Game 129, Mariners at Yankees – Late Career Surges

marc w · August 25, 2017 at 4:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Ariel Miranda vs. CC Sabathia, 4:05pm

Ariel Miranda in a bandbox stadium against a HR-hitting line-up. What could go wrong?

Today’s game is an interesting one to me, and not just because the M’s are right in the thick of the wildcard chase. I’m interested in the pitching match-up and checking in on CC Sabathia’s fascinating late-career reboot and resurgence. Sabathia looked done – like, Pujols-level done – a few years ago. After a solid 2012, he stumbled badly in 2013, with an ERA in the high-4s. He turned 33 that year, but any hope for a rebound in 2014 was dashed when he missed time with injury and spent his few healthy innings giving up HRs at an alarming rate. He was healthier in 2015, but he still wasn’t effective. He was paid $25 M per year as well. This looked like a classic cautionary tale about giving long contracts to pitchers. His velo was down, he was in his late 30s, and pitched in a park that turned decently-hit fly balls into dingers. It didn’t make sense for the retooling Yankees to keep an aging, ineffective pitcher who gave up tons of hard contact in perhaps the worst park in baseball to give up hard contact. And then something strange happened: Sabathia reinvented himself on the fly, and while he hasn’t turned back the clock to 2007, he’s once again adding value to the team.

There are two things going on with Sabathia. One is more of a personal shift in approach – a shift with an easily-identifiable pedigree. The other is team-specific, and something we’ve talked a bit about this season. So let’s separate these shifts out and tackle them one by one. In 2012-2013, from his final really good year to his first awful one, Sabathia relied primarily on a four-seam fastball. Over the next few years, perhaps to try and alleviate his HR problems, he started throwing his sinker more often, but he continued to use his four-seamer as well. Using more of the sinker didn’t solve the dinger issue at all, as it seemed even easier for batters to elevate the sinker than his four-seam. With his velo dropping from ~94 to ~90-91, and with the entire *league* now geared up to drive low fastballs, this seemed like a sure sign that the end was nigh. Seemingly out of nowhere, Sabathia showed up in 2016 with a completely different pitch mix. The four-seam was essentially retired. In its place was a new pitch, one he’d thrown a couple of times in previous years, but now his primary fastball and bearing a new and different shape: a cutter, thrown at essentially the same speed as his sinker. He’d always had a slider, and it’s been his best pitch against lefties for a decade. He’s always shown big platoon splits, and a breaking ball like his slurvy slider is a big reason why. His problem was that he couldn’t keep righties honest when they could look fastball and swing like hell at them. The cutter itself wasn’t all that remarkable – it was a straight fastball with essentially the same vertical movement as his sinker. The key was 1) it had 8″ less horizontal movement and 2) he threw both of them to righties. Righties now saw a bunch of 90 MPH pitches, but it was harder to get the barrel of the bat on either of them.

This approach, especially at this velocity, isn’t geared towards strikeouts, and indeed, Sabathia’s K rate suffered. The existence of the cutter didn’t suddenly turn his sinker into a decent pitch; righties still hit the sinker pretty well. But this approach allowed him to fight righties to a draw, and the cutter helped keep his HR-rate playable. In short, Sabathia became, in Tony Blengino’s words, the best contact manager in the AL. The sinker got some ground balls, and the cutter induced weak, jam-shot pops and flies on batters who were expecting a half a foot more armside run. That’s great, but many great contact manager types have struggled to maintain their mastery. Marco Estrada was great until this season, and Masahiro Tanaka’s seen his contact management all but disappear in a hail of long balls this season. But while Sabathia isn’t quite matching what he did in 2016, he’s still sporting a low BABIP and is having another surprisingly effective year.

The whole ditch-the-four-seam-use-a-cutter-and-sinker-instead plan is a familiar one to M’s fans. We’ve seen quite a few proponents come through Oakland in the past several years. Most famously, Brandon McCarthy used this approach to reinvent himself after a few seasons of getting knocked around in Texas. With the A’s in 2011, McCarthy went from afterthought to near ace on the out-of-nowhere contenders. In 2011-2012, McCarthy threw a sinker or cutter nearly *80%* of the time, and while his K rates weren’t great, a very low walk rate and decent HR rates made him a valuable starter. He was also an imitated one: Jesse Chavez, to take one example, used the exact same approach with the A’s, completely overhauling his pitch mix and becoming a decent swingman/starter for a few years. McCarthy himself attributed the shift to Roy Halladay, who threw around 70% cutters/sinkers during his time as one of the game’s premier starters, and another guy who needed to overcome a less-than-ideal first go-round in MLB.

