CC Sabathia will be coming off one of his best starts of the season when he faces the Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.
On Tuesday, Sabathia held the Mariners to one run and three hits in seven innings in a 5-1 victory.
Sabathia is 8-10 with a 4.33 ERA. That doesn’t come close to the No. 1 pitcher stats he put up when he first signed with the Yankees in 2009. Which makes sense, because he’s not the same pitcher.
Remember when people were saying Sabathia had to “reinvent” himself once he logged so many innings and lost his blazing fastball? Well, he has. Once a pitcher who poured in the four-seam fastball, he now hardly throws it, and he’s better off for it.
In 2009, according to Brooksbaseball.net, Sabathia threw his four-seam fastball 44.44 percent of the time. It stayed around that percentage for the next four seasons, always above 40 percent.
But what changed — as Father Time would tell you it had to — was the velocity of the pitch.
In 2009, according to PitchFx data on Fangraphs.com, Sabathia averaged 94.1 miles per hour on his fastball while going 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA in leading the Yankees to their 27th World Series title.
But by 2013, when Sabathia’s ERA ballooned to 4.78, his average fastball velocity was 91.3. He still threw it 42.82 percent of the time.
Change was needed. And not just with a changeup.
“He can’t rely on the 96, 97, 98 anymore,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s had to reinvent himself. I think the cutter has become a big pitch for him. I think his breaking ball he has used more effectively. I think because of his health his changeup has been consistent. But he’s definitely had to reinvent himself.”
It’s not like the reinvention happened overnight. Sabathia still threw his fastball 37.39 percent of the time in an injury-plagued, eight-start 2014. His ERA was 5.28.
In 2015, he threw it 28.30 percent of the time and went 6-10 with a 4.73 ERA in 29 starts. Progress.
This year? Sabathia has thrown his fastball 2.53 percent of the time. That is not a misprint.
“I’m obviously throwing different pitches,” Sabathia said. “I throw the cutter, I throw the two-seamer. So, yeah, I’m a different pitcher than I was three, four years ago. It’s obviously helped that I’m healthy.”
This year, Sabathia has also used a cutter (31.92 percent), sinker (29.93), slider (23.12), changeup (11.47) and curve (1.04).
According to Brooksbaseball, Sabathia didn’t throw his first cutter in a game until 2014, when he used it 1.76 percent of the time. He threw it 0.60 percent of the time in 2015, so it’s not like he was sold.
This year, he is. It’s the former No. 1 starter’s No. 1 pitch and hitters are batting .212 against it. But it’s not his only weapon when he gets into a jam.
“I have more choices,” Sabathia said. “I can use my changeup, I can throw the backdoor slider, my cutter, obviously. I’m more well-equipped with what I have now.”
Another reason why Sabathia stuck his fastball in his back pocket? Batters are hitting .385 against it this season. In 2009, the batting average on the pitch was .249.
Unless he suffers a serious left shoulder injury before the end of the season, Sabathia will be back with the Yankees in 2017 on a $25-million vesting option.
The 36-year-old pitches with a brace on his surgically repaired right knee. He said the health of his knee was actually tougher to deal with than any machismo about having to admit he had to dial down the fastball to be effective.
“I think the physical part was the hardest part,” Sabathia said. “Just being healthy and being able to execute and repeat my delivery.”