CC Sabathia has a home run problem

Sabathia vs NYM 2015 CC Sabathia has given up a lot of home runs the past few years. In this post, we're going to look at how many he's given up, what the projections say about 2016 and we will try to figure out what will actually happen this season. (Maybe.)

Yankee fans hoping for a renascent CC Sabathia in 2016 could be in for a rude awakening

When Sabathia signed with the New York Yankees in December 2008, he had already logged nearly 1,660 career innings with his career high of 253 occurring during earlier that year when he split his time between Cleveland and Milwaukee. Now, entering the 2016 season, Sabathia is showing the wear and tear of a former dominant ace with 2,988 2/3 innings on his arm and is searching for a way to remain a part of his team's starting rotation. (As I was writing this piece, Sabathia recovered a bit by holding the Rays to two runs in five innings on Thursday, but heading into that night's game, Sabathia's spring ERA was well above seven. Of course, they're Spring stats and they don't mean anything, but his velocity was also low so...)

Sabathia’s velocity, which was a strength a few short years ago, is now becoming his undoing.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (7)

As you can see, his velocity has been on a steady decrease since 2012. Diminished velocity on secondary pitches isn’t as dire as it is on your fastball, and it may not seem like much, but when the gap between your fastball and "soft" pitches closes from 15 mph, and at some points, nearly 20 mph to just over 10 mph, hitters will have an easier time adjusting and end up hitting pitches they used to have trouble recognizing.

It’s not completely dire. Sabathia isn't only reaching 82-83 mph on his fastball, like other pitchers (Jered Weaver) so all is not lost, but the Yankees have to hope that he’s just starting a bit slow in Spring Training and that the last five starts of his 2015 campaign—when he was 2-1 with a 2.17 ERA—are more on par with what we’ll see this year. If not, they're going to have to figure out what to do with him.

A projection oddity for 2016

I took a look at three major projection systems' predictions for Sabathia's HR numbers. He's always given up home runs, but the last few years have been trending downward—well, down for him, up for the players hitting home runs off him—and I wanted to see if the numbers would increase. PECOTA sees Sabathia’s HR total increasing to 33 (up from 28 in 2015) while Steamer and ZIPS see those totals going down (17 and 20 respectively) but Steamer and ZIPS are also seeing a decrease in games started (23 and 21 respectively) while PECOTA is projecting 33 starts for Sabathia which would match his 2013 numbers. Sabathia’s career high in starts occurred twice: in 2007 and 2010 when he started 34 games (his age 26 and age 29 seasons). In 2013, his age 32 season, he posted his career worst ERA 4.78 and gave up a career worst (to that point) 28 home runs. He matched that total last season in 44 fewer innings.

While looking at CC's stats on Baseball Reference, I decided to look at the players who were most similar to him through their age 34 season (CC turned 35 mid-season 2015). The range of names was pretty impressive, but the five that stood out were Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Dwight Gooden, Bob Welch, and Mike Mussina. Clemens was at 3,040 innings, Glavine 2,900, Gooden 2,695, Welch 2,733 and Mussina 2,668 and Sabathia has more home runs at this point in his career than all of them, in more innings than Glavine, Gooden, Welch and Moose, but in fewer than Clemens.

The many facets of the home run problem

Since the beginning of 2013, 89 pitchers have thrown at least 400 innings. Sabathia has the highest HR/FB and the third highest HR/9 rates among those 89, and it doesn't seem like a fluke.

Are all of the home runs crushed? Not recently.

Year True Dis. Stadium Dis.
2012 403.5 402.7
2013 384.2 383.5
2014 403.1 399.9
2015 380.3 379.6

And here are his longest and shortest home runs since 2012:

  • 2012: Longest - 448 feet hit by Josh Hamilton in Texas.
  • 2012: Shortest - 365 feet by J.J. Hardy in Baltimore.
  • 2013: Longest - 421 feet by Evan Longoria in Yankee Stadium.
  • 2013: Shortest - 344 feet by Raul Ibanez in Yankee Stadium.
  • 2014: Longest - 439 feet by Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee.
  • 2014: Shortest - 344 feet by L.J. Hoes in Houston.
  • 2015: Longest - 431 feet by Mike Olt in Yankee Stadium.
  • 2015: Shortest - 326 feet by Allen Craig in Boston.

Here's his home runs by velocity:

70-79 mph 80-89 mph 90-99 mph
2012 2 6 14
2013 4 9 10
2014 0 7 1
2015 3 15 6

Home runs by pitch type since 2012:

# of starts Home runs Fastball Slider Changeup Curve Cutter
2012 28 22 14 5 2 1 0
2013 32 28 16 5 5 2 0
2014 8 10 4 3 2 0 1
2015 29 28 15 4 5 0 4
totals 97 88 49 17 14 3 5

And here's the home runs by where they land in the strike zone.

Upper Half Lower Half In the zone Out of the zone
2012 9 13 21 1
2013 13 15 25 3
2014 5 5 10 0
2015 8 20 27 1

This also illustrates how hitters (from both sides of the plate) have done when Sabathia pitches in the zone. Obviously, he'd be better off not throwing it down the middle, but that could be said for every pitcher, even those with a scorching hot fastball. CCsluggingpercentagesince2012

More home run stats since 2012

  • Sabathia has given up 15 home runs to lefties and 73 to righties.
  • He's given up 37 at home and 51 on the road.
  • Last year he gave up 25 out of his 28 home runs to righty batters and gave up 90% of his home runs to righties in 2014.
  • He's averaging 19.5 home runs a season, but the shortened 2014 season skews that a bit. If we go by those numbers in which he gave up 10 home runs in only 46 innings, it's quite possible that Sabathia could have given up between 30-40 home runs, if he had pitched a full season.

Another thing I looked at were his quality of contact stats. Per Fangraphs: Quality of Contact Stats (Soft%, Med%, and Hard%) represent the percentage of a hitter or pitcher’s batted balls that have been hit with a certain amount of authority. The numbers (Soft%, Med%, Hard%) will equal 100 percent.

Soft% Medium% Hard%
2012 16.4 55.0 28.6
2013 16.1 51.2 32.7
2014 16.3 56.5 27.2
2015 16.5 54.4 29.1

CC actually is good at not giving up many soft hits, but he ranges from awful to average in giving up medium and hard hits. 2012 was his worst in giving up medium contact (55 percent) while he was great at soft contact (16.4 percent) and below average with hard contact (28.6 percent). From 2014 to 2015, he actually improved his medium and hard contact rates from awful and below average (per the range on Fangraphs), to poor and average, so that's something!

But remember, these numbers aren't perfect because it's not always guaranteed that a ball hit hard will fall for a hit and that a softer hit ball will automatically be an out, but it does illustrate that Sabathia is having issues with balls that aren't necessarily being hit that hard (medium).

So what does this all mean for Sabathia's home run rates in 2016?

It all depends on how he adjusts to being a former hard throwing lefty ace who doesn't have as much left in the tank. And it's a story you read about a lot in Major League Baseball. A hard throwing, innings amassing, now former ace of a team enters the twilight of his career, and he comes to the point of no return. Thanks to the cruel march of time, there's no going back to his former dominant days, and thanks to that same cruel march of time, that ace must now make a choice: Does he continue pitching the way he's always pitched even if it means poor results which hurt his team’s chances of making the playoffs or does he reinvent myself and pitch to his new, somewhat diminished abilities?

It's very possible that CC stays consistent, doesn't fall off a cliff, and gives up around 27-28 dingers this season, but, if Sabathia does give up 33 home runs like PECOTA is predicting, he'd end up matching James Shields' 2015 total.

[Data courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info, Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Prospectus.]