It’s no secret that CC Sabathia has struggled mightily since 2013. It’s also no secret that his troubles have coincided with a swift decline in fastball velocity. Check out his velocity trend since 2011:
Last season he lost over two miles per hour off his fastball to a mark that dipped below the important 90 mph threshold. And yet despite the obvious signs of decline, I remained stubbornly optimistic, thanks to a still respectable SIERA. I (foolishly?) boldly predicted that Sabathia “reminds us of his glory days and earns top 40 starting pitcher value” this year.
I was encouraged by reports over spring training that suggested improved velocity, as he was sitting back in the low 90s. But then the season began and that supposed velocity rebound failed to materialize. As seen by the above graph, his velocity has sat at virtually the same average as last year. Furthermore, it has peaked at just 91.5 mph, below last year’s peak of 92.2 mph.
So why might I be recommending that you buy Sabathia? Well certainly I could fall back on the tired old SIERA argument, but that doesn’t require much analysis to point out that it sits significantly below his ERA. I also won’t bother to elaborate on his .345 BABIP, 14.3% HR/FB rate or 67.2% LOB%.
Instead, it has to do with that very velocity I spent the first three paragraphs discussing. You see, I (once again, foolishly?) own Sabathia in all three of my leagues. So I watched his entire start last night. And I was pleasantly shocked when I saw the radar gun readings — 93, 91, 90, 92, 93. Wait, what? All of a sudden Sabathia is back throwing in the low 90s and hitting 93?! This was exciting. I cannot understand why he was apparently throwing this hard in spring training and then temporarily lost that heat for a month before it returned. But if this is sustainable and he comes out throwing in the low 90s again next start, it’s much more difficult to blame his severe SIERA underperformance on pathetic velocity.
Naturally, the results still weren’t there last night and it wasn’t just bad luck to blame as his game xFIP stood at 4.28 and he struck out only 13.8% of the batters he faced. But it’s only one game of course and any pitcher could have one of those. The velocity jump could be big. This year, his fastball had generated a SwStk% of just 3.0%. That compares to a 5.4% career mark (well, over the time period we have PITCHf/x data for going back to 2007) and the 6.9% league average. The harder fastball could improve his secondary stuff and perhaps result in weaker contact (uh oh, did I just use that term?!), pushing down both his BABIP and HR/FB rate if hard contact was to blame for those inflated marks.
The Yankees were supposed to have an excellent defense, but that hasn’t been the case so far, as they sport a negative UZR and rank just 21st in baseball in UZR/150. So it’s likely that Sabathia hasn’t received any favors from his fielders. Of course, having watched a lot of Sabathia this year, some of that poor fielding is from Sabathia himself. He’s quite rotund and returned from knee surgery, so his mobility is poor. I cannot remember a start where he didn’t allow an infield hit simply because he couldn’t get to first base in time to receive a throw or fielded the ball, but was outrun to the bag by the hitter. It’s no surprise then that his 14% infield hit rate is not only a career high, but ranks sixth highest among qualified starters. That’s probably not going to get much better. In fact, it could get worse if opposing teams realize this and start bunting more often.
So what do you look for in a pitcher? He induces grounders, strikes out batters and avoids issuing walks. Well, that’s precisely what Sabathia has been doing, though the strikeout rate has slipped below the league average. In an AL-Only league, I think he makes for an excellent stealthy acquisition target. You shouldn’t have to part with much and pitching is much easier to replace than hitting in a mono league (since you always have the option of replacing a weaker starter with a solid middle reliever to protect your ratios), so his owner should be willing to move him. In deep or shallow mixed leagues, he’s obviously a little closer to replacement level. But it all depends on that velocity spike and whether that is going to be the fuel to turn his season around. He would have no more excuses if it doesn’t.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.