I hope you’ve had time to digest Sunday’s tense win over the Angels, because we’re about to dive back into it. Gary Sanchez was great and Chad Green gave us a scare, but the big takeaway from the night was another stunning start from the 38-year-old CC Sabathia.
The big left-hander stymied a pretty talented Angels lineup over seven innings while surrendering just a single run. It was CC’s longest start of the year while tied for his best by game score. Moreover, it was already his fourth start in 2018 where he gave up one earned run or fewer. Of course, this isn’t a new thing for anyone who watched Sabathia last year; he had 13 such games out of his 27 starts in 2017.
For a guy that most people wrote off, Sabathia’s done an extraordinary job over the past two seasons at the key function of pitching: suppressing runs. This comes despite a downright shoddy fastball and his multitude of knee surgeries. There’s also the fact that a lot of defense-independent metrics say he shouldn’t be this good.
We all know the difference between ERA and FIP, and one way to see who is playing up to their potential is to look at the difference between those two numbers. If the difference is negative (ERA < FIP), you should expect a pitcher’s performance to worsen, and vice versa. In Sabathia’s case, his difference certainly is negative:
That red square is CC, and this shows us that we should expect CC’s performance to eventually regress towards a much less impressive level. This is pretty orthodox, nearly-universal baseball doctrine. Of course, there are always exceptions:
This time, CC is the BLUE square, but the results are the same. Since reinventing himself as a pitcher, moving away from an ineffective “power pitching” approach, Sabathia has thumbed his nose at expected performance. He’s consistently better than he should be, and it’s been great fun for fans while stupefying for everyone else.
There are questions, however. For example, how is CC doing this? Also, how long can we expect it to continue?
Let’s start with the first question. Sabathia’s repertoire plays a huge role in his performance. Everyone knows the Yankees throw the fewest fastballs in the majors. In fact, four-fifths of the starting rotation rank in the bottom 10 in baseball for four-seam usage. Sabathia is dead last in the game, with just 15.6% of his pitches classified as the traditional heater. Pitch classification can be a slippery topic, but that’s not even a show-me pitch. CC just doesn’t throw a fastball anymore.
He’s fallen back on his slider and cutter, which in a lot of ways are variations of the same pitch. They both break in on right-handed batters, with the difference being the degree of break and velocity of the pitch. At CC’s age, though, pretty much all his pitches are coming in at the same speed. His fastball and cutter are nearly identical, and his cutter and slider are separated by only about six miles per hour, not enough of a difference to tip off a hitter.
What could be a clue for an opposing batter is a change in release point. Maybe CC is dropping his arm for a breaking ball or something like that. I have bad news news for hitters, though. His release point in 2018 has been remarkably consistent across all his pitches:
So all a hitter has left is picking up the “spin” of a ball on it’s way to the plate. Sliders famously create an optical illusion where the seams blend to create a red dot on the ball, tipping off hitters in the approach to the plate. This is only helpful on approach though, and if hitters are trying to guess cutter or slider, picking up the spin may just happen too late to do anything useful with the pitch. A batter’s probably just going to make glancing contact.
Sabathia’s not that great at missing bats anymore; his stuff just isn’t good enough. He is awful good at causing weak contact, though, the kind generated by hitters guessing cutter or slider like above. He’s well above league average at generating soft contact, 14th in baseball near luminaries like Shohei Ohtani, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer.
Even better, he’s better than league average at preventing hard contact, again right in line with Kershaw and Scherzer. Hard contact is the kind that tends to turn into home runs and doubles, and really ruin a pitcher’s day. Once more, the guesswork hitters have to do is effectively turning their maple bats into sticks of gum; you can still make contact, the ball’s just not going to go anywhere.
So we know how CC is pitching so much better than he probably should be. What we don’t know is how long it’ll last. Pitching is finicky and regression can hit like a wall falling on you. If you need proof, just look at the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman, who does a lot of the same things Sabathia does. In 2018 his hard contact rate has risen, to go along with his runs allowed.
Still though, I’m optimistic. Sabathia’s not going to pitch to the tune of a 39 ERA- for the rest of 2018. But with his fastball on the shelf and hitters left guessing with every pitch, I won’t be surprised if CC’s consistent over-performance remains just that, consistent.