CC Sabathia: Overlooked Old Guy
Carsten Charles Sabathia has always been a big man. I guess he wasn’t literally born the size he is now, but it seems believable enough. Can you remember a time when C.C. wasn’t large? Irrespective of his size, he used to pitch very differently. C.C. has always thrown with his left arm, but beyond that, the Sabathia on the mound these days is vastly different from the guy who pitched for Cleveland in the early aughts. (I just looked up whether aughts was the right way to describe the decade from 2000 to 2009. The New Yorker wrote an article that basically told me that it’s a compromised term that no one is happy with. It’s the term you get though, so I apologize if you wished for something better.)
When C.C. arrived in the big leagues, he threw in the mid- to upper-90s. He had a power slider that batters had a tough time hitting. As recently as 2009, C.C. averaged 94.1 mph on his fastball. He was already in New York at that point, and he helped lead the Bronx Bombers to their 27th ring that year. The decline in velocity began soon after, though, as his fastball (according to PITCHf/x) has never again reached his levels of 2009. Last year, 2016, C.C. averaged 89.4 mph on his heater, almost a five mph decrease from his PITCHf/x peak (PITCHf/x data on velocity does not go back further than 2007), and almost even more of a decrease from his early years with Cleveland.
C.C.’s pitch composition is also vastly different than that which he exhibited in 2009. That year, he threw his fastball 60.1% of the time and a sinker 3.1% of the time. Last year, he threw his sinker (34.7% usage) more than his fastball (29.2% usage). The frequency batters see Sabathia’s slider has also increased over the same time period, from 17.9% in ’09 to 24.3% last year. Overall, C.C. has gone from a guy who threw his fastball the majority of the time and at a high velocity to a guy who relies on his sinker and slider to get outs.
Why am I writing on TDG to recommend a 36-year-old pitcher to you? The key word in the title of this article is ‘overlooked.’ Age bias can cause fantasy owners to ignore some potentially valuable, but old, baseball players, and Sabathia is one of them. This trend is present in all leagues, and that means there’s a buying opportunity for the shrewd fantasy owner, oftentimes at almost no cost. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend filling your team with 36 year olds, but one or two can make a huge difference than zero, as long as you pick the right ones. C.C. might be the right one, and I’ll tell you why.
I’m going to be delving into Fangraphs batted ball data here, and it paints a picture that correlates heavily with his changes in pitch mix. The percentage of at bats in which Sabathia gives up line drives and ground balls in his career are 20.4% and 45.7%, respectively. Last year? 16.9% and 50.1%. Line drives down and ground balls up. Furthermore, in Sabathia’s career, he allows soft contact in 18.7% of at bats. Last year, that number rose to 24.0%.
Going deeper into those changes through Statcast, C.C. allowed an average exit velocity of 85.3 MPH last season. That’s the lowest of any pitcher who allowed at least 310 recorded batted ball events. In that spot on the leaderboard, Sabathia finds company with a bunch of relievers, including a few guys who have found success without overpowering stuff in Koji Uehara and Mark Melancon. Here’s that leaderboard:
That all makes sense. C.C. is relying a lot more on pitches with late movement. Pitchers that do that succeed more in inducing weak contact, along with getting more groundballs. From 2015 to 2016, he improved in HR/9 and HR/FB%, both potential indicators that the changes to Sabathia’s arsenal are working.
I’m not going to tell you to trade one of your prized prospects for C.C. I’m not even going to tell you to trade a younger contributor. All I want is for you to be aware. Before you read this article, you were probably overlooking Mr. Sabathia. I mean, sure, he’s hard to miss, but I bet you missed him. Now, you have a slight advantage over anyone who didn’t read this. Maybe it’ll just be as an injury replacement, or as a trade deadline acquisition for some 17-year-old. However it happens, the chance to add C.C. to your roster is not scoff-worthy. If the possibility arises, go for it. We play to win the game, and Carsten Charles Sabathia might just play a large role in helping you win a title.