The Yankees will remain in first place no matter what happens between the time I write this and when the team next plays on Tuesday. But with such a tight lead on the pole possession in the AL East, there is a real possibility that Baltimore will slip ahead and drop the Bombers into a Wild Card spot. If that happens the Yankees will find themselves in a sudden death game, most likely against the Oakland A’s, in Oakland. An elimination game is a tough spot for any team to be in, especially one on the road. Should that happen, who starts?
For his first three seasons in pinstripes, the answer to that question was CC Sabathia, probably followed with some deserved mockery directed at whoever asked the question. But this year has been different. CC has been good, but that’s all. Yankee fans are spoiled (shocking, I know). We expect CC to be great.
This season CC hasn’t been great. This will probably be the first season he won’t pitch 200 innings since 2006. This will probably be the first season he doesn’t make thirty starts, also since 2006. His HR/FB% is an ugly 13.3%. After wracking up at least five fWAR every season like he was cutting his way through a box of Captain Crunch, CC will miss that mark for the first time since 2005. None of this is to say that CC has been bad. Any pitcher who gives you a 3.63/3.53/3.30 slash line, which is what CC had through Sunday, is a solid pitcher. His FIP- is 83, which is excellent, but the numbers show that CC hasn’t been quite the beast he was the past couple of years, when he was the no-doubt-about-it Ace of the Yankee staff.
This year he’s left the title out there, and teammate Hiroki Kuroda has made a play for it. But has he been better than CC? In terms of innings and ERA, absolutely. Kuroda has an ERA of 3.26, and has pitched 201.2 innings through Sunday, compared to 176 for CC. On that basis, you’d give the ball to Kuroda and never look back. But when you dig a little deeper into the numbers the decision isn’t as cut and dry as one might think.
Sabathia has been striking out more batters than Kuroda, averaging 8.64 K’s per nine innings to Kuroda’s 6.62. The two have fought to a tie in terms of walks, both allowing two free passes per nine innings (technically Kuroda has the better rate by 0.12 walks per nine, which is nothing). The two have also allowed the ball to leave the park at about the same clip, Kuroda allowing 1.o1 HR/9, versus CC’s 1.07.
In total, the peripherals suggest that Sabathia, and not Kuroda, has been the better pitcher. CC’s FIP and xFIP of 3.53 and 3.30 are better than Kuroda’s marks of 3.85 and 3.68, the difference coming entirely from CC’s better strike out rate.
Why, then, is the perception that Kuroda has pitched out of his mind this year, while Sabathia has struggled? Part of the answer lies with Sabathia’s baseline. He set the precedent of being one of the best pitcher’s in baseball, when this year he’s only the best pitcher on his team. The second reason is that Kuroda has exceeded all expectations, and benefited from the prettier ERA. If his AL East line was 4.12/4.25/4.30 (or something like that) we’d all be happy to have him, and there would be nothing more to say about it. Instead, Kuroda has given CC a run for his money, and the perception of reality has favored the pitcher who has exceeded expectations, not the one who has failed to exceed them.
This will probably never be a debate inside the Yankee organization. The team is conservative and Joe Girardi is a “by-the-book” manager. Sabathia is nominally the team’s Ace, and that will be that (he also hasn’t given the Yankees a reason to think he can’t get the job done). Fortunately, a quick glance at the numbers suggests that by the slightest of margins the conservative, old-school baseball decision, is also the right decision this season. CC has been just a bit better than Hiroki. But it has been a lot closer than it should have been. What do you think?
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