So, if you haven't noticed by now, it looks like CC Sabathia is good again. After several tumultuous seasons where he didn't even look like a big league pitcher at times, it seems that he's become one the Yankees' most reliable starters this year. For a rotation filled with trouble, and not much in the way of replacements, his resurgence came just at the right time. How exactly did he do it, though?
Praise to the Knee Brace
Obviously, CC owes a lot to the knee brace he now wears on his right knee. When he returned from the disabled list in September 2015, he return to the rotation wearing it and he had an impressive few starts to finish out the year. In fact, since returning from the disabled list on September 9th, Sabathia has a 2.84 ERA and 3.52 FIP in 63.1 innings. Most importantly, he's allowed only three home runs in 11 starts, which is a fantastic change from the pitcher who led the league in home runs per nine innings between 2014 and 2015.
With the knee brace, he's able to stabilize his landing leg at the end of his delivery, which allows him to finish each pitch, and normalize his release point. It's actually startling when you compare his arm angle from before the brace to after he started wearing it. Some of that variation could be due to a move on the pitching mound, but certainly not all of it, and especially not the part where his release point very clearly dipped down.
By correcting his knee, the Yankees were able to normalize his release point, which has helped him improve his command of the strike zone. He was never wild during his struggles, but he did serve up some meatballs that led to a lot of easy home runs. Since last September, the amount of pitches he has thrown in the strike zone has dropped about 5%, from 45.5% to 40.1%, and it's resulted in less zone contact, from 44.5% to 40.1%. Overall, he's been able to avoid throwing bad strikes, and he's been punished a lot less for them.
The Cutter and the Change
As much as Sabathia has been helped out with some added support, it's not the magical cure-all you might think it has been. Remember when the Yankees brought Andy Pettitte in to spring training in order to teach CC how to throw a cutter, and hopefully figure out how to pitch? Well, he's finally figured out how to use it. After dropping his curveball at the beginning of the 2014 season, he's only used the cutter sparingly, but he's changed his repertoire a lot in the last few months. He has dropped his fastball usage from 57.2% to 43.5% since September, allowing him to throw a lot more cutters–from just 0.6% to 20.9%. The new addition to his arsenal has provided him with his second-best pitch to miss bats with.
Throwing more cutters has allowed Sabathia to hold back on his changeup selection and use it when he really needs it. Since the knee brace, he's gone from throwing it 17.1% of the time to only 14.2%, which is not a huge change, but still shows some intention. By throwing it less, he's able to use the cutter as a setup pitch, and then pair it with his slider to miss bats at the right moment. The changeup dominates the rest of his pitches with a 24.5% whiff rate, so clearly, having two outpitches has done wonders for him.
It's good to see CC Sabathia recreate himself in an attempt to right the ship. His knee condition is only going to get worse, but at least they found a way to stabilize him for the moment, so that he could fix what was broken. It might only be a matter of time before the knee brace doesn't help anymore–who knows–but he just has to hold up through next season. At this rate, he might be just fine.