Re-inventing CC Sabathia as a ground ball pitcher

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

CC Sabathia did pretty much everything that you’d expect from a frontline starting pitcher in his season debut last Thursday against Toronto. He struck out a third of the batters he faced, walked nobody, didn’t allow a homer, and induced ground balls or popups on nearly every ball that was put into play. Sabathia also got batters to chase almost half of the pitches he threw out of the zone, and the Blue Jays whiffed on nearly 15 percent of the pitches he threw. Sounds like an ace!

In fact, if you look at the outcomes that a pitcher has control over, Sabathia produced one of the best games of his 16-season career. His FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching) for the game was 0.18, the second-best mark out of the 424 games he’s pitched with the Indians, Brewers and Yankees.

Despite those impressive results, he ultimately