Al, what makes CC so good?

Bartolo Colon leaves game with strained left hamstring
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Photo by alexabboud on Flickr/ licensed through Creative Commons.

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.

CC Sabathia release points, 2011.

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.

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Bartolo Colon leaves game with strained left hamstring
Open Thread: The Franchise Player Draft
  • Gonzo

    Is this a FJM type piece? I liked it. However, is there a mandate at RAB to mention something bad about Jorge whenever possible?

  • ernie

    He’s got all that stuff going for him, and just add in the fact that he has a deceptive delivery– he hides the ball real well especially when he dips the ball a little bit after he breaks his hands. I can’t imagine going up against him as a lefty batter.

  • shite and giggles

    They could replace Mickey Kay with Singleton full time and I would rejoice. Add in Paulie and Cone and Leiter and that would be about as good as announcers for the game come.

    Kay brings the whole production down. He thinks he is funny, he is not, he says really stupid things all the time.

    Singleton has a voice that you enjoy listening to all the time, isn’t a homer, he is balanced and puts enough excitement into big plays without going over the top like Kay does.

    They could leave Flash off the rotation as he is about the worst for talking that I’ve ever heard. He can make decent points but he sides with umpires regardless of how bad they are, and his speaking “style” would have Gitmo prisoners crying after a few hours and spilling their deepest secrets.

    • http://twitter.com/aviatkin Avi Atkin

      I’m with you on seeing more Singleton than Kay. In addition to how much better his voice sounds (Kay is a girly-man in that aspect), he’s more on cue with the little things (raising the volume/pitch of his voice accordingly, solicits useful and timely commentary from the color guy). I love Cone, Leiter, and O’Neill, though Paulie + Kay is a disaster (more of the latter’s fault obviously).

    • jim p

      Kay also “leaves the game” continually in his quest to find something funny or controversial. They should have scorecards for announcers: “batter’s name unmentioned” “batter history vs pitcher in key moment of game unmentioned” and like that. I’ve heard him go for an inning-and-a-half without talking about anyone actually in the current game, aside from some of the batters getting “here’s the 2-1 pitch.”

      Kay: Not everyone with a game on tv is doing nothing else when a game is on, with their eyes glued to the set every minute.

  • RichYF

    Don’t forget Paul O’Neill! Cone, Leiter, O’Neill, and Singleton do a great job. I had a blast listening to the game today.

  • Frank

    CC can’t beat the Red Sox- also true.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      It’s only true because no one person beats another team. CC can’t beat the Red Sox because he’s not a team, he’s a single pitcher. If he pitches brilliantly and his teammates don’t score runs, his team doesn’t win.

      CC’s career 3.88 ERA, 1.185 WHIP, 3.16 K/BB, and .245/.303/.396 tripleslash against Boston indicates that any failure of his team to win any of his 18 starts against the Red Sox generally isn’t his fault.

      • Gonzo

        What if he meant it as a metaphor?

  • http://twitter.com/AnaMariana42 Ana

    Cone really is the best. I agree that Coney and Kenny are just about the best combo you’re going to get… Leiter’s pretty good, and O’Neill is entertaining when you need a little bit of the prototypical “dumb jock” up in the booth. Flaherty and Kay are flip sides of the same problem – Flash isn’t stupid, but he doesn’t know how to announce; Kay knows how to announce, but he’s stupid.

    • http://twitter.com/aviatkin Avi Atkin

      O’Neill is nice to switch up with Cone once in a while, but I’m not a fan of the “dumb jock routine” that Kay typically runs with. Kay’s banter is really irritating at times, but I’m not sure how much he has to offer in the announcing dept. either.

  • Tamir

    Cone is a sabermetric stat head.

    • http://twitter.com/AnaMariana42 Ana

      Which is in large part why he’s so great. Nice to see something insightful and actually analytical in booth analysis instead of the tired series of cliches most announcers seem to offer up. Cone’s literacy FTW.

  • HolyGhostClaw

    “He’s a big man: True. No comment.”

    FTW!!!

  • Owen Two

    What’s the difference between a pitch that’s inside the zone, and one that’s a strike?

    • 28 this year

      Swinging strikes and contact/hit on pitches out of the zone. Thats my best guess.

  • http://techshots.net jaremy

    Didn’t really see the point of breaking down one statement of Leiter’s word-by-word… might have been better to just spend a post saying why YOU think he’s successful – I trust the chops of Al Leiter to have a decent enough sense of how a pitcher succeeds with their approach (more than a blogger, tbh), and am more interested in seeing if he’s totally off-base rather than when he’s on point.

    Just my $0.02. Thanks for doing the research regardless. Still interesting to see the numbers.

  • Adam B

    They are going to have a lot of problems when he opts out.

  • Monteroisdinero

    CC is great because of all the things mentioned of course but for me, what makes him truly great is his ability to throw a changeup on a 2-0 pitch and make hitters look silly. Throwing offspeed stuff with confidence and for strikes in hitter’s counts = greatness.

  • The Fallen Phoenix

    Also, CC is built like a tank, but he has the mobility of a soldier.

    In allhonesty, interesting and thought-provoking piece. I liked the commentator angle.