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Under the Hood: the long ball has marked CC Sabathia’s 2019

The left-hander has allowed 2.42 home runs per nine innings in his final season.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Two things have been relatively evident when assessing CC Sabathia’s season: the first one is that he has been mostly ineffective when on the mound. The second one has likely had an impact on the initial one: he has been battling injuries for most of the year, most notably in his troublesome right knee.

Last year, the southpaw thrived by avoiding being squared up by batters. He had a perfectly fine 3.65 ERA and held the opposition to 84.4 MPH on average exit velocity, a number that was in the top 2% in MLB. According to Baseball Savant, his 26.6% hard contact allowed was also an elite figure, in the 97 percentile.

However, 2019 hasn’t been kind to the big fella. Opponents are hitting him harder (86.7 average exit velocity and 31.0% hard contact rate,) and his ERA ballooned all the way up to 4.93. Batters have also increased their average launch angle from 12.6 to 14.7 degrees.

For much of his Indians and Yankees career (with a dominant stint with the Brewers sandwiched in between), Sabathia was a power pitcher. Then, well into his New York tenure and seeing how his fastball velocity was not the same (more on that below), he made the savvy decision to embrace soft contact and groundballs, sharpening his cutter and increasing its usage.

Here are his GB/FB numbers since 2010:

2010: 1.49

2011: 1.54

2012: 1.57

2013: 1.35

2014: 1.63

2015: 1.41

2016: 1.52

2017: 1.79

2018: 1.26

2019: 0.95

To survive in the big leagues, Sabathia had to adjust. After all, his fastball velocity has gone from 95.1 MPH in 2009 to a career-low 89.8 MPH this season. It is not easy to survive with four or five miles per hour less than at one’s peak, but for most of his late career, the lefty did it.

This year though, for the second time in his career and first since 2004, Sabathia has allowed more flies than groundballs. That has not been a recipe for success in the year of the home run, in the AL East, and in Yankee Stadium.

Again, the most likely scenario is that his right knee has been bothering him to the point that he can’t execute his pitches the way he wants to. Or, maybe Father Time has finally caught up to him.

Last year, Sabathia had positive numbers in the pitch value chart (per FanGraphs) with two pitches: his cutter (5.5 weighted Cutter runs) and his changeup (2.9 weighted Changeup runs), with negative marks on his fastball and slider. This time around, all of his pitches are negative: -1.1 with the fastball, -5.9 with the slider, -5.9 with the cutter, and -0.1 with the changeup.

The main issue, not surprisingly, has been the number of home runs allowed. In only 100.1 innings pitched, Sabathia has permitted a whopping 27 taters. His career-high is 28, in 2013 and 2015. However, he accumulated 211 and 167.1 innings in those seasons, respectively.

In 2019, the left-hander has allowed homers at an alarming rate of 2.42 per nine innings, easily a career-high and more than double when compared to the 1.12 he conceded last year. The huge increment in home runs have heavily impacted his FIP (5.97) and WAR (0.2).

His Statcast profile isn’t encouraging either. Since data started being gathered in 2015, the current season has seen Sabathia allow his highest barrel rate (8.7). While his xwOBA (.312) isn’t nearly as high as his actual wOBA (.361), his expected wOBA in contact (xwOBAcon) is at an elevated .363.

Sabathia recently had fluid drained out of his right knee and has stated that he hopes to come back this season, especially with the Bombers poised to make a deep run in the playoffs and given that he will retire this year. But at this point, it is fair to wonder if he will be healthy enough to do that. As of now, there is no timetable for his return, although he took a positive step forward on Friday by throwing a bullpen session.

He may be running out of time, and the Yankees are also getting healthier with starters Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery getting ready for their respective returns. Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton are rounding into form, and Domingo German has cemented his place as a key cog in the rotation. With the additional presence of J.A. Happ, there isn’t much clarity when it comes to the team’s plans.

The big lefty has had an illustrious career, with a strong chance of being inducted to the Hall of Fame when the time is due. An ineffective, injury-marred campaign won’t damage that reputation. However, 2019 simply hasn’t been his year.