One of the first moves the Yankees made this winter was re-signing CC Sabathia. It speaks well of the 18-year veteran that the team moved so quickly to ensure that he would stick around for one more season. Though one final campaign appears to be all Sabathia has left, if 2018 was any indication, Sabathia should be capable of helping the Yankees win all the way to the end.
Sabathia rejuvenated his career back in 2016, when he embraced his physical decline and remade himself into a new, finesse pitcher. He fully committed to his identity as a soft-tossing command artist this year, and he had possibly his finest season since his days as an ace.
2018 Statistics: 153 IP, 3.65 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 1.314 WHIP
2019 Contract Status: Signed a one-year, $8 million contract for 2019
In many ways, 2018 was simply a repeat of 2016 and 2017 for Sabathia. He still was throwing about 90 mph, he still was getting hitters out by keeping them off balance and using pinpoint command. His ERA was within four points of where it was in 2017.
Yet from a different viewpoint, Sabathia was perhaps better this year than at any other point post-2012. Per FanGraphs, his adjusted FIP figure was its lowest of the past six seasons. His strikeout rate of 21% was the highest it has been in the past four seasons. This is likely due to the fact that Sabathia posted his highest swinging strike rate (10.8%) since 2012.
How Sabathia was able to do this might have to do with deception. Consider this chart, courtesy of FanGraphs, that I also posted last week in assessing Sabathia’s chances of producing yet again in 2019:
This depicts the rate at which opposing hitters have offered at pitches outside the zone versus Sabathia against the rate at which Sabathia has stayed in the strike zone over the past three seasons. That Sabathia was able to deceive hitters and induce more out of zone swings than ever before last year is an excellent sign. It enabled him to post that increased strikeout rate, and it bodes well for next season, as it indicates Sabathia was more deceptive this year, and that opposing hitters are not growing wiser to Sabathia’s finesse game.
Sabathia’s added deception had him riding high for most of the season. Through the first three months, Sabathia was outstanding, posting a 3.05 ERA in 15 starts across 83 innings. Sabathia’s second half was less effective, however, leading some to question whether he had worn down.
A closer examination of the numbers indicates there’s probably little to this. Before the All-Star Break, Sabathia held hitters to a .726 OPS and struck out 77 batters in 100 innings. After? He posted a .696 OPS allowed and struck out 63 batters in 53 innings.
Moreover, here’s Sabathia’s cutter velocity start-by-start, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
Sabathia did see a couple of velocity scares in September starts, but he also had multiple down velocity nights early in the season as well. For the most part, Sabathia maintained his 89 to 90 mph velocity deep into the season, even spiking his velocity for his brief (and unfortunately poor) final start in the playoffs against the Red Sox.
That being said, even though the numbers don’t really suggest that Sabathia was much worse as 2018 drew to a close, at his age, a drop off at any point wouldn’t be unexpected. Sabathia is entering his age-38 season, and virtually any bad start he makes might be accompanied with whispers that age has finally caught up to him.
Making it to age 38 as such an effective pitcher, though, has to be considered an accomplishment for Sabathia. He was the Yankees’ third-most valuable starter in 2018, a feat that would have seemed unimaginable just three years ago. As Sabathia’s career nears a close, his 2018 campaign, as well as his entire Yankees tenure, should be looked upon with fondness.