes to how ‘hard’ his pitches were hit.

Year Average Exit Velocity Soft Contact Rate Hard Contact Rate Line Drive Rate
Year Average Exit Velocity Soft Contact Rate Hard Contact Rate Line Drive Rate
2015 88.1 mph (62nd) 16.5% (68th) 29.1% (52nd) 21.7% (49th)
2016 85.3 mph (1st) 24% (2nd) 24.7% (2nd) 16.9% (3rd)

The primary drivers of Sabathia’s success weren’t the normal suspects, such as strikeouts, walks, or simply luck, but instead his ability to keep hard contact to a minimum throughout the season. Being able to retain this talent will be key to his success in 2017 and beyond, so the question shifts from what he did last season to improve to how he managed to stifle hard-hit balls. Figuring out what drove the drastic change in outcomes for Sabathia should answer just how sustainable his 2016 rebound was.

Perhaps the most obvious adjustment for Sabathia was his repertoire, which has been slowly evolving to better fit his new talent level (less velocity, more pitchability) over the past few years. He finally found a mix that worked in 2016, essentially trading a four-seamer for a cutter. While the cutter works about two miles per hour slower than the four-seamer, that’s still above average velocity for a southpaw, and what Sabathia gained in movement more than made up for his loss in speed. An easy-to-hit heater was turned into a pitch with far more action, making it more challenging to square up and, you guessed it, make hard contact on.

Pitch Percent Usage Batting Average Slugging Percentage
Pitch Percent Usage Batting Average Slugging Percentage
Cutter (2016) 31.60% 0.224 0.367
Four-seam (2015) 28.30% 0.300 0.467

Sabathia also saw his slider and sinker increase in effectiveness last season, with the slider in particular reemerging as a weapon, as its slugging percentage again plummeted from .430 to .283. There isn’t a clear answer to why that happened—his usage, movement, and location of the pitch was consistent with past years—though the introduction of the cutter could be keeping batters from sitting on his other plus offering. Sabathia’s sinker improvement is more obvious: he commanded it better in 2016, keeping it down and outside (to right-handed hitters).

The superior command for Sabathia could come from health and the new knee brace he adopted last offseason, which has allowed him to keep two solid fastballs—the sinker and cutter—in his repertoire while playing off it with a plus slider and decent enough changeup.

Talk of refined command may appear contradictory given Sabathia’s 8.5% walk rate (his highest since 2004), but this increase may be an intentional move. Sabathia’s no longer shying away from the walk when down a strike, rather than striking to force a pitch into the zone and giving up a big hit. He may be walking more as a result, but the 36-year-old’s slugging percentage against has still managed to fall from .505 to .436.

Sabathia changed as a pitcher in several different parts of the game last season—improved command, altered approach, and evolved repertoire—all of which contributing to his newfound ability to limit hard contact. Assuming his grasp on that cutter remains steady in 2017, and he can continue to command the sinker, Sabathia can expect his soft-contact tendencies to continue next season.

There may be some regression if his unexpectedly effective slider returns to its old ways. Provided that he’s healthy though, Sabathia should continue to be elite in limiting hard contact, something that will allow him to be a solid starter in what looks to be his final year with the Yankees.