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CC Sabathia’s resurgence is just what the Yankees needed

The Yankees left-hander has turned things around, and the rotation is better because of it.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

CC Sabathia dazzled on Wednesday night. Facing off against a resurgent Red Sox offense, the veteran southpaw tossed eight innings of shutout ball. He allowed just five hits without issuing a single walk. He was flat out dominant. In terms of Game Score, this represented his best outing since Game Five of the 2012 ALDS. Vintage Sabathia showed up in the Bronx.

This outing put an exclamation point on a stretch of seven impressive starts for the left-hander. Since May 3rd, Sabathia owns a 3.19 ERA with a 3.42 FIP. That’s a notable turnaround when compared to his work earlier this season. The difference is night and day.

CC Sabathia’s 2017 Breakdown

Dates Innings Pitched K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP
Dates Innings Pitched K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP
April 4 - 28 29.0 6.21 3.41 1.55 4.34 5.27
May 3 - June 7 42.1 8.08 2.55 0.85 3.19 3.42

In the span of a month, Sabathia improved across the board. His strikeouts went up while his walks and home run rate decreased. That’s quite the recipe for success. While it’s one thing to point out that he’s improved in these areas, examining why is far more interesting. In the case of Sabathia, location and pitch selection play a large role in his resurgence.

Earlier this season, Sabathia was burned by leaving too many pitches in the zone. This was especially noticeable in April. He lived around the middle of the plate. He wasn’t painting the corners or hitting the black. For most of the month, he pitched exclusively in the danger zone.

Given his diminished velocity, this ended poorly. Expanding beyond the heat map, a look at the pitch location of hits surrendered provides valuable context. Batters recognized pitches left in the zone and took advantage.

Once the calendar flipped to May, however, Sabathia began to improve his location. He avoided the middle of the zone, aiming instead for the edges of the plate. The contrast in maps is striking.

This could explain the dramatic decrease in his home run rate. It’s tough to hit a pitch on the black out of the park. Instead of squaring the ball up, batters are hitting them on the ground. Sabathia’s groundball rate notably increased from 43.8% in April to 52.5% over his next seven starts.

In addition to improving his location, Sabathia has refined his pitch selection over the last month or so. He’s abandoned the sinker in favor of a cutter and changeup. The cutter in particular has been effective at neutralizing right-handed batters. They’ve hit just .234/.286/.372 against Sabathia since May.

The story that Sabathia learned the cutter from Andy Pettitte is over-told. The results however, are anything but. In fact, the pitch has been the key to his renaissance. It’s allowed him to remain an effective starting pitch, one with marginal platoon splits. There’s no guarantee that Sabathia would still be in the rotation if he didn’t develop a feel for the cutter.

The least interesting, yet equally important, explanation for Sabathia’s turnaround is that he’s historically a slow starter. The southpaw never seems to have a strong opening to the season. He has a 4.28 ERA over 500 career innings in April and March. This season’s start is mostly in line with his career performance. For whatever reason, it takes a few outings to get the left-handed going. He tends to improve as the months go by, and it looks like this year is no exception.

Over the offseason we wondered if Sabathia could repeat his 2016 performance. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that his campaign was an outlier performance. Yet, a week into June, he owns a 3.66 ERA (4.17 FIP). While there’s still a long way to go, it’s fairly safe to say that the left-hander’s success is sustainable. Sabathia’s been reliable, and that’s exactly what the Yankees needed.