It wasn’t long ago that New York Yankees starter CC Sabathia was toast. Two years ago, his time as a useful starter appeared to be over. The former ace had posted a 4.81 ERA over last 424 1/3 innings. Just two years later, the Yankees are confidently sending him to the mound with their season on the line.
The 37-year-old Sabathia was tabbed as the team’s Game 7 starter of the American League Championship Series just minutes after the Yankees dropped Game 6 to the Houston Astros. The Astros’ bats finally came alive in the series, winning the contest 7-1.
It makes for quite the narrative entering Game 7. The Astros’ suddenly resurgent offense will go up against a pitcher who knows the meaning of the word well. Over the past two seasons, Sabathia has completely reinvented himself on the mound.
Sabathia seemed to acknowledge the change following his Game 3 ALCS win over the Astros. For six innings, he kept the powerful Houston offense off the board. It was Sabathia’s first scoreless postseason appearance in 22 tries.
How was he able to do it? “Smoke and mirrors,” he said after the game.
Like most aging pitchers, Sabathia can’t get by on overpowering stuff anyone. In 2009, he averaged 95.1 mph with his fastball, which ranked among the highest velocity in the league among left-handed starters. After elbow surgery in 2012, Sabathia’s velocity dropped to 92.2 mph in 2013. He hasn’t topped that figure since.
It took a few years, but in 2016, Sabathia realized he needed to scrap the pitch entirely. In place of his fastball, Sabathia started pounding hitters with a cutter. What he lost in velocity, he gained in movement.
The change was drastic. In 2015, Sabathia used his four-seam fastball 28.3 percent of the time according to BrooksBaseball.net. His cutter was charted at just 0.6 percent that season.
A year later those figures nearly flipped. Sabathia’s four-seam usage plummeted to 1.9 percent. He threw his cutter 31.6 percent of the time. It suddenly became his most used pitch. Both of those figures have remained consistent in 2017. Sabathia’s 3.81 ERA is 16 percent above the league average the past two seasons.
The change couldn’t have come at a better time. Sabathia’s diminished four-seam fastball had been getting hammered by opposing hitters.
*Sabathia’s 2014 was cut to just 46 innings due to injuries
The cutter was far more effective at keeping hitters off balance. They couldn’t tee off against Sabathia’s straight and weakened fastball anymore. Not only that, but Sabathia had strong command of his new pitch. He started pounding righties inside with his cutter, as Eno Sarris of FanGraphs pointed out.
Sabathia made one more significant change to his repertoire in 2017: He went all-in on his slider. For the first time in his career, Sabathia is throwing his slider over 30 percent of the time. It makes sense, as that’s always been his best pitch. Over his career, hitters have hit just .166 against it.
That’s exactly what the Astros saw in Game 3. During Sabathia’s scoreless outing, 80 of his 99 pitches were either cutters or sliders. He threw 42 cutters and 38 sliders.
This is what Sabathia is talking about when he says he’s using “smoke and mirrors” now. His four-seam fastball is all but dead. He’s replaced it with anything and everything that moves. It’s the cliché you hear from every veteran pitcher, only it has actually worked for Sabathia.
Two years ago, the Yankees would have turned to Sabathia in a do-or-die game out of desperation. Now, he’s the guy they want on the mound with a trip to the World Series at stake.
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