The Yankees have already made two significant signings this winter. They are, of course, merely re-signings, as they’ve brought both Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia back into the fold. The Sabathia domino fell Tuesday night, as he and the Yankees moved quickly to put ink to a one-year, $8 million deal.
Tom covered what it means for the team yesterday. Sabathia returning on a one-year contract made loads of sense, giving the Yankees capable back-of-the-rotation performance, and giving Sabathia a comfortable spot to conclude his excellent career. Not only that, Sabathia is a beloved, long-tenured member of the team, one who brings more to the table than just quality pitching.
There is certainly some doubt, though, regarding exactly how good the Yankees can expect Sabathia’s pitching to be. He appeared to waver at times down the stretch, both this season and in prior years, prompting questions about whether Sabathia was burning out. At the age of 38, a downturn is always at least a possibility. Sabathia’s late-career high-wire act could end at a moment’s notice.
Yet simply looking at Sabathia’s body of work the past few seasons, there’s no indication that he’s actually about to fall off a cliff. Even at his age, Sabathia looks like a strong bet to continue to give the Yankees at least solid production.
Over the past three years, Sabathia has averaged 29 starts and 160 innings with a 3.76 ERA, good for a 117 ERA+. Per Baseball Reference, he’s been worth just about 3 WAR per season, and nearly 4 WAR per 162 games. We have three seasons of data telling us that the new, soft-tossing version of Sabathia is a strong starter when on the field.
In fact, Sabathia seemed to be better at times last season than at any other point during this renewed three-year stretch. He posted his lowest ERA and highest strikeout rate of the past four seasons in 2018. Moreover, he fully committed to playing his role as a corner-painting finesse artist.
Sabathia culled his repertoire in order to focus on the pitches that would best help him keep batters off balance. According to Statcast, he cut his sinker to its lowest usage in over a decade. He continued to entirely forsake his four-seamer in favor of a cutter that he commanded fabulously. He also continued to pound hitters with his slider nearly a third of the time.
These tactical decisions proved salient. Sabathia limited hitters to a .298 wOBA against his cutter and .329 wOBA against his slider. Compare that to the .372 wOBA his sinker yielded this year, or the .402 wOBA it produced in 2017. Continuing to attack hitters with his best pitches should help Sabathia keep up his renaissance.
This next figure provides the even more optimism that Sabathia isn’t done yet:
This, courtesy of FanGraphs, is a rolling average of Sabathia’s zone rate, juxtaposed with the out-of-zone swing rate he’s generated over the past three seasons. With his diminished raw stuff, Sabathia knows he can’t just pound the zone like he did in his prime. As he’s aged, Sabathia has recognized his physical decline and moved away from the heart of the strike zone.
Even as he’s moved further and further from the zone and worked the edges more and more, the rate at which opponents have chased at pitches out of the zone has increased. This is excellent news, as it indicates that even as it has become more obvious that Sabathia’s strategy is to stay away from the middle of the plate and get hitters to offer at junk, opposing batters have not yet wizened up.
More swings on bad pitches to hit should mean more whiffs and more weak contact. Indeed, Sabathia posted his highest swinging strike (10.8%) since 2012, and as well as his highest soft contact rate (25.1%) since 2011. In terms of producing poor contact and empty swings, Sabathia was as good last year as he’s been since he was sitting 95 mph on his heater.
Statcast’s quality of contact metrics back this up. Batters posted an average hit velocity of just 84 mph against Sabathia, one of the very lowest marks in the league. Sabathia’s batted ball quality led Statcast to give him an expected batting average of .221, and an expected slugging of .353. Sabathia was truly among the game’s elite at suppressing good contact, even in his late-30’s.
Sabathia is among the game’s oldest hurlers, but he appears to be taking as many positives as negatives away from his advanced age. For every drop in velocity, Sabathia reshapes his repertoire to adjust. For every dip in physical prowess, Sabathia repeats his delivery better and refines his command. Sabathia has been a step ahead of his own decline for three seasons now, and based on his fine-tuned arsenal and ever-present ability to force bad contact, there’s little reason to believe Sabathia can’t keep this up in 2019.
A key to this signing is that it not preclude the Yankees from doing bigger things. Sabathia is a good piece, but a complementary one. He’s the cherry on top, not the whole sundae. The Yankees need more, whether it’s in the form of Patrick Corbin, Manny Machado, or whoever. Sabathia’s reasonable contract terms give the Yankees no excuse to not spend heavily elsewhere this winter. Sabathia is a strong bet to give the Yankees what they need from him this year. Here’s hoping that his re-signing is just the beginning.