One of the most pressing cases for optimism in the early goings of 2017 has been the pitching performance of CC Sabathia. After a surprisingly solid 2016, Sabathia entered the final year of his contract with the expectation he would be an innings-eater with slightly below-league-average performance. Instead, in his first two starts of the season, he’s been nothing less than the best pitcher in the rotation. The trick? His ability to sustain soft contact and ground balls.
CC’s success in 2016 was largely driven by a change in approach. As his velocity declined from the upper 90s to the 90-92 mph range, he has abandoned the strikeouts in favour of inducing contact, albeit predictable contact. Per FanGraphs, Sabathia has generated soft contact on 30.6% of batted balls in 2017, which is up from a 24% mark in 2016, his highest in 6 seasons. Sample size caveats apply, of course, but CC has also worked a ground ball rate of 45.7% in 2017, below his 2016 mark but above his career average.
This combination leads to, in theory, easy outs without a high pitch count. Batters slash .239/.239/.258 on ground balls, compared to .255/.255/389 on all balls in play, meaning that when pitchers can keep balls on the ground, they’re converted to outs more often, and even when they become hits, the batter stays at first base. One of the best ways to induce this is through pitching to the corners.
Against lefties, you can see that CC has prioritized pitches up and in, and down and away. This passes the logic and eye tests: any contact made with these pitches is going to be weak off the handle of the bat, or the batter will be off balance to reach a pitch away. You can see the same effect with the RHB heat map, albeit more pronounced with the away pitches.
The big question with any changes to a pitcher is, how sustainable is it? Some detractors would point to the delta between CC’s ERA (3.91) and FIP (4.26) last season, roughly a third of a run, as evidence that this approach won’t be successful for long. My argument would be that most ground ball pitchers outperform their FIP. Kendall Graveman (4.11/4.39), Aaron Sanchez (3.00/3.55), Masahiro Tanaka (3.07/3.51), and the late Yordano Ventura (4.45/4.59) are all examples of pitchers that have outperformed FIP by inducing higher-than-average GB% and soft contact, ensuring balls in play are converted to outs.
The second reason to believe Sabathia’s new approach may be sustainable is a three-year trend in declining BABIP. In 2014, CC’s BABIP was an unsightly .350 (in 8 starts), followed by .317 and .288 in 2015 and 2016, respectively. In his two starts in 2017 Sabathia has worked a .250 BABIP, which can be expected to rise somewhat, but with a good infield defense (and make no mistake, Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius are very good defenders), it’s easy to anticipate this trend continuing.
The final reason to believe in this new CC is the quality of opponents he’s faced in 2017. In 2016 the Rays and Orioles were first and second in the AL respectively in FB%, while both finishing in the top four in home runs. Posting an above-average GB% against either team, much less both, shows that the approach Sabathia’s moving forward with appears to be working, and could very well carry all season.
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs