2013 Fantasy BaseballFantasy BaseballFront Office

Can CC Sabathia Still Be Old Reliable?

cc sabathia
Photo Credit: beisbolsinaloa

For years, CC Sabathia has been the definition of a reliable ace.  Since his debut in 2001, the left-hander hasn’t pitched below 180 innings in a season.  And during the past seven seasons, he never ended with an ERA and WHIP above 3.38 and 1.23, respectively.  These numbers are usually accompanied by a strong strikeout rate, a low walk rate, and a boatload of wins.  So with this in mind, the Yankees hoped for another Sabathia-like year in 2013.  And despite some cracks showing in the armor (2012 DL stint, offseason elbow surgery to remove bone spur), fantasy owners expected about the same.  But things change, and people age.  The soon to be 33-year-old pitcher hasn’t been delivering like an ace this season.  So, is Old Reliable just getting old, or is CC’s subpar first-half presenting an opportunity to buy low?

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Sabathia’s problems this season seem to be rather obvious.  Velocity and homeruns.   The fastball is down to 90.9MPH on average.  In 2012 it was 92.4MPH.  And when you compare this season to 2011, you see a three mile-per-hour difference.   As for the homers, giving up 21 at the all-star break is quite a lot.  It took Sabathia a whole season in 2012 to give up 22 dingers, and that was a career high.  So it is suffice to say he is in a bit of unknown territory.

It isn’t as if only problem is his fastball.  Take a look at these pitch outcomes:

2013 Pitch Outcomes:

Pitch Type

Swing

Whiffs

BIP

GB

LD

FB

PU

HR

Fourseam 42.54% 5.95% 20.65% 7.86% 4.26% 7.30% 1.23% 1.35%
Slider 42.76% 15.33% 14.82% 5.96% 2.39% 4.60% 1.87% 0.85%

 

2012 Pitch Outcomes:

Pitch Type

Swing

Whiffs

BIP

GB

LD

FB

PU

HR

Fourseam 44.54% 4.97% 21.69% 9.11% 4.22% 6.54% 1.82% 0.75%
Slider 45.19% 19.52% 12.78% 6.14% 2.38% 4.06% 0.20% 0.59%

 

2011 Pitch Outcomes:

Pitch Type

Swing

Whiffs

BIP

GB

LD

FB

PU

HR

Fourseam 44.02% 6.68% 17.43% 6.98% 3.58% 5.71% 1.15% 0.67%
Slider 43.64% 17.90% 13.84% 7.32% 2.44% 3.15% 0.92% 0.20%

 

The homerun percentage is the most damning statistic for both his fastball and slider.  The other concern here is the lessened whiffs he is receiving this season from the slider.  And considering the slider was Sabathia’s best pitch heading into the season, this is quite surprising.  Is he not getting the same bite on his slider?  Is it flattening out?  Is it just a random blip?

Pitch F/X pitch values show both the slider and changeup were big reasons for CC’s success in 2012.  That isn’t the case right now.  It stands to reason the decrease in fastball velocity hurts the changeup.  And according to those pitch values, despite the increase in homers and lessened whiffs, the slider is still effective.  It just isn’t nearly as effective as last season.

But there is a positive trend developing.  Brooksbaseball.net, which uses Pitch F/X, sheds some light on Sabathia’s fastball velocity:

Month

Fourseam

4/13 90.67
5/13 91.37
6/13 92.32
7/13 92.34

 

The velocity is trending towards 2012 levels. We have actually seen this from Justin Verlander as well.  He showed upward trending velocity during my research and it was one of the reasons I expected his results to change for the better.  However, if you read Josh Kay’s article, then you would find that Verlander’s fastball is still being hit like a piñata, so perhaps we should be cautiously optimistic when it comes to Sabathia and his fastball.  Still, I view this as a clear positive.

I don’t want to overwhelm you with charts, but bear with me.  Here are CC’s swing and batted ball profiles.

Season

O-Swing%

Z-Swing%

Swing%

O-Contact%

Z-Contact%

Contact%

Zone%

2011

34.1%

61.2%

47.7%

57.9%

86.4%

76.3%

50.2%

2012

35.7%

61.4%

48.0%

59.6%

85.7%

75.6%

47.9%

2013

32.4%

62.3%

47.3%

60.5%

86.2%

77.4%

49.9%

Total

33.0%

62.0%

47.7%

59.4%

85.7%

76.7%

50.5%

 

Season

Team

GB/FB

LD%

GB%

FB%

IFFB%

HR/FB

IFH%

2011 Yankees

1.54

23.1%

46.6%

30.3%

6.9%

8.4%

9.3%

2012 Yankees

1.57

21.1%

48.2%

30.7%

10.2%

12.5%

7.6%

2013 Yankees

1.31

20.5%

45.1%

34.4%

6.9%

14.6%

10.1%

Total – – –

1.32

20.2%

45.4%

34.4%

10.0%

9.1%

7.5%

 

There isn’t much that has changed in Sabathia’s swing profile.  Overall, contact is slightly up across the board and outside swing percentage is slightly down.  Not anything too alarming, however.  He still has an above average rate on swinging strikes (10.6), and although down from his most recent rates, his strikeout percentage is still slightly above average.  His walk rate and first pitch strike rate are also both excellent.

As for Sabathia’s batted ball profile, we see a few more flyballs than in recent years, and his HR/FB% continues to climb.  Considering what we discussed earlier, this shouldn’t be too surprising.  CC also has the highest infield hit percentage of his entire career.  In fact, he is second (tied with Bartolo Colon) to Kyle Kendrick in infield hits allowed.  Infield hits are usually of the weak contact variety.  So let’s chalk that up to some bad luck.  And despite the HR/FB%, his swing and batted ball profiles do not show us a pitcher that is a shell of his former self.

The biggest surprise when discussing the Yankees’ pitching staff might be the fact that Sabathia has allowed more homeruns than teammate Phil Hughes (18 homers allowed).  CC is in the in the top five of homers allowed this season.  And frankly, I find it hard to believe he will remain there all season.  Perhaps with the increased velocity, and some better luck, Sabathia can begin to reverse that homer rate and start posting results that are closer to his xFIP (3.53) and SIERA (3.60).

But what about the slider?  Pitch F/X pitch values still show it as his best pitch.  It is quite possible that Sabathia has just hung a few more this season and they were punished at a higher rate than usual.  Could it be related to the bone spur he had removed in the offseason?  I’m not sure.  It is a concern, but I don’t believe it changes my opinion moving forward.  The pitch is still being rated as effective and his best offering, so this could just be  blip.  As for the changeup, the increased velocity on his fastball should help the its effectiveness.  Like with many under-performers, there is some unknown here.  But if we want to buy low, we can’t wait to see if Sabathia turns it around in the boxscores.  By then it will be too late.

So is this in fact a buy low opportunity?  Well, that depends on your expectations.  I would say it is a mistake to expect Old Reliable to be a dominant ace.  At the very least, we shouldn’t expect a streak like he had with the Brewers down the stretch of the 2008 season.  But if I were in need of a starter, especially if I were behind on innings or preparing for the playoffs in a head to head league, I see Sabathia as a decent trade target.  Anyone owning him can’t be too excited to have him right now, and it isn’t as if he is keeper material at soon to be age 33, so the price shouldn’t be too costly.  He may no longer be an ace for our fantasy staffs, but CC Sabathia can still be a positive contributor the rest of the way.

 

Thanks to Fangraphs.com, Brooksbaseball.net, and BaseballHeatMaps.com for the data.

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