Note: This piece is by Mike Jaggers-Radolf
After Sunday’s complete game shutout, CC Sabathia has now pitched 145.2 innings for the Yankees this season. His ERA is a sterling 2.72 and his WHIP is just 1.16. Entering the game CC was worth 4.4 fWAR, third best in the majors, and had a 2.57 FIP, far and away the best of his excellent career. Bluntly put, Sabathia has put forward his best first half as a Yankee and is possibly putting together the best season of his career. How’s he done it?
On one level, the answer is not clear. For his career CC has struck out 7.57 batters per nine innings while giving out 2.78 free passes with a BABIP of .289. His numbers this season are not materially different. He’s striking out a touch more, at 7.70 entering Sunday’s game and walking fewer at 2.24, with a BABIP of .304. With the exception of the BABIP, his numbers have improved across the board, but the improvements are marginal. Improvements at the margins go a long way for a pitcher as skilled as Sabathia, but allowing one half fewer walks per game while striking out half an additional batter doesn’t tell the entire story.
Digging a little further, two things jump out. First, Sabathia is actually pitching deeper into games than he did in 2009 or 2010. In 2009 CC had an IP/GS of 6.2. In 2010 he improved that figure to an even 7 IP/GS. This season CC has improved again, to 7.1 IP/GS.
That may not seem like much, and in any given game it isn’t, but over the course of a full season those extra outs accumulate. For example, over the course of his twenty starts this year that extra one-third an inning per game has compiled to an extra 6.2 innings over what CC would have given the team over the same period of time in 2010. He’s effectively given the Yankees an extra start this season, and he’s currently on pace to pitch an astonishing 267.2 innings.
The other counting stat that jumps out from CC’s line is his home run rate. Four percent of all the fly balls CC has allowed this season have carried for homers. That is less than half the 8.6% rate he allowed last year and the 8.2% rate he’s allowed for his career. Any pitcher who can do such a good job at keeping the ball in the park is going to have prolonged success. The follow up question then becomes, can CC keep it up? The answer may be yes.
Coming to the Yankees CC was known for having a plus fastball that he used to set up a devastating slider. At the time it was absolutely true. In 2008 his fastball was actually a negative pitch, while his slider was worth an eye-popping 33.9 runs above average. Not mentioned was his almost as impressive changeup, which in 2008 had been worth 18.2 runs above average.
That changeup served CC well in 2009. For the season his fastball returned to being a plus pitch, worth 12.5 runs above average, while his slider fell to being worth only 0.6 runs above average. The pitch he relied upon to get batters out instead was his changeup, which was worth 23.3 runs above average.
In 2010, CC’s slider saw a return to form, while his changeup became less valuable. For the entire season, his fastball was worth 9.3 runs, his slider was worth 17.8 runs and his changeup was worth 8.8 runs above average. Any time a pitcher has three plus pitches working in a season he’s going to be successful.
In 2011 CC has four plus pitches working. According to Fangraphs his fastball is already worth 9.5 runs above average, eclipsing his full season total from 2010. In addition, his slider has been worth 7.1 runs and his changeup has been worth 5.8 runs. Neither pitch has been as devastating as it was in the past, but this is the first time since joining the Yankees that CC has all three of his main pitches working in such harmony. And, he’s added his curveball into the mix. CC seldom throws his curveball, showing it only 1.5% of the time this year, but it has been worth 1.39 runs above average for every 100 of them that he throws. That is the best the pitch has been since Sabathia has joined the Yankees, giving him a valuable weapon to keep batters off-balance. With all four of his pitches working this well, it is hard to imagine Sabathia giving up a lot of home runs anytime soon.
2008 was Sabathia’s best season in terms of fWAR. He accumulated 7.6 for the season. Entering Sunday’s game, Sabathia was on pace to be worth 7.8 fWAR this season and after his incredible performance in Sunday’s game that pace is now probably closer to 8 fWAR. CC hasn’t done any one thing to step up his game this way. Instead, he’s made a series of small improvements that in total have improved what was already one of the best pitchers in the game.
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