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A few problems for CC Sabathia and the Yankees

What explains the left-hander’s nightmare season?

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Last night the Yankees employed Jonathan Holder as an opener against the Orioles. The bullpen games—the Yankees have played 11 of them so far this season—have emerged out of necessity, not from an attempt to gain a tactical advantage. Injuries have robbed the team of a full rotation, with CC Sabathia’s recent trip to the 10-day IL making way for Holder’s start.

One could argue, however, that a bullpen game presents a better option over a healthy Sabathia. The left-hander has had a disastrous 2019 season to date, pitching to a 5.91 ERA (4.94 FIP) over 90.1 innings. If those stats don’t frighten you, his peripherals look worse. Consider where Sabathia ranks among 100 starters with a minimum of 90 innings pitched:

HR/9: 2.39 (100)
GB%: 38% (81)
K%: 21.1% (64)
BB%: 7.7% (57)
Hard%: 39.9% (77)
Soft%: 19.4% (22)

The home run, hard contact, and groundball rates represent career-worst numbers for Sabathia. The soft contact looks fine on its own, but CC hovered around 24-25% since his renaissance began in earnest in 2016. His walk and strikeout percentages have held steady, and that’s encouraging, but it’s important to remember that Sabathia pitches to contact now. Those numbers probably won’t fluctuate all that much.

To put it another way, batters have crushed all three of Sabathia’s go-to pitches (cutter, slider, and sinker) this season. In terms of Isolated Power Against, opposing hitters have run up a stretch of success rarely seen since Sabathia’s reinvention ahead of the 2016 campaign.

What changed for the 39-year-old? He’s another year older and spent a significant amount of time on the injured list already, so that has to be taken into account. Pitchers wear down with age. Sabathia has also lost a tick or two of velocity from last year and that can’t help. More alarming, however, has been the left-hander’s significant change in release point.

From 2016-2018, Sabathia had a consistent vertical release point. After years of tinkering, he found a position that worked and stuck with it. This year, however, the release points on all of his pitches have dropped dramatically.

In some instances, the positions appear on par or lower than his 2013-2014 spots. Those seasons played out poorly for Sabathia, so that’s unwelcome company. The drop-off is clear to the eye as well.

Take two at-bats against J.D. Martinez for example, one this season and one last year. They both feature cutters, Sabathia’s trademark pitcher. This year he served up a booming home run. In 2018, however, he got Martinez to ground out softly, a hallmark of his renaissance.

Can you tell how much more on top of the ball he appeared last year? That’s significant, especially when it comes to location. With a higher release point, Sabathia could have a little more deception. Additionally, he did a better job of keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate.

Using Sabathia’s cutter as an example again, one can see that in 2018, he kept the pitch up and in on right-hander hitters. That’s exactly where it should be, and it brought CC great success against opposite-handed batters.

Credit: Baseball Savant

This season, however, it dropped lower into the zone. Pay attention to the top right portion of the strike zone. Sabathia isn’t pounding that area as frequently anymore. As the pitch drifts into the lower portions of the plate, it becomes eminently more hittable.

Credit: Baseball Savant

Having come this far in the analysis already, it makes sense to peel the layers back just a little further. What explains the drop in release point? One can’t help but wonder if it’s the result of Sabathia’s balky right knee finally giving out.

“It’s always the same,” Sabathia said of the pain to Coley Harvey. “If I had to scale it on a scale of one to 10, it’s always an eight and when it’s bad it’s 10.”

Sabathia landed on the IL twice this season with the knee problem, suggesting that the pain got closer to a 10 than an eight on multiple occasions. It’s not difficult to imagine, then, that the pain has compromised his mechanics. CC uses his right leg to drive the ball, and his success starts from the ground up. The knee pain could result in a domino effect, preventing him from fully raising his arm to a proper release point.

There does exist one other explanation for Sabathia’s poor season, and it has nothing to do with the southpaw himself. It’s no secret that the ball in 2019 is juiced, and it has adversely affected many pitchers. Perhaps the ball just has a tendency to fly out of the park. Maybe CC didn’t make too many mistakes. After all, of his 24 home runs allowed, Baseball Savant notes that 12 of them were more likely to be outs than hits. That’s some bad luck, and it should get factored into the conversation.

Many things have contributed to Sabathia’s struggles. A bad knee, a lower release point, and a juiced all help explain why the left-hander has been one of the worst starters in the American League this year. I would just put more emphasis on his knee and mechanics than the ball, as they’re legitimate red flags particular to Sabathia.

The 2019 season represents Sabathia’s farewell to baseball. He will retire at year’s end, and one would hope he can go out in memorable fashion. Perhaps the knee treatment and rest can help raise his arm angle just a little down the stretch, and maybe that will keep hitters from teeing off on his pitches. The left-hander has meant so much to the Yankees, it would be nice to see finish his storied career in style.