The second big trend with CC is something we’ve seen from essentially ALL Yankees pitchers these days: they’re throwing a ton of breaking balls. McCarthy threw 80% cutters/sinkers, and Halladay threw about 70%. Sabathia himself threw some type of fastball on around 60% of his pitches a few years ago. That’s down to about 50% now, with that 10% shifted over to his slider. His slider is now the pitch he throws the most, and he’ll get up to about 50% sliders vs. lefties. As a team, the Yankees are dead last in FB usage by a wide margin; the Astros are in 2nd place about 4 percentage points back. By pitch info’s stats, they rank dead last in sinkers and 3rd lowest in four-seam usage. On the other side of that coin, they rank #1 in slider use, and 8th in change-ups. But if you add splitters to change-ups (as a splitter is a type of change), they throw the most such pitches in the game. Reliever Dellin Betances throws 98, but throws a curveball 55% of the time. Their best overall pitcher, Luis Severino, throws 97 as a starter, but still throws nearly 50% sliders+change-ups. Leaguewide, batters do much more damage on fastballs, so you understand the theory behind this: throw more of the pitches that don’t turn into homers and fewer of the ones that do. Like the Astros, the Yankees have a huge differential in the number of HRs their batters have hit and the number their pitchers have yielded. Their batters get to take advantage of a friendly park, while their pitchers haven’t given up anywhere near as many dingers as, say, the M’s. The Yankees defense has been surprisingly stout as well, so their BABIP pushes the Yankees ahead of the Astros in terms of runs allowed an ERA.

The M’s have been a good hitting club against fastballs this year, but have struggled against breaking balls, sliders in particular. If they get into fastball counts, they can do some damage, particularly in a park like new Yankee stadium. Nelson Cruz needs a big game here, and it’s great they can get him back in the line-up now that the DH is back. This is also a perfect time to give Robinson Cano an extra day off and avoid him aggravating his hamstring. The M’s have said they don’t anticipate DL’ing him, which is good to hear; if he does need to go to the DL, the M’s have Gordon Beckham with them in New York, ready to be activated.

1: Segura, SS
2: Valencia, 1B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Haniger, RF
6: Zunino, C
7: Heredia, CF
8: Gamel, LF
9: Motter, 2B
SP: Miranda

After yesterday’s huge brawl between the Tigers and Yankees, MLB has issued suspensions to several Yankees players, including both of their primary catchers (Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine). Sanchez, who sucker punched some Tiger in the melee, gets 4 games, while Romine – who was the recipient of the first shove from Miggy Cabrera – gets 2 games. Both will appeal, I’m sure, so Sanchez is batting 3rd tonight.

The teams are wearing special jerseys for “Players Weekend” complete with nicknames on the back. Kyle Seager’s jersey now reads “Corey’s Brother” while Motter is “La Pesadilla” (The nightmare). Cruz is Boomstick, Jean Segura is “El Mambo” and Heredia’s “El Conde” (The Count).


8 Responses to “Game 129, Mariners at Yankees – Late Career Surges”

  1. Grayfox3d on August 25th, 2017 6:41 pm

    Wow… if they lose this that’s one hell of a way to cough up a game.

  2. mrakbaseball on August 25th, 2017 6:54 pm

    Amazing that Miranda didn’t allow a homer in the bandbox in the Bronx.

  3. giumri on August 25th, 2017 6:59 pm

    Getting lucky – watching on Pix11 in NY and DiDi was safe on a very weird looking slide.
    I’ll take it.

  4. Sowulo on August 25th, 2017 8:01 pm

    Needed that one.

  5. mksh21 on August 26th, 2017 11:49 am

    Gallardo…. sad thing is despite the injuries this year they WILLINGLY signed him before all that lol

  6. mrakbaseball on August 26th, 2017 12:13 pm

    Gallardo was traded to Seattle for Seth Smith. Saying they “signed” him implies they acquired him via free agency.

  7. okinawadave on August 27th, 2017 10:41 am

    Not sure we’re good enough for the Little League World Series today.

  8. mksh21 on August 27th, 2017 11:11 am

    mrakbaseball. Ugh I forgot it was a trade… Does that make it even worse??

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