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What to expect from CC Sabathia when he rejoins the Yankees

Can the big lefty remain a useful back-end starter for one more season?

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Yankees’ dugout on Opening Day had a glaring absence, as clubhouse leader CC Sabathia remained in Florida, working his way back from an offseason knee surgery and angioplasty.

Sabathia, 38, likely won’t take the mound for the Bombers until at least the end of April, as he is also serving a five-game suspension after the glorious “That’s for you, b*tch” incident against the Rays last September. The organization brought Sabathia back for what he says will be the final season of his career. Given the other injuries and unknowns in the rotation already, the team needs CC to stay healthy and somewhat productive when he returns.

With another year of age and another knee operation on his chart, there could be a cause for concern when it comes to what Sabathia can offer in 2019. Looking at his numbers through the entire 2018 season, however, and there wasn’t much evidence to signal a steep decline. Yes, Sabathia’s 3.91 ERA in the second half of the season went up from the first half 3.51 mark. His FIP and wOBA, though, both dropped in the second half of the season — after Sabathia had his annual knee drainage. So why the higher ERA?

The two numbers that stand out show a slightly diminished command of the strike zone and potentially a major case of bad baseball luck. Let’s start with the command. While Sabathia’s strikeout rate registered noticeably higher in the second half of the season (10.70 K/9 compared to 6.93 in the first half), his walk rate was also clearly inflated (3.74 in the second half, 2.61 in the first). Sabathia started 14 games from the Fourth of July through the end of the regular season, and walked at least three batters in six of those outings, compared to just three such instances in 15 starts to begin the year. A contact pitcher like Sabathia can either eliminate walks with double plays or get burned by them with balls in play that find holes. In some cases down the stretch last season, the latter occurred.

That brings us to the bad baseball luck. Sabathia’s second half provides a smaller sample size, but his BABIP down the stretch was .331 compared to .278 through the first half of the year. Walks mixed with balls that are finding holes is never a good mixture, and Sabathia seemed to get burned by that at times from July through October.

As for the inflated BABIP, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation with his batted ball numbers to suggest Sabathia gave up contact with a higher hit probability. His soft contact issued looked almost exactly the same, and his hard contact surrendered actually went down four percentage points in the second half of the season. His groundball, line drive and fly ball percentages didn’t differ by more than three percentage points, and he issued fewer HR/9 in the second half of the season. Baseball is a game of beautiful or brutal randomness, and perhaps Sabathia experienced the unenviable side of that towards the end of last season.

Sabathia’s recurring knee troubles, coupled with the recent memory of his poor performance in the ALDS, may have fans concerned about his potential for 2019. When looking at the numbers, though, not much changed for Sabathia as the 2018 season wore down. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t break your way, and a subpar infield defense likely didn’t help. With Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop instead of Didi Gregorius when Sabathia gets back, he may have even less room for bad luck when he returns. As long as he cuts down on the free passes, however, he should be able to provide another fine season at the back of the rotation.