The Yankees have clinched their spot in the playoffs, secured their pass through the Wild Card game at last, and have a solid sense of where most of their position players can contribute for the postseason. The pitching half of the roster, however, has some questions left to answer in the final week of the season.
One such question is where CC Sabathia will end up pitching for the Bombers. The veteran lefty has struggled with both injuries and performance in his swan song season, logging 22 starts with an ERA just a hair under 5. Sabathia is one of several arms the Yankees have to assess to figure out where or if they will pitch at all come October, but it’s pretty much a given that Sabathia will make the roster cut considering his presence in the locker room and it’s his final shot at another title.
Because of this, the Yankees are experimenting with Sabathia before the regular season ends. The veteran is being moved to the bullpen, where he has made just one appearance in his 19 year career (1.1 innings in Game Five of the 2011 ALDS). The Yankees hope to get Sabathia an appearance against both Tampa Bay and Texas to acclimate the 39-year-old to the role before the games start to count again.
There is evidence to suggest that the move will be beneficial to Sabathia. Like several of the Yankees starters this season, Sabathia’s struggles can be tied directly to how many times through the order he has faced an opposing lineup. Sabathia gives up a .239/.305/.444 slash line to opponents the first time he faces them, but the second time around the hard contact begins to pick up and his slugging allowed rises to .549. The Yankees limited his exposure to lineups the third time through when they could, but Sabathia still went up for a third bout with batters 16 times this season and walked away with a gaudy .342/.398/.618 slash line.
This provides a baseline for how Sabathia can be deployed, but that’s not the end of things. Being a career starter, Sabathia is more likely to be effective entering in clean innings rather than entering as the firehose reliever that guys like Chad Green and David Robertson in the past were for New York. According to Baseball-Reference, Sabathia’s most effective results have come in low to medium leverage, meaning he isn’t someone the Yankees should bring on when a lead could be surrendered in the course of several batters. Sabathia projects to be a bridge to the top-tier arms in the back of the ‘pen, someone the Yankees could run out if a starter like James Paxton or Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t gotten battered around but doesn’t look like they can evade trouble for long.
There is one more advantage the Yankees could pinpoint on by using Sabathia as a reliever. Sabathia has drastically more effective numbers against lefties compared to right-handed hitters, a change of .86/.77/.76 in their respective slash marks. Sabathia likely won’t be entering games just to get a lefty or two out and then exiting, so it’s more of a suggestion for feeling where Sabathia could enter a game, but there is a practical use of this information. The Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros both use a fair amount of pure left-handed hitters in their lineups, and are situated closely enough to paint a 1-2 inning window of efficient use for Sabathia during the middle innings.
Overall, Sabathia’s presence on the field may not be significant to the Yankees’ World Series odds. However, their strategy in deploying him and finding practical moments to work him in can turn a major question mark into a productive piece of the equation.