Game 37, Mariners at Yankees

marc w · May 6, 2019 at 3:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

King Felix vs. CC Sabathia, 3:35pm

Happy Felix Day, friends.

Larry Stone’s got an interesting article on Felix’s changes this season, both mentally and mechanically. In particular, he focuses on a change in pitch mix, with the curve ball taking over from Felix’s less-successful change, especially given that Felix’s fastball can’t keep batters off of the cambio. And he highlights the fact that today’s opponent, CC Sabathia, is someone many of pointed to for Felix to emulate.

I don’t intend to quibble with everything in the piece, which you should read, but I did want to make a couple of larger points. First, I’m not sure that pitch mix is where I’d start if I set out to explain Felix’s improvements this year. Second, the lesson I take from CC Sabathia is that there is no single “reinvention” a pitcher makes when he loses velocity. CC’s been a survivor because he keeps changing. The CC of 2019 has a very, very different pitch mix from the CC of, say, 2016, and both would be unrecognizable to the CC of 2008. I think fans, and, I worry, the M’s at times, have built up this narrative that Felix can’t do X anymore, and if he just did Y, then everything would be fine. If pitchers could “just do Y” and survive throwing 89-90MPH fastballs, then the league would be full of such pitchers. It’s not. Change is a means, not an end; as soon as Felix finds a pitch mix that really works, he should be preparing to throw it all away and figure out the next one.

In 2018, easily Felix’s worst season as a pro, he threw 33% sinkers, 24% change-ups and 28% curves (the rest were the odd four-seamer or slider, etc.). The change and curve had shockingly similar results, with the change yielding a few more base hits, while the curve gave up fewer hits in total, but more HRs. So, what’s that look like now in his new-look 2019? Felix is NOW throwing 33% sinkers, 18% change-ups and 36% curves. That’s a noticeable difference, but given when in the count he uses each pitch, it’s not as big a change as it might seem. Despite throwing way more curves, he’s given up a similar number of balls in play against each. And just as in the past, the single most effective pitch in Felix’s arsenal is still the change. The shift is more about getting to use it in more favorable counts, and stealing strikes with first-pitch curves. I don’t want to minimize or hand-wave this shift, but I want to make sure we put it in perspective. The change is still his out pitch, and he uses it so much more when he has two strikes (part of the reason his results on it are so good). But he’s now able to take some of the pressure off of his sinker on the first pitch or when he’s behind. That’s great, but I’m not sure it’s as big of a shift as the M’s or the article may make it seem.

CC Sabathia, like Felix, is one of those rare birds still in the game that began their career firmly in the pre-pitch fx world. Thus, we don’t see young CC’s velo and pitch mix using the same tool as we see…everyone else’s until 2007, which was CC’s *seventh* full season in MLB. He still threw 95, and threw those 95 MPH four-seamers over 60% of the time, with changes and sliders making up the rest. By 2010, he was still four-seam dominant, but had a sinker and had begun mixing in a curveball. That was still the pitch mix he used in 2013, when age and 3 MPH off of his fastball caught up with him. It took a while, but he eventually swapped out his four-seamer, by this point at 90 MPH or so, with his sinker. That kept him in the league, but it didn’t make him terribly useful, but then his new-found cutter showed up, and he had another tool to keep batters guessing. By 2017, he’d become cutter/slider dominant, with the sinker more of a grace note and the four-seamer essentially gone entirely. That brings us to the present, with CC’s velocity at 89, and a pitch mix of 50% cutters and another 1/3 sliders. To lefties in particular, CC will throw about 2/3 sliders.

CC faced the exact same problem as Felix: his secondaries were still effective, but he couldn’t GET to them, because batters were destroying his fastballs. First, he shifted to a sinker, much as Felix did when HE stopped throwing 95. But he didn’t stop there: Sabathia kept tinkering, kept adapting, until he found that his cutter could keep righties at bay, and somehow not blend into his slider. So much of this looks “wrong” from a strategy point of view; I’d be nervous as hell about throwing a slider-ish pitch as your main fastball when your primary weapon is a slider, but I’m not CC Sabathia, and I’m not watching batters react to it. I can imagine some pointing to his FIP and saying that it’s *still* not working, and he’s just forestalling the inevitable with strand rate and luck. But *all pitching is forestalling the inevitable*. The point is that he’s taking his time and continuing to adapt. My hope isn’t that Felix copies CC, but that Felix learns not only from this off-season, but from waaaay back when he had to adjust his pitch mix early in games, or any of the other changes he’s made. It can’t be a one-time thing, and any cursory glance at his past shows at hasn’t been. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but that’s part of the coaching staff’s job – not to make everything easy, but to make it seem like the ideas came from Felix, not from some distant brain trust or an out-of-patience manager.

1: Haniger, RF
2: Beckham, SS
3: Encarnacion, DH
4: Santana, LF
5: Bruce, 1B
6: Healy, 3B
7: Narvaez, C
8: Bishop, CF
9: Gordon, 2B


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