Today’s Pinch Hitter is Alex Khalifa. He’s now a buyer for a tile company in Anaheim, California, but he was born in Connecticut and attended his first game at old Yankee Stadium in 1992. He’s lived on the West Coast since he was a teenager, he wrote that his one brush with a Yankee came when he was watching the All-Star parade through Disneyland in 2010. That’s when Alex shouted “Let’s Go Yankees” so loudly that Joe Girardi gave him a thumbs up. As a final note, Alex wrote that he’d like to thank his father Amin for texting him about the Tanaka signing while he was stuck at work.
For his post, Alex recalls a playoff game he attended in Oakland, when he saw CC Sabathia deliever a truly ace-like performance. The question is whether Sabathia’s capable of something similar at this point in his career. Alex says, yes.
On October 20, 2009, I walked into the train station in San Juan Capistrano, California, which is known mostly for the swallows that fly back every year to the old Spanish mission. I hopped an Amtrak Pacific Surfliner heading north and disembarked in Anaheim. When I bought my ticket to Game 4 of the ALCS a few days earlier, I knew two things: playoff parking at Angel Stadium is terrible, and I was going to witness CC Sabathia pitch in the postseason for the first time in person.
As you likely remember, his performance did not disappoint even on three days’ rest: 8 innings, 5 hits, and just 1 earned run in a 10-1 Yankee victory. In short, he was every bit the ace the Yankees had hoped for when they signed him.
Since my family moved from our home in Ridgefield, Connecticut many years ago, I’ve gotten used to rooting for the Yankees in enemy territory. However, one thing I never adjusted to was how Sabathia pitched down the stretch in 2013. An ERA approaching 5 is never something you’d expect from such a respected pitcher, so after the season ended I took a step back and tried to break down what fans should be able to expect from him next season. For the following reasons, I believe 2014 will be a bounce-back year for CC Sabathia.
As it happens, the Yankees have recently signed Masahiro Tanaka, whose $155-million deal and stellar Japanese numbers suggest he can be a top pitcher in the major leagues even if he doesn’t pitch for his new club on Opening Day. Sabathia will likely need to be a workhorse for the Yankees to succeed next season, but the spotlight may be off him a little. He’s a guy who generally thrives on the big stage, but less attention should help while he’s trying to put last year behind him. While Robinson Cano has departed, the signings of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran should mean an offense that provides CC with good run support — especially if guys like Mark Teixeira can stay on the field.
I use the phrase “pitcher luck” not to make excuses for Sabathia’s 2013, but rather to show how similar performance could yield better future results. In 2013, Sabathia had a higher-than-expected opponent’s batting average when putting the ball in play (BABIP), which at .308 was the third worst of his career. For example, a high BABIP often means that balls are finding holes and sneaking through the infield more than average. In addition, he experienced the lowest “left on base” (LOB) rate for opposing baserunners of his career at just 67.4%. A low LOB percentage often indicates that a pitcher is allowing more run-scoring hits with two outs than you’d expect if the same games were played again.
Another factor: a slightly lower-than-expected groundball rate (44.7% in 2013 compared to his 45.3% career average). This may not seem that drastic, but more fly balls contributed to a higher-than-expected home run frequency. In fact, his 1.19 home runs allowed per 9 innings was the highest rate of his career, as was the fact that a whopping 13% of his fly balls allowed left the yard. Looking at the whole picture, even if Sabathia is pitching with the same stuff and command as last season, you would expect his results to look better in 2014.
Sabathia’s fastball velocity was down last season, averaging 91.3 MPH after it was 92.4 MPH in 2012. This could be something he must adjust to in the future, but it’s also possible that fatigue or a nagging injury was responsible for the slower pitch speed. Sabathia did go on the disabled list in September due to a hamstring strain. In any case, CC did not have to pitch in the playoffs and should head into Spring Training well rested. He’s also discussed an offseason weight training program with the goal of a healthy 2014 campaign.
The career numbers are excellent, of course: a 3.60 ERA and over 200 wins for starters. In 2013, CC sounded even more frustrated than most pitchers would be following bad starts, and I wouldn’t bet against that pride and determination to be great. In addition, his slider never stopped being a successful pitch especially against lefties, who chased it out of the strike zone 40% of the time. A renewed focus on locating pitches slightly better could make a major difference in his effectiveness going forward, especially since he was able to post a walk rate of less than two batters per nine innings in 2012. For what it’s worth, the Oliver projection system created by The Hardball Times expects Sabathia to post a 3.74 ERA in 2014. That might not look like the output of an ace, but in the AL East it seems like a solid comeback season.
Associated Press photos