It was a rough season for CC Sabathia. It started rough with a delayed throwing program and low velocity, it stayed rough with constant fastball velocity/command issues, and it finished rough with a Grade II hamstring strain that shelved him before he could make his final start. The most damaging byproduct of those fastball problems was the major increase in HR allowed in 2013. Sabathia set a new career worst with 28 dingers against, good bad for 7th most in all of MLB. That total and final ranking comes after the big guy went homerless in September, so without that late SSS luck he could have found himself top 5 or even top 3 like he was for most of the year.
Interestingly enough, this was the 3rd time since joining the Yankees that CC has given up 20 or more HR in a single season. Before coming to New York he only did that twice. The 28 this year broke his previous career high that he set in 2012, so the implication of a trend starting is there and that trend fits a mid-30s pitcher who’s losing the sting on his fastball like a glove. But were the 28 bombs a sign of things to come or a 1-year statistical anomaly? On Tuesday, Cash said he and the team were hopeful that it was just “an aberration,” and pointed to CC’s stable K and BB rates as support for that theory.
While those rates give plenty of reason to be optimistic about next season, I’m not sure they quite fit the bill as proof that CC’s HR problems this season can be chalked up to 1 year of bad luck. In a lot of his starts that I watched, the shots CC was giving up didn’t appear to be a bunch of fluke, wind-aided cheapies. They were loud, long bombs, the type of homer where you as a viewer know it’s gone just by the sound of the bat-on-ball contact. That’s usually a sign that batters are squaring the pitcher up, and when that’s happening there doesn’t need to be a lot of luck involved.
According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, CC only fell victim to the YS3 dimensional curse twice, and one of those was on a home run hit to left-center field. Those 2 home runs were the only 2 he allowed that could be categorized as aberrations. 18 of the 28 would have gone out of at least 20 other Major League ballparks, and 9 would have gone out in every Major League ballpark. Using their distance measurement system, ESPN tagged 18 of CC’s homers with the “Plenty” or greater tag, and most of the 10 “Just Enough” ones would have gone out of at least half the other MLB parks.
Taking into account splits, location and pitch type, and the bad luck/aberration argument crumbles some more. Sabathia gave up 23 home runs to right-handed hitters compared to only 5 to lefties, and 16 of the 28 were hit to left field while 13 came off CC’s 4-seam fastball. When putting all those pieces together you come up with a high-level picture of a lot of righty hitters teeing off on a lot of bad fastballs and pulling them out of the ballpark. Last time I checked, that’s not luck, that’s a hitter besting a pitcher and more often than not that was the end result of the at-bats that resulted in home runs against CC.
If you want to call the season-long command and location problems with the fastball an aberration, that’s fair. I think we can all agree that CC left more heaters up in the zone and out over the plate than we’ve ever seen, and without that extra MPH or 2 of heat those misplaced pitches become even easier to hit. But to call the high HR count itself an aberration doesn’t seem to ring true. CC gave up a lot of solid to deep home runs, and he gave the bulk of them up in settings where you expect a lefty pitcher to get burned when he’s missing with fastballs to right-handed hitters. That’s a slippery slope to climb, and CC needs to learn how to navigate it better if he wants to cut down on his homers next year.
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