Four seasons ago, as the Yankees were embarrassed by Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros in the AL Wild Card Game, it was fair to wonder if we’d seen the last of CC Sabathia. He’d checked himself into rehab for alcoholism, and for three years, he had struggled to stay on the mound due to injury. When he was out there, he was ineffective. He didn’t look the same.
His late-career renaissance, when remembered against that context, is thus even more remarkable. We should all take time to appreciate it, and I don’t think enough people do. I mean, the big man has a 3.78 ERA (116 ERA+) in 533 innings pitched since the start of 2016. It’s been a real renaissance, and CC has given the Yankees well-above-average innings at the back end of their rotation.
Powering all of that success, as has been well-documented, has been CC’s ability to generate soft contact. He dropped velocity and added a cutter to his repertoire to compensate, and batters have struggled to square up CC in that time. In 2019, though, that hasn’t exactly been the case. Let’s take a look.
Soft Contact Extraordinaire… Or Not
CC’s late-career revival began in earnest in 2016. That’s right when he started inducing really soft contact and really leaned on his cut fastball for the first time. Take a look at CC’s contact profile from 2015-19:
|Avg. Exit Velocity||Hard Hit %||Soft Contact %||HR/9|
One thing that’s immediately clear: CC really did have a pretty remarkable turnaround from 2015 to 2016. The type of contact that batters generated against him changed dramatically. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, a 2+ mph drop in average exit velocity means that a pitcher is significantly more effective. I mean, check this out:
- Batting Line Against CC, 2015: .285/.338/.458 (.797 OPS)
- Batting Line Against CC, 2016: .250/.322/.390 (.713 OPS)
Clearly, everything improved, but check out that slugging percentage. What a difference that makes. That inducing softer contact is good is very obvious, but I think it’s important to note what a seemingly small change can do to a pitcher’s effectiveness…
… because take a look at the jump from 2018 to 2019. The exact same 2 mph difference, but this time in the wrong direction. There is a concurrent drop in soft contact percentage, rise in hard contact, and huge increase in HR/9. Not good.
In other words, what we’re seeing here is that CC is getting hit harder. Much harder, in fact. Take a look at this:
- Batting Line against CC, 2018: .250/.319/.397 (.715 OPS)
- Batting Line against CC, 2019: .246/.311/.508 (.818 OPS)
Yikes. Batters are getting hits and getting on base against CC at roughly the same clip that they have since 2016, but they are hitting the ball significantly harder. In fact, batters hitting off CC have increased their OPS by .100 points, and look at those jumps in slugging percentage and HR/9. Again, yikes.
CC’s ability to generate the softest contact in the league—his average exit velocity in 2016, 2017, and 2018 ranked in the 99th, 96th, and 98th percentile among all pitchers—has been absolutely essential to his recent success. It’s allowed him to extend his career. It is obviously a bad sign that he’s seemingly losing that skill. Let’s see what that means.
More Fly Balls, Fewer Grounders
Compounding that issue is the fact that batters are making different contact against CC now. Specifically, they’re hitting more fly balls, fewer ground balls, and more home runs. Check this out:
|Ground Ball %||Fly Ball %||HR Per Fly Ball|
Those are some worrying trends right there. CC’s ground ball percentage and fly ball percentage have essentially flipped since last year. That is bad, especially when surrendering harder contact. That’s why we see the HR/FB ration skyrocketing, as well. Harder hit fly balls are bad. In fact, it’s bad everywhere, but especially when playing your home games in Yankee Stadium.
Each of the last four years–with some signs of decline emerging last year, to be fair–CC has excelled at inducing weak ground balls and keeping the ball out of the air. It’s a formula that’s obviously worked for him. It seems to be a broken formula this year, though. Let’s now take a look at what might be lying underneath these trends.
As I watch CC pitch this year, it certainly feels like he’s throwing less hard, so I looked it up. Turns out that’s true. Take a look at this graph of CC’s velocity since 2016, from Brooks Baseball:
Quite a drop off on the fastball. That much is pretty clear. So clear and dramatic, actually, that it makes me wonder if it is misclassifying some of CC’s cutters as four-seamers, actually, but that’s something I’ll have to monitor myself over the next few weeks to see. Anyway, check it out in graph form:
CC’s velocity is down across the board, but significantly so on his straight fastball. In fact, if the data is to be believed (I tend to believe it, as this intuitively makes sense and is supported by the eye test), his average fastball is actually slower than his average cutter. Not good. Not good at all.
Making matters worse is the fact that CC has been losing velocity on his since 2017. Here is his fastball velocity, relative to the league:
- 2017: 92.35 mph, 18th percentile
- 2018: 91.66 mph, 10th percentile
- 2019: 88.38 mph, 6th percentile
That’s what we call a trend, folks. This really shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, as CC is old for a pitcher and set to retire after the season. Plus, he’s dealt with significant knee injuries and that matters. It really does. But it is still bad news: a 2 or 3 mph difference on a fastball, particularly the drop from low 90s to high 80s, is a substantial one.
To be clear, a pitcher doesn’t need to sit 95 to be an effective big leaguer. CC’s last three years demonstrate this point perfectly. But it’s a whole hell of a lot harder to be effective when sitting 88. After all, that’s why only 6 percent of MLB pitchers throw softer than CC. It’s hard to get outs when a pitcher loses velocity. That’s especially true if a fastball drops faster than the off-speed arsenal, as it’s significantly harder to keep batters off-balance. Off-balance hitters, of course, tend to produce weaker contact; CC’s adjustments to his pitch repertoire since 2016 have all been designed to keep batters off-balance.
In other words, CC’s drop in velocity, I suspect, is likely a major factor in his sudden inability to generate the weak contact we’ve come to expect from him.
So, to summarize, this is not great news for CC. His late-career trademark skill–generating soft contact–is clearly eluding him in 2019. He’s getting hit harder overall, inducing fewer grounders and more home runs, and allowing a greater percentage of those fly balls to leave the yard than he has at any point in 5 years. Worse yet, it seems to be connected to a drop in velocity, which is likely not a correctable problem for CC at this stage in his career.
Hopefully, CC is able to make enough adjustments over the final 3.5 months of the season to remain effective and keep batters off-balance. He is a smart pitcher and a Hall of Famer, and his results on the field have not yet matched these underlying figures. Plus, he’s a 5th starter–something will have gone wrong (again) if the Yanks need to rely on CC in the postseason or in a must-win game. With that being said, this is enough to concerning if you’re the Yanks or a fan.
However, CC has surprised us all before. A few years ago, I never thought writing this post would be even possible–remember, he only added his cutter in 2016. That alone is cause to hope that he will be able to do it again, one final time.