CC Sabathia has been a lot of things for the Yankees over the past 10 seasons: an ace, a back-end starter, a leader, a friend. While his role and salary have been reduced these days, late-career Sabathia is just as important to the Yankees now as he was years ago when he was striking out 200 batters a year and pitching over 200 innings. He is still pitching effectively, and with Yankee starters dropping like flies, the Yankees know they can turn to big number 52.
Sabathia’s change in pitching style has been well-documented. In mid-2015, he scrapped his straight four-seam fastball in favor of moving cutters and sinkers, and threw his offspeed pitches a little more frequently. Basically, Sabathia transitioned from a power pitcher to a crafty lefty.
But in an age where Yankee pitchers are being taught to rely more on their breaking pitches, Sabathia still lives and dies with his fastball. He is one of just two Yankee starters to throw his fastball over 50 percent of the time (Sonny Gray being the other). How can a guy with reduced velocity get away with throwing so many heaters though?
Sabathia has now mastered his new pitching style.
Sabathia has always been tough on lefties, but his numbers against right-handed batters, which most often frequent the lineups he faces, have improved tremendously this year. During his most recent start in Toronto, there was not a single left-handed hitter in the Blue Jays’ lineup. This would’ve spelled disaster for Sabathia a few years ago, when righties hammered the hefty lefty.
This year though, Sabathia is carving up right handers with a steady diet of high and tight cutters. Take a look at where he is locating his cutter this year.
That is the prime recipe for a “jam sandwich” for righty batters. Sabathia is generating lots of ground balls and whiffs on that cutter. The traditional stats look good too: righties are batting just .234 off of Sabathia with a .686 OPS. And versus lefties? Sabathia induces ground balls over 50 percent of the time and soft contact almost 40 percent of the time.
Sabathia has a clear plan of attack on the mound: he throws his cutter and changeup to righties exclusively, while he uses his sinker and slider versus lefties. This may seem predictable after three years of this trend, but hitters still aren’t squaring the ball up against Sabathia. Since 2016, he leads the American League in average exit velocity with an 84.2 mph figure.
While Sabathia’s strikeouts are slightly down, his walk rate is at its best figure since 2012, his most recent All-Star season. As Sabathia has become more comfortable with his new pitching style, he is becoming even stingier and not giving out nearly as many free passes as he used to.
In light of the Yankees’ recent pitching injuries, many are saying the Yankees need to trade for a starter, or need Sonny Gray and Domingo German to step up. The Yankees would take all of these things. However, the one factor that could really help them the most would be for CC Sabathia to do what he’s done so often over these past few years: be the clutch “stopper” as the de facto number two starter.
These are the situations where Sabathia has been at his best. Dating back to last season (including the postseason), Sabathia is 11-1 in starts after a Yankee loss. He really is the ultimate “big game pitcher” who has the pedigree and the ability to lead the Yankees’ inexperienced, inconsistent rotation. Who could forget his performance in the 2017 playoffs, when he was one of the biggest reasons why the Yankees made it to within one win of the World Series?
Every successful team has a veteran to turn to when times are tough. When the Yankees re-signed CC Sabathia, they did so for moments like this. When the rotation is in shambles, the big fella finds a way to turn back the clock.