For Thursday’s Red Sox game, Michael Kay, Al Leiter, and Paul O’Neill were in the booth and Kay asked Leiter the title question. One of the things I love about the ever-changing Yankees booth is that you get a lot of different opinions and views on the game from the various ex-players that cycle through. I’m sure you all have your opinions on the best booth (I think Cone-Singleton wins it. Was Leiter there too?) but I love all the ex-player stories, and I love even more listening to how retired players view current ones. We get on certain announcers basing their opinions on players on intangibles, weak stats, and clutchness, but Leiter managed to avoid basically all of these things as he explained why Sabathia is such a great pitcher. He was insightful, comprehensive, and interesting. I want to see if he’s right. I’ll blockquote his words words here:
Yeah, you start with stuff…I think his ability to pound the zone, get ahead. He is somewhat unpredictable. He’s got the ability to have control on both side of the plate He’s aggressive. Delivery-wise, he stays closed….He’s a big man. He has good trajectory or downward plane, has an idea.
And now, for fact checking:
Sabathia pounds the zone: True. For his career, Sabathia has thrown 52.3% of all his pitches inside the zone, and 64% for strikes. In 2011, he’s right on the money with 65% strike percentage and 46.6% being in the zone. This also includes a career 60.4% first-pitch strike and a 59% in 2011.
Sabathia gets ahead in the count: Partially true. For his career, 3085 hitters have taken hacks when they’re behind to CC, and they’ve batted a worse-than-Jorge .190/.197/.276. Only 3027 hitters have hit when they’re ahead, and their .275/.441/.441 is decent at best. But the majority of hits and outs have been made with an even count. 3116 have done it, and they’ve hit .278/.283/.417. The first pitch strike lends to being ahead, though it doesn’t always work out that way.
He is unpredictable: True. Sabathia throws a fastball, a slider and a changeup. While the slider is usually his out pitch, everything looks the same coming out of his hand, and for his career he throws the same percentage of sliders and changeups (15.9%). Should you be looking for a changeup that averages around 85 MPH or a 80 MPH slider in the dirt? Good luck figuring that one out. You’ll need it.
He controls both sides of the plate. True. While Sabathia prefers to throw the fastball away to righties, he has absolutely no problem throwing it inside or throwing it for a strike. He also can throw it high or low for strikes, too. Here’s a heat map of Sabathia’s fastball vs righties in 2010 to prove it, with a more yellow area meaning more pitches were thrown to that area:
He’s aggressive: True. Aggressiveness is really a combination of a number of the other stats above. Sabathia throws strikes. A lot of strikes. He isn’t afraid to blow a pitch over the plate (just look at all that yellow in the middle!) and overwhelm a hitter. He usually doesn’t throw around batters, either.
Delivery-wise, he stays closed: Plausible. Without a stat to back this one up, we’re finally left to depend in our eyeballs. That Leiter started with the numbers things and moved slowly into observational notes was very cool to me. From what I know about studying a pitcher’s delivery (absolutely nothing), Sabathia’s always had a relatively simple delivery. He keeps it close to his chest. His release points stay the same. It’s not complex, it’s not violent, just a big man throwing a baseball.
He’s a big man: True. No comment.
He has good trajectory or downward plane: True. Considering the fact that CC is 6’7, I’d say he’s throwing down off the mound, yeah. Plus, his release is nice and high.
Has an idea: Plausible. What does this mean? I think it might have something to do with that Sabathia knows what pitches he’s going to throw. He has a plan about how each at-bat is going to go, or at least, knows how to change his approach based on the game, the hitter, and so forth. He’s reached that point in his career where he knows what’s good and what’s bad.
Like your baseball players, you don’t choose your announcers. Unfortunately, when your announcers are really bad, you can’t bench them or DFA them or anything. You’re stuck with them. Now, Kay isn’t the greatest announcer the world has ever known, but having Cone, Leiter, Singleton and Flaherty rotating up with him makes him a lot more bearable. And when the guy in the booth actually knows what they’re talking about, it’s pretty wonderful. I’m willing to bet Al Leiter knows just a little about what makes a good pitcher, and he totally nailed it here. Hooray for him.