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Could Roy Halladay save CC Sabathia?

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An adjustment made by Roy Halladay late in his career could help CC Sabathia return to form in 2015.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Former Blue Jays and Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay seems to be enjoying retirement. From his Twitter feed, we know that his hobbies include flying planes, going to the zoo, and trolling his own fans. CC Sabathia, on the other hand, is not doing so well, with a combined 4.87 ERA over the last two seasons. Sabathia's peripheral stats from 2014 suggest that he is essentially attempting to become Halladay 2.0. Here are some numbers from Sabathia's injury-shortened 2014 season and Halladay's 2011 season, courtesy of Fangraphs:

Player

K/9

BB/9

GB%

Halladay (2011)

8.47

1.35

50.9%

Sabathia (2014)

9.39

1.96

48.3%

Both pitchers showed above average control and did a very good job keeping the ball on the ground. Here's where the comparison gets ugly:

Player

HR/9

HR/FB%

ERA

Halladay (2011)

0.39

5.1%

2.35

Sabathia (2014)

1.96

23.3%

5.28

In other words, when the ball did leave the infield, Sabathia got burned. It is worth noting that Sabathia's HR/FB% was literally more than twice the league average. Steamer's projections have that number coming back to earthly levels, in addition to putting his 2015 ERA at 3.92. But in order to have a fighting chance, he has to address the alarming trend in his lefty/righty splits:

Year

wOBA vs. LHH

wOBA vs. RHH

2009

.246

.298

2010

.305

.287

2011

.248

.312

2012

.288

.291

2013

.293

.347 (!)

2014

.270

.401 (!!)

Sabathia's sudden loss of velocity circa 2013 can explain why he is no longer a Cy Young caliber pitcher, but it doesn't explain why only righties are capitalizing on his regression. However, looking at Brooks Baseball's data on his changeup, especially next to his fastball, we get a better idea of why his splits are becoming so drastically different:

Years

vFA

vCH

SwStr% vs. CH

BAA v. CH

ISO v. CH

'09-‘12

94.52

87.32

34.76

.217

.086

'13-‘14

91.98

85.12

29.13

.275

.205 (!)

Sabathia's changeup, which he throws almost exclusively to righties, isn't what it once was. Part of Sabathia's decreasing changeup value is probably because of his overall depreciation as an athlete. Part of it could be due to a closing gap in velocity between his fastball and his changeup. In any case, better peripherals mean nothing if he can't stop giving up extra base hits to righties.

So where does Roy Halladay come in to the picture? It's not him specifically, it's the progression of his changeup throughout his career. Halladay, like Sabathia, was a workhorse during his Toronto years, routinely topping 230 IP. Like the 2014 incarnation of CC Sabathia, he was limiting walks and pitching to groundballs. But Sabathia's changeup was once an extremely important part of his arsenal. Before joining the Phillies, Halladay barely threw a changeup (4.2% of the time, according to Brooks Baseball).

Then, in 2010, he started throwing the split-change, a changeup thrown with a split-fingered grip, also known as the pitch that helped Tim Lincecum become an elite pitcher for a while. Fangraphs did a more detailed write-up on his new and improved pitch when he first implemented it. Maybe it was hitters not being used to Halladay's new offering, maybe it was just that much better. In any case, hitters put up wRC+'s of 1 (no, that is not a typo) against his changeup in 2010 and 50 in 2011.

It does not necessarily need to be a split-change, but Sabathia might need a new out pitch for righties. His velocity isn't coming back. He has taken the first steps to becoming a pitcher, and not a thrower by increasing his groundball rate and limiting walks while still striking batters out. But home runs will continue to plague Sabathia if he doesn't adapt a new strategy. Throwing an 89 mph sinker and following it up with an 85 mph changeup is not going to cut it. If he tries that in Fenway, Mike Napoli and Hanley Ramirez will be aiming for the Citgo sign behind the Green Monster. He could try taking more velocity off his changeup to widen the velocity gap, but intentionally throwing a pitch slower could cause him to tip his pitches.

From a risk vs. reward standpoint, I cannot think of any reason for Sabathia not to try a new pitch out. As it is, during the last two seasons, Sabathia's slider has been more effective than his changeup against righties, according to Brooks Baseball. The only thing he has to lose is a pitch that is heading towards uselessness. If it was indeed unfamiliarity that made Doc's split-change so good, now is as good of a time as any to implement it, based on CC's contract status and the Yankees lack of starting pitching depth. Call Roy Halladay up, CC, he has to have a good amount of free time on his hands.