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What happened to CC Sabathia’s soft contact?

The veteran southpaw has been getting rocked in 2019

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

CC Sabathia has, for a number of years now, been a guy who routinely outperforms his peripherals. He doesn’t strike out many batters and gives up a lot of balls in play. But over the past few seasons, he has managed to actively suppress hard contact in ways conducive to quality pitching. From 2016 through the end of last year, Sabathia was firmly in the 95th percentile of soft contact, among the absolute elite in baseball in low exit velocity on balls in play. Through the first two months of 2019, though, that’s not been the case.

Sabathia’s average exit velocity allowed has jumped two full miles per hour. His hard hit rate, the percentage of batted balls that are greater than 95 mph, is 34% this year after averaging 27% the last three years. His barrel percentage allowed is up too, and would be the highest he’s ever recorded on Statcast. The fundamental competitive advantage Sabathia brings every fifth day has disappeared, and it’s why his FIP, xFIP, and home-run rate are the worst of his career.

The left-hander lost about a mile per hour in velocity across all pitches, which isn’t surprising for a pitcher of his age. What’s driving this scary development in contact isn’t necessarily his stuff, however, but where his stuff is ending up.

This is Sabathia’s pitch location through all of last year. His pattern is to work down and in on left-handers, and critically, down and away from righties. A good right-handed batter will crush an 89 mph fastball if it’s up over the plate, and CC’s done a great job of not having that happen historically.

In 2019, a much higher percentage of his pitches are ending up high in the zone, over the plate, right in the wheelhouse for any hitter. Hitters haven’t figured out Sabathia’s cutter-slider combo; they’re being presented on a tee.

The reason that I’m bringing this up now, halfway through a now-customary IL stint for his knee, is because I think Sabathia’s knee has been an issue for longer than just his previous start. I think it’s been balky for a while, and it’s throwing off his mechanics.

Consider two cutters, the first against Tampa Bay a few weeks ago:

And one against Baltimore from 2018:

They’re both cutters, both delivered to right-handed batters, but one resulted in a home run and the other an easy fly out.

The main difference is the stability of Sabthia’s delivery, especially his plant leg. Look at how much he’s falling off when he plants his right leg in the top clip. A loss of strength and balance on the right side—the injured knee—causes his drive leg to fly open, and he’s struggling to keep a direct plane to the plate.

In turn, the ball doesn’t cut and stays high, and it gets walloped. That lack of stability in the plant leg is causing Sabathia’s pitches to remain up in the zone, and he no longer throws hard enough that they’ll get by hitters.

Let’s hope that all CC needs is his cortisone shot and some rest. If his knee recovers and he regains that stability in his mechanics, I don’t think it’s out of the question that we’ll see some of his very scary contact problems mitigated. If his leg is “barking” all season, expect the old southpaw’s final campaign to be an ugly one.