With so much uncertainty in the Yankees rotation, CC Sabathia has become an important figure. If the Yankees are to contend in a tough AL East, they need more than just Masahiro Tanaka to perform on the mound, and another strong, 30-start season from Sabathia could be crucial.
Much has been made of Sabathia's success suppressing hard contact and generating weak batted balls. His 2016 average exit velocity of 85.3 mph was genuinely elite, placing him among the best in the majors. This probably represents Sabathia's best avenue to success: pitching less towards generating swings and misses and trying to generate weak batted balls.
Sabathia appears to have acknowledged that this is his primary route to effective pitching. He no longer has the fastball that made him dominant earlier in his career, and Sabathia pitched like he has come to grips with that fact. After absolutely pounding the zone with his fastball in his younger years, Sabathia threw pitches in the strike zone just 44.1% of the time 2016, the second lowest rate of his career, down from over 55% a decade ago in Cleveland (data courtesy of FanGraphs). This is corrobrated by Baseball Prospectus' called strike probability, in which ranked Sabathia 64th out of 74 qualified starters.
That helped ensure that Sabathia's walk and strikeout rates in 2016 were among the worst of his career. The difference between his strikeout and walk rates was a below average 11.3%, the lowest figure he's posted since his early-twenties with Cleveland. But blowing pitches by opposing batters wasn't the plan for Sabathia last year: pitching carefully and generating weak contact was. How can he do that again?
First, Sabathia demonstrated great command in 2016. BP's called strikes above average (CSAA), a proxy for command, ranked Sabathia 6th among qualified starters at 1.8%. This means that Sabathia was excellent at generating extra strikes on the edges of the zone.
Moreover, much of Sabathia's gains last season were due to hugely improved performance against righties. Even as he's aged, Sabathia has remained excellent against left-handed hitters. He held lefties to a .154/.290/.280 line in 2014, and a .183/.237/.279 line in 2015. It's against right-handers that Sabathia has declined most. In 2015, opposing righties hit .304/.363/.502 against Sabathia, essentially the line that NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager posted last year.
Yet in 2016, he held righties to a .258/.325/.400 line, close to his career averages of .254/.314/.398. He did this by slightly increasing his strikeout rate versus righties from 16.2% to 18.6% in 2016, but most of his improvement was borne out on batted balls. His groundball rate versus righties was a career-high 50.5%, his HR/FB% fell from 18.2% in 2015 to 12.6% in 2016, while his hard contact rate versus righties plummeted and soft contact rate soared.
Most of Sabathia's improvement on batted balls came against right-handers, a development that can almost certainly be traced to the introduction of his cutter. According to Brooks Baseball, Sabathia threw just 16 four-seam fastballs to righties, instead using a cutter 851 times, or 36.9% of his pitches against RHH's. The plan clearly seemed to be to pound right-handers inside with his cutter:
That plan worked. While right-handers still teed off on Sabathia's four-seam and two-seam fastballs, as they typically have in recent years, they could only muster a .222 batting average and .362 slugging against his cutter. The pitch also seemed to play off well with his slider. After raking to a .349 average against Sabathia's slider in 2015, righties batted just .193 with a .229 slugging against the pitch in 2016.
So, to emulate his 2016 success, it appears Sabathia must continue to accept that he can't stay in the zone like he used to, and that he must live more on the edges in order to steal strikes and produce weak contact. He has to attack right-handers with his cutter, and maintain a deep repertoire in order to keep hitters guessing about what is coming. Against right-handers, Sabathia used his changeup, slider, sinker, and cutter all between 14% and 37% of the time. Keeping hitters in the dark about what pitch is on the way is a decent way to stay unpredictable and decrease the odds of a barreled ball.
Where would a successful 2017 leave Sabathia and the Yankees in 2018? Nikhil discussed this earlier in the offseason, noting that the Yankee rotation is quite empty moving forward, and with Sabathia a fan of living in New York and approaching some career milestones, he may have interest in returning. If Sabathia can put together another good year in 2017, it could behoove the Yankees to bring back Sabathia on a short-term deal.
At age-37, anything beyond one or two years would be fool-hardy, but a one-year deal at a decent salary would seem reasonable if Sabathia is again effective in 2017. Fellow over-the-hill starters like Bartolo Colon and RA Dickey each just signed one-year deals worth between $8 and $12.5 million after a run of about average or slightly better performances. Something in a similar vein could make sense for Sabathia if he can keep it together again in 2017.
There is certainly an element of luck in Sabathia's weak contact tendencies, and at his age, a sudden drop in performance wouldn't be shocking. But he has proven that he can still be an effective pitcher, and there is a blueprint for him to follow to do it again. If the Yankees are to steal a Wild Card spot or make a run at the AL East, they probably need another 180 innings of quality from Sabathia.