CC Sabathia's contributions to the Yankees' 2017 campaign cannot be understated. He's been the rock of the Yankees' rotation, the guy you count on to snap a losing streak and build momentum. Sure, his 10-0 record following a Yankee loss holds no predictive power, but it was still a thing that happened this season. His presence has been absolutely crucial to this year's Yankees and their unlikely postseason run.
What I'd like to focus on today is his two most recent postseason starts, namely Game 5 of the ALDS and Game 3 of the ALCS. In the former start, against the Indians, CC was absolutely unhittable until he wasn't, racking up nine strikeouts before he was chased by four consecutive singles in the 5th inning. To see him go from “holy [censored] 2009 CC is back” to “he can't get anybody out pull him PULL HIM NOW” was bizarre, but ultimately CC did his part to win the game.
ALCS Game 3 CC was a different animal. At no point did he look as dominant as he did in Game 3, but he missed the barrels of the Astro's bats all night long, keeping the ball in the park and denying them of hard contact for the most part. He ended up throwing six shutout innings, giving the Yankees some crucial length after they had used both Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson for multiple innings in Game 2. It was, all told, a stellar performance from the 37-year-old.
What explains the difference between these two starts? As I am wont to do, I looked at CC's pitch usage, and lo and behold, there it was. In ALDS Game 5, CC relied heavily on his slider, throwing it 34 times out of 69 total pitches. In fact, it was his most slider-heavy start of the year. In contrast, CC's ALCS Game 3 start featured a boatload of cutters - 42 out of 99 pitches, to be exact. This seems to denote a change in approach on Sabathia's part.
CC's slider has been his money pitch throughout his career, and he's used it, along with his changeup, to generate whiffs. It did exactly that in ALDS Game 5, garnering seven swings and misses. The fact that he threw the slider nearly half of the time in that start suggests that CC was consciously going for a strikeout-heavy approach.
On the other hand, CC's cutter has been a relatively new addition to his arsenal. After the demise of his fastball, it's been his bread and butter. He's used it to generate weak contact by locating it inside to right handed hitters, thereby jamming them on their hands. On Monday night, his cutter worked beautifully against a potent Astros lineup. While it only generated one swing and miss, CC was able to induce four outs in play on the pitch, along with plenty of called strikes. His usage suggests that CC was willing to trade some strikeouts for weak contact, and it worked like a peach.
So, why the sudden change in approach? My theory is that CC was pitching to the occasion. ALDS Game 5 was a do-or-die game, which meant that Girardi had all the weapons in the bullpen at his ready. In other words, he was only looking for CC to get through 4 or 5 innings. With that knowledge in mind, CC opted for a slider-heavy strategy in order to avoid contact and generate strikeouts. That approach was never meant to last him 6-7 innings - you can't really throw 50% sliders and expect to get through a major league lineup more than twice. But it worked long enough, and Girardi had the sense to pull him just when things were beginning to get out of hand. All in all, it was a successful gamble.
ALCS Game 3 was a different situation. Having used both Kahnle and Robertson for two innings each in Game 2, Girardi's bullpen options were somewhat limited. Add to that the fact that the Yankees needed to win four more games, and it was clear that CC was going to have to provide some length. By reverting to his usual modus operandi and utilizing the cutter, CC was able to do just that.
CC Sabathia's consistency, especially after tough losses, has helped the Yankees get to where they are now. How he's done it, however, has varied greatly from start to start. CC's cunning, craftiness, and willingness to adapt to new styles of pitching is why he's found success after his post-2013 decline. On the biggest stage, those features have shone even brighter.