Could CC Sabathia Be On The Brink Of a Breakout?

Believe it or not, CC Sabathia may be headed for a second-half breakout. Considering Sabathia’s performance this season, he seems like the most outlandish Yankee candidate for a bounce back campaign. But, as is often the case, the numbers tell a different story.

Let’s start, however, with the surface stats– the ones that tell us exactly how bad Sabathia has been in 2015. Out of 98 qualified starting pitchers, he ranks 93rd in ERA, 81st in WHIP, and 96th in Batting Average Against. Yikes.

But it has been well documented over the past few years that stats like ERA and BAA aren’t accurate indicators of pitcher performance because they can be affected by luck. So as analysts, we can do two things: Attempt to quantify how lucky (or, rather, unlucky) Sabathia has been; and look at Sabathia’s peripheral, non-luck-affected statistics.

Let’s start with the peripherals. Sabermatricians typically consider three outcomes to be within a pitcher’s control: Strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Once the result of a play is left to a fielder, it’s all up to luck.

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Sabathia stacks up fairly well when it comes to strikeouts and walks. His 7.86 K/9 ranks 40th out of those 98 pitchers, while his BB/9 ranks a sterling 15th. But out of those 98 starting pitchers, only Kyle Kendrick, who plays his home games at Coors Field, has surrendered more home runs per 9 innings. That explains why Sabathia ranks 35th in xFIP, a stat which attempts to normalize fielding as well as set every pitcher’s home run per fly ball percentage (HR/FB) at 10.5%. In FIP, which accounts for luck but does not alter home run rates, Sabathia ranks just 83rd (although is FIP, at 4.57, is more than a full run lower than his 5.59 ERA).

It’s clear that if CC wants to improve his performance, he needs to lower his home runs allowed. This begs the question: Is it possible that Sabathia, pitching exactly the same as he has this entire season, could allow less home runs over the rest of 2015? This is where we will attempt to qualify how lucky Sabathia has been this season. When we think about home runs, we think of hard hit balls. A negligible amount of bloopers turn into home runs. Of all the balls put in play against Sabathia, 29.9% of them are classified as being hard-hit, which ranks 63rd in baseball– it’s not stellar, but it also doesn’t match up with Sabathia’s massive home run rates. Aside from thinking of hard hit balls, when we think of home runs, we also think of fly balls– it’s almost impossible to hit a home run on a grounder. Sabathia doesn’t give up an inordinate amount of fly balls– his fly ball rate of 34.7% ranks 45th in baseball.

For what it’s worth, Sabathia has also had bad luck on balls hit in the field of play.  Sabathia also ranks in the middle of the pack in line drive rate (his 21.8% ranks 41st). But batters are also having a field day against him–in addition to having the third worst BAA in baseball, Sabathia’s BABIP is the 12th highest in baseball.

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Now we’ve compiled all of the stats; but what do they mean? Ignoring the home runs for a second, it means Sabathia has been unlucky. Sabathia hasn’t been hit especially hard this season, but when batters do put balls in play, an astonishingly high number of them happen to fall in for base hits. That’s the kind of thing that is chalked up to luck, and is out of Sabathia’s control.

But what about home runs? The same logic doesn’t exactly work. A home run doesn’t fall in between fielders– it falls far behind them. So how does this make sense? There are a couple of possibilities. First, it could be that Sabathia is making more mistake pitches each game, and batters are taking advantage of them. Perhaps his location hasn’t worsened, but because his average fastball velocity has dropped (from 94.2mph in 2009 to 89.5mph in 2015), more of them are turning into home runs. Or, maybe Sabathia isn’t making bad pitches at all– maybe he’s just a victim of great hitting.

The most likely answer is that a combination of all three possibilities has caused Sabathia’s ballooning home run rate. And if that’s true, then it won’t be a surprise if Sabathia’s home run rate starts to fall. Sabathia isn’t going to transform into an all-star caliber pitcher overnight, but there’s a strong possibility he won’t be as bad as he’s been. The Yankees have just about half a season remaining. It’s time for CC Sabathia to make a comeback.

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