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CC Sabathia's elite ability to avoid hard contact

CC Sabathia hasn't had the smoothest of seasons, but he's found success. The key to productivity, in spite of a lack of overpowering stuff, may come from an elite ability to induce soft contact.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Jered Weaver has a misspelled first name, an 83 mph fastball, and a 5.47 ERA. Among qualified pitchers, he ranks last in DRA and FIP-, and according to Baseball Prospectus, has been worth -5.2 WARP. Unsurprisingly, this is earning the soft-tossing righty plenty of ridicule. Weaver is very likely the worst pitcher in baseball, and you can tell when he takes the mound every fifth day.

Although most of baseball is busy poking fun at Weaver's lifeless repertoire, he deserves some recognition for somehow remaining a major league pitcher despite having the stuff of a Double-A long man. Weaver's armed with a batting practice fastball (and sinker), a constantly-hanging curveball, and a meatball of a changeup, yet he's starting for a big league club. Surviving with those pitches is an incredible testament to his pinpoint control and pitching knowledge, an achievement that shouldn't go unnoticed.

A similar type of praise can be said about CC Sabathia. Although his stuff hasn't slipped nearly as far as Weaver's, Sabathia has seen a drastic decline over the past few years. In spite of that, Sabathia is on his way to one of his best seasons since his decline began following 2012. It's not a complete success story, as Sabathia's 4.33 ERA indicates, but it's astonishing to see 2.4 WARP from a pitcher whose stuff has rapidly deteriorated over the past few seasons.

Sabathia has had to navigate obstacles such as a three mile per hour loss in fastball velocity, a knee condition that was once feared to be career ending, and a battle with alcoholism that landed him in rehab at the end of last season. His ability has regressed from among the league's most powerful to as intimidating as Ben Revere's power potential, but Sabathia has continued to provide quality innings out of the Yankees' rotation. Managing to stay afloat despite a weak repertoire, like in Weaver's case, has been surprising to say the least, and the way in which he's done this is just as remarkable.

To put it simply: CC Sabathia has been better than perhaps anyone else in the league when it comes to inducing soft contact. Yes, better than Clayton Kershaw, and Corey Kluber, and any other Cy Young candidate you can possibly think of. Somehow, despite being saddled with a set of pitches lacking anything one could call overpowering, Sabathia's ability to prevent hard-hit balls has been elite.

The most obvious measure to look at for a player's ability to induce soft contact is, well, soft contact percentage; Sabathia ranks fourth best in that measure among qualified starters. On a related note, he is also second in the league when it comes to limiting hard contact. Another sure-fire way to figure out how hard batters hit pitchers is by looking at, naturally, just how hard batters hit pitchers. In other words: exit velocity. Here, Sabathia's average of 85.5 mph ranks first among qualified starters. Sabathia's groundball exit velocity also happens to be second best in the league, as is his flyball/line drive mark.

Sabathia also has the third lowest line drive rate in baseball and the fifth highest infield flyball rate in baseball. Per FanGraphs, line drives on average fall for a hit 68.5% of the time, compared to just 23.9% of the time for groundballs and 20.7% of the time for flyballs (a similar trend is seen with wOBA: .684 for line drives, .220 for groundballs, .335 for flyballs). So, the fewer the line drives, the better. On the other hand, the more infield flyballs, the better. They are close to automatic outs, and even count as strikeouts in the WAR equation.

Here's all of that information in one table. Sabathia may not be first in every statistic, but he's awfully close, and ranks consistently at the top more than any other pitcher. For the record, I didn't cherry-pick the metrics in which Sabathia ranks high in—these are the best measures of soft-contact I could think of.



Exit Velocity




Kyle Hendricks (26.3%)

Kyle Hendricks (23.9%)

CC Sabathia (85.2 mph)

Drew Pomeranz (15.1%)

Anibal Sanchez (17.4%)


Steven Wright (24.3%)

CC Sabathia (24.1%)

Scott Kazmir (86.3 mph)

Hector Santiago (15.4%)

Marco Estrada (17.1%)


Tanner Roark (24.1%)

Tanner Roark (24.7%)

Kenta Maeda (86.4 mph)

CC Sabathia (17.1%)

Drew Smyly (15.4%)


CC Sabathia (23.9%)

Scott Kazmir (25.2%)

Adam Wainwright (87 mph)

Max Scherzer (17.4%)

Jared Weaver (15.3%)


Max Scherzer (22.5%)

Jake Arrieta (25.6%)

Steven Wright (87.1 mph)

Ricky Nolasco (17.6%)

CC Sabathia (15.1%)

What you've probably noticed is there are some pitchers on the list that are having bad seasons...and Sabathia isn't exactly having a banner year himself. Inducing soft-contact isn't everything, and Sabathia falls short in some other facets of the game.

The southpaw is struggling to strike hitters out, and his walks have climbed to near a career high (which may be from less pitches in the strike zone - a way to limit hard contact). Bad luck and a mediocre Yankees defense also haven't helped, and, in the end, pitchers with Sabathia's present ability should be doing much, much worse than he is right now. Inducing soft contact helps his case, but there's only so much that you can do when one's stuff has slipped as much as CC's has.

Still, avoiding the sweet spot of the bat so consistently is a huge accomplishment for Sabathia, made even more impressive by the fact that this ability may be better right now than it has ever been before. Maybe the soft contact hasn't made him a Cy Young candidate once again, but Sabathia's discovered a new skill that he's elite at, and it can only help in the future.