Ordinarily I’d have run this post closer to this past weekend; however, I’ve been on vacation and am a little behind on my blogging. Following CC Sabathia‘s latest massacreing at the hands of the Red Sox, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about why the big man has struggled so mightily against Boston this season, especially when looking at his incredible year on the whole.
As has been pointed out in about a million different places, Sabathia’s ERA against the Red Sox on the 2011 season is now 7.20. Against everyone else, it’s 2.11. There’s no getting around it; Sabathia’s numbers against Boston this season have been terrible, and are even more glaring when compared to his overall 2011 ledger:
Now, Boston’s obviously not some weak-hitting team; much to my chagrin they tied the Yankees in team wOBA back in June and quickly leapfrogged ahead of them (unfortunately I predicted that this would happen), and are currently sporting the top mark in MLB by a good margin. In fact, as recently pointed out by Marc Normandin, the 2011 Sox may in fact end up being one of the top offenses anyone has seen in years — at least, per wRC+. Unless the Sox continue to play out of their minds, the 2009 Yankees’ .366 team wOBA will hopefully remain intact as the top team wOBA of the last decade-plus. Of course, considering that the Sox are doing what they’re doing in a drastically reduced offensive environment, their accomplishments are perhaps even more impressive than that ultra-powerful Yankee squad of two seasons ago.
So while we might expect Sabathia to struggle somewhat compared with how he’s fared against the rest of the league, it still seems highly unlikely that he’d continue to stumble against Boston to such an extent — especially given that he’s historically handled them fairly well. It goes without saying that a .324/.397/.451 collective batting line fueled in part by a .388(!) BABIP is not sustainable, unless your lineup is facing Sergio Mitre every day. CC’s BABIP on the season is .298 (career .289), and while there’s no denying Boston’s offensive prowess, they’ve clearly been the beneficiaries of a healthy does of luck when facing Sabathia.
Not only that, but many of the individual Boston hitters’ performances against Sabathia this season are comically outsized, particularly when compared to how they’ve fared against Sabathia during their careers:
vs. CC Sabathia
Ellsbury 2011: .500/.545/1.000
Career: .238 /.292/.429
Pedroia 2011: .600/.636/.700
Gonzalez 2011: .308/.400/.538
Youkilis 2011: .200/.333/.300
Ortiz 2011: .182/.250/.182
Crawford 2011: .385/.385/.462
Saltalamacchia 2011: .000/.333/.000
Scutaro 2011: .286/.444/.286
Lowrie 2011: .333/.333/.667
As you can see, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez, also known as the top three hitters in Boston’s lineup, are destroying Sabathia this season — although in fairness they’re also pretty much destroying everyone — and while we’re talking extremely small samples with the 2011 numbers (16 at-bats or less), they still stick out pretty dramatically when placed against their career numbers vs. Sabathia.
The only hitters in Boston’s lineup not outdoing their career numbers against Sabathia are Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Marco Scutaro and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Youk in particularly is an interesting case, as he’s historically had quite a bit of success against CC. Ortiz, on the other hand, has never been able to figure Sabathia out and (fortunately) continues to be perplexed to this day. Carl Crawford and Scutaro have also historically performed well against CC. I guess Scutaro kind of makes sense in that he’s your stereotypical awful-against-everyone-else-but-hits-like-Ted-Williams-against-the-Yankees type of player, but given that CC’s held lefties to a .234/.292/.346 line throughout his career, it appears as if Crawford’s the rare lefty that has CC figured out to a certain degree.
David Pinto over at Baseball Analytics took a look at Sabathia’s heat maps and concluded that Sabathia’s problems against Boston resided primarily in the fact that he throws fewer strikes to Boston. Per Pinto:
“He throws fewer pitches in the zone, and that leads to fewer strikes, mostly because there are fewer pitches to take for strikes. A team of selective hitters, they swing less, especially since fewer pitches are in the strike zone. Swinging at better pitches, (lower chase %) they make more contact (fewer misses).”
Wanting more, I decided to run my own breakdown of Sabathia’s four 2011 outings against the Sox:
Pinto’s primary conclusion is spot-on: in all four starts he’s thrown his fastball for strikes less frequently than his season average; he’s thrown his slider for strikes less frequently than his season percentage in two of the four starts; and both his sinker and change have been thrown for strikes less frequently than his season average in three of the four starts.
Pitch selection has also appeared to be a major problem for Sabathia in his outings against Boston. As you can see, he’s gone to the changeup less and less with each start — Sabathia himself said he knew he was fastball-heavy this past Saturday, although given Boston’s lefty-laden lineup perhaps this was done purposely. For what it’s worth, Boston’s also been the second-best changeup-hitting team in baseball, so that may have played into Sabathia’s gameplan as well, although feeding Boston a steady diet of four-seamers isn’t exactly a great tack either, as they’ve also been the top fastball-hitting team in baseball.
The one pitch Boston has negative run values on is the slider, and to CC’s credit he threw it more frequently last Saturday than in any of the three previous starts and got a massive 32.3% whiff rate on it. It’s also been his second-best pitch this season — not to mention second-most valuable in the AL and most valuable pitch of his career by a good margin.
The other pitch CC should probably work back into his attack against Boston is the sinker, which he thew just 6.4% of the time on Saturday, way down from his 18.1% selection on the season. It ended up getting hit pretty hard (1.0744 linear weights), which is likely why he scrapped it, but he’ll need to work in these secondary offerings against a fastball-crushing team like Boston.
I doubt there are too many Yankee fans who are ignorant enough to believe the idea that “CC can’t beat Boston,” but in light of recent events it seemed like it’d be worth looking at Sabathia’s game logs against Boston as a Yankee, just to remind everyone that not only can CC beat Boston, but he’s also dominated them in doing so.
While the three-year trendline is a bit discouraging, 2011 is clearly an outlier. It’s also worth pointing out that peripheral-wise, CCs actually been slightly better against the Sox this season (4.12 FIP compared to 5.00 in 2010), even if the results haven’t exactly been there.
Despite the ugly 2011 numbers, CC’s really only had one truly awful outing against the Sox, and that was this past Saturday’s. While he didn’t give his customary length on April 10, he still limited the damage to one run, while in both the May 14 and June 9 starts he mostly kept the Sox at bay until imploding in the seventh both times.
Going forward, there’s no reason not to expect the Sabathia who’s dominated Boston to return next time he faces them. It seems incredibly unlikely that the Red Sox will continue to see the balls they make contact with fall in for hits nearly 40% of the time, and after losing four straight times — not to mention having the Sox account for 66% of his losses — I would expect CC to not only start pounding the strike zone more but also mix his offerings up substantially.
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