Over a seven year period, between 2006 and 2012, CC Sabathia was a stalwart at the top of fantasy baseball rotations. Over those seven years, CC lead MLB in innings pitched (1591.2), was second in wins (122), was tied with Adam Wainwright and Josh Johnson with the fifth lowest ERA (3.14), and tied for the seventh lowest WHIP (1.16) and he lead baseball with 1453 strikeouts.
Over those seven seasons CC won at least 15 games six times (he won 12 in 2006), never finished a season with an ERA higher than 3.38 or a WHIP higher than 1.23, and he only had one season with fewer than 197 strikeouts (172 in 2006). You could make a very strong case that the big man was the best pitcher in fantasy baseball for a seven year stretch.
Then in 2013 father time reared his ugly head to once again show us that no good thing can last forever. Sabathia finished 2013 with career highs in both ERA (4.78) and WHIP (1.37), he allowed a career high 28 home runs (previous career high was 22 in 2012), he had a career worst .267 batting average against and his 19.3 percent strikeout percentage was his lowest since 2004. It’s safe to say that 2013 was the worst year in what has been an illustrious career for Carsten Charles Sabathia.
What happened in 2013 was Sabathia tried to pitch like he had throughout his entire career but with worse stuff, and hitters made him pay for not adjusting.
Over the course of his career, 47.5 percent of his pitches have been four-seam fastballs, 22.3 percent of his pitches have been sliders, 16.6 percent of his pitches have been changeups (almost exclusively to right handed hitters) and since introducing the pitch in 2009, 11.4 percent of his pitches have been sinkers. His 2013 usage rates virtually mirror his career rates (take a few percentage points away from his fastball and add a few to his sinker and they’re identical) and hitters were finally able to catch up.
Sabathia has averaged 93.3 MPH on his fastball for his career but in 2013 his velocity dropped all the way down to 91.3 MPH. The dip in velocity really dampened the effectiveness of Sabathia’s changeup, when the velocity gap between a pitchers fastball and changeup narrows it makes sense that the changeup will lose potency. Take a look at the table below, it compares CC’s changeup in 2013 to his changeup over his entire career.
Almost a quarter of the way through the season it has become clear that CC is working at redefining himself as a pitcher, CC no longer relies on his fastball to set everything up. Instead he now primarily throws his sinker and he’s doing so effectively, his 50.8 percent ground-ball percentage is the highest of his career. CC has learned that he can no longer blow his fastball by hitters or baffle them with his changeup so instead he’s pitching to contact and getting the results he’s looking for.
That begs the question though, if he’s getting the desired results, why has his ERA (5.75 entering his weekend start) and WHIP (1.45) both risen since last season?
Well to start, CC is getting pummeled by a .361 BABIP. That number tells me that he’s getting the ground balls he wants, they’re just finding holes and getting past the defense. Second, he currently has a 21.9 percent home-run-to-fly-ball rate — way above his career average and the typical league average — despite having the lowest fly-ball rate of his entire career.
CC’s getting unlucky with some of the baserunners he’s allowed and he’s serving up home runs at an unsustainable rate (those two things over a small sample size, like seven starts, are bound to inflate ratios like ERA and WHIP).
Regression should be expected in both areas but I don’t think either rate drops down to the league average. It’s great that CC is converting himself into a ground ball pitcher but he’s now a ground ball pitcher with a horrendous defensive infield behind him.
His BABIP will definitely regress somewhat — nobody finishes the season with a BABIP higher than .360 (in the last ten years only Kevin Millwood and Ian Snell, both in 2008, have finished a season with a BABIP higher than .350) — but it wouldn’t shock me if he ends the season with one of the highest BABIPs in baseball, in the .330-.340 range. When it comes to his home-run-to-fly-ball rate, given the fact that he pitches in Yankee Stadium — along with the fact that hitters are having much more success hitting his fastball and changeup for power these days — I’d expect he finishes the year with a percentage in the low teens, not low 20’s.
So, to sum things up.
- Is CC’s career spiraling down faster than Enron?
No, he’s going through the process of reinventing himself as a pitcher and early on it looks like he’s transitioning successfully.
- Is CC going to keep having an ERA that’s nearly two runs higher than his career average?
No, he’s pitched better than that up to this point and his 4.13 FIP and 2.90 xFIP agree with me that his ratios have been inflated due to some bad luck.
- Should we expect him to return to the fantasy ace that dominated baseball for a seven year stretch?
No, most definitely not.
I expect CC to finish 2014 with an ERA in the 3.80-4.20 range by the end of the Yankees season and I expect him to be an above average contributor in wins and strikeouts while being a below average contributor in WHIP. If you can buy CC for next-to-nothing from a frustrated owner I think there is some value to be gained but I don’t see him finishing the season as a Top-40 starting pitcher. Those days are long gone.