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Has Joe Girardi made the right choice with CC Sabathia in Game 5?

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The Yankees are starting CC Sabathia, not Sonny Gray, with their season on the line. Is that the right call?

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Two Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

For the second time in as many weeks, the Yankees' season comes down to one game. After dropping a pair in Cleveland in crushing fashion, the Yankees have evened the series with the Indians and forced a pivotal Game 5. At the conclusion of a series that has seen Joe Girardi become the focus of intense scrutiny, the manager will turn to the pitcher he trusts most in this do-or-die game. That, as we all expected, is CC Sabathia.

Girardi announced before the Yankees' Game 4 win in the Bronx that if the ALDS shifted back to Ohio, Sabathia would be the one to start, rather than their high-profile midseason trade acquisition Sonny Gray. It's not surprising to see Girardi lose trust in a pitcher; he clearly (and understandably) doesn't trust Dellin Betances, showed limited belief in holding Luis Severino back until Game 4, and now has seemingly lost confidence in Gray.

With Girardi's faith in Gray waning, has he made the right move in going with the Yankees' elder statesman? Let's break it down:

The Case for CC Sabathia

The reasons for starting Sabathia are straightforward, and stem from one question: What have you done for me lately? Sabathia has fared well over recent weeks, and Gray has not. Simple as that.

Gray's and Sabathia's top-level results have been drastically different over their past few starts. Here's how they've looked in each of their final three regular season starts, plus each of their postseason starts:

Sonny Gray vs. CC Sabathia

Player IP ERA K BB
Player IP ERA K BB
Gray 18 7.50 12 14
Sabathia 23 2.74 20 5

The difference is stark. Sabathia has gone relatively deep into games, owns a strong strikeout-to-walk ratio, and just hasn't given up many runs. Gray has gotten knocked around, bleeding runs and posting an ugly strikeout-to-walk ratio.

These results would seem to make the decision easy. Yet you, as a knowledgeable fan with a trained eye and an inclination toward critical thought, may ask, "This is such a small sample, could this just be random noise? Can we really be sure that Sabathia has pitched much better than Gray?".

The answer is yes, we can be sure Sabathia has been a lot better, while Gray has regressed. Gray succeeded throughout much of the year by generating strikeouts and grounders in bunches. Prior to his final three starts of the regular season, Gray posted a 54% groundball rate and a swinging strike rate of 12.3%, both well above league average. Since then, Gray has posted just a 41% groundball rate and 8% swinging strike rate.

Sabathia, on the other hand, has run a strong 11.2% swinging strike rate over his past four starts, compared to 8.5% previously. His groundball rate hasn't risen, but his hard-contact rate, per FanGraphs, has fallen to 20% over his past four starts, from 28% prior.

We can lean on Statcast to see further the divide between Sabathia's and Gray's performances. Baseball Savant's expected wOBA metric, which combines batted ball data with walks and strikeouts to estimate the wOBA a pitcher "should" have allowed, really confirms how hard Gray has been hit. He's run a .404 expected wOBA over his last four starts, meaning Gray has made the hitters he's faced look, on average, like Jose Altuve. Sabathia's expected wOBA figure has been .320, or the same wOBA as posted by Ryon Healy and Kendrys Morales in 2017.

It's clear, whether by pure results or more rigorous metrics, that Sabathia has been good lately, and Gray has gotten crushed. That's why Sabathia is Girardi's choice in Game 5.

The Case for Sonny Gray

Starting Gray would require more abstract reasoning. It's easier to say Player X has been playing much better than Player Y lately, therefore, the choice is Player X. It's harder to look past recent struggles and put more stock in Gray's pedigree as a pitcher.

Gray's case rests on two facts. For one, he's a better, more able pitcher than Sabathia. Secondly, a pitcher's most recent starts are not a surefire indicator of what he'll do next.

The last month notwithstanding, Gray is better than Sabathia. Gray had 2.8 fWAR in 2017, compared to Sabathia's 1.9. Gray had 4.2 WARP compared to Sabathia's 1.7. Gray strikes out more batters and gets more groundballs. Gray throws harder (and hasn't seen a velocity dip that corresponds with his late-season slump), and has more impressive secondary stuff. Gray is in his prime, while Sabathia is 37. It's obvious who you would want for a full season going forward.

The fact that we're looking at one game and not a full season complicates matters. Still, we must grapple with the idea that just because Gray has been worse recently doesn't guarantee that he would be bad tonight.

For example, Gray gave up 13 runs over 22 innings over his first four starts of 2017. He had a 4.88 FIP. He was struggling. In his next start, he gave up three hits and one run over seven innings, striking out 11. Across three starts between June 10th and June 12th, Gray had a 5.51 ERA. He had a 1.33 ERA over his next four starts. Gray, like all pitchers, has run hot and cold at times this year, with the hot and cold streaks never really showing much predictability.

So while it's simple to say that Sabathia has been good lately and Gray has been bad lately, that is no guarantee that Sabathia will be good and that Gray will be bad. Gray is the more talented pitcher, and though it can be scary to bet on talent when that talent is struggling, you can make a cogent case that Gray's ability should make him the Game 5 starter.

Clearly, this is a difficult choice for Girardi, and I haven't even touched on the various strategies he has at his employ beyond merely starting Sabathia or Gray. He could use them in tandem, asking each of them to toss two or three frames before turning to the bullpen. He could ask Sabathia for five and then ask Gray to throw as hard as he can for one inning. Heck, Sabathia could last one out, Girardi could go to the bullpen in the first, and the Yankees might still win.

It's a fascinating quandary created by the odd shape of the postseason schedule, and it only heightens the intrigue as the Yankees’ season comes down to the wire again. Both Gray and Sabathia are legitimate choices for Game 5, and in a one-game scenario, literally anything can happen. With any luck, what does happen will result in more Yankee baseball, this time in the ALCS.