As analytics have become increasingly impactful to the game of baseball, some players have put it to use. Many pitchers use analytics to prepare for starts and to decide how they plan on approaching hitters. In some extreme cases players have even completely changed the way they play the game based on what the numbers say. One of those players that did just that is CC Sabathia. In the early part of his career he had an electric fastball that he could blow hitters away with. He paired his fastball with a devastating slider and for many seasons, that allowed him to be one of the most effective pitchers in the game. Even to the extent that he was awarded the 2007 Cy Young award. Then two years down the road, he helped the New York Yankees claim a world series title in his first year with the ball club. Sabathia was now a world series champion, a Cy Young award winner, and one of the highest paid players at the time. However, the CC Sabathia that claimed all of those accomplishments in not the same pitcher that we see today. He is currently thirty-eight years of age and some changes had to be made in order for him to remain in the league for this long. Sabathia joined the analytics movement, figuratively speaking, and because of this choice he will be entering his nineteenth MLB season this year.
Time is a limiting factor, especially for athletes. As CC Sabathia faced his body decline with age, his pitching style wasn’t going to stand the test of time. What made him so effective early on was his ability to use his fastball and as he aged, so did that fastball. His velocity went down and truthfully, with pitchers throwing harder than ever, it wasn’t as impressive as it once was. This was a slow process and his stats show it. In 2013 his ERA made a big jump up as it almost reached five. This wasn’t anything close to what he had been recording in years past since his ERA would usually end up a touch over three or sometimes near a 3.50 ERA. This was a struggle that continued for some time as he had four consecutive seasons where his numbers were less than impressive. Take a look below at his career pitching statistics. Ranging from 2013 to 2016 he just wasn’t effective as he once was.
It wasn’t until 2017 that he began to return to the pitcher that he once was. If it wasn’t for this turnaround he probably wouldn’t have a spot on a major league roster right now and his career would have ended sooner than he would have liked. Except, he did made changes and reinvented himself as a pitcher. This past offseason he signed a one year deal worth $8 million dollars to stay with the Yankees. Now as his career does actually come to a close, as he announced his retirement after this season this past month, CC Sabathia was able to prolong his career and improve his case for the hall of fame.
Now let’s “dig in to the data” often said by Brian Kenny on the show MLB Now, to explore how Sabathia was able to reinvent himself. The specific data set that best shows how Sabathia made this change is seen below.
CC Sabathia’s pitch% by season chart is one that is quite intriguing as it seems to have so many different changes in it. Truly each year is unlike any other but some include more drastic changes than others. The time period that I am evaluating for the explanation as to how Sabathia reinvented himself starts in the 2016 season. Out of all of the seasons that Sabathia pitched in, the change from 2016 to 2017 is unlike any other. For starters, his fastball usage completely dropped off the table. He replaced his fastball with a cutter almost completely. He also dropped his sinker usage by an extreme amount but not as much as he dropped off his fastball. For so long in his career his two most used pitches were his fastball and his sinker. Then in his transformation process he replaced the both of them with a cutter and a slider. His slider was a big part of who he was as a pitcher in years past, he just increased his usage of it as a part of his changes. So, in summary Sabathia reinvented himself by dropping off his fastball and sinker usage and began to use a new cutter paired with his slider.
The pitches that were discarded do have something in common. They are only effective when thrown hard, especially the fastball. These new pitches are based more off of movement and spin rate over velocity. To provide a more detailed explanation, below is a spin rate chart of each of his pitches.
As you can see, the two pitches that have the highest spin rate are also the two pitches that he throws the most often. Sabathia stopped relying on velocity and instead pitched well with pitches with more movement. This is probably an adjustment that a lot of pitches should make as they age. When velocity decreases, turn to movement. CC Sabathia is a great example of this strategy and was able to succeed with it.
I do believe that their is a premier pitcher in the league right now who might soon be going through this same process. It was the podcast Effectively Wild that first suggested the possibility that Clayton Kershaw may soon be going through a change like this. With recent reports of his throwing program being put on hold while also being at the age of thirty, it may be a sign of decline. The podcast even mentioned that hopefully this change won’t be like Sabathia’s and that he can make a pitching style change sooner rather than later. I think this is definitely a theory with some traction and I believe that the next few years will answer the question.
CC Sabathia is a great example for future pitchers as to how they can modify their craft over the course of their careers and still remain effective. When velocity fails, you can always rely on movement and off-speed pitches to still get outs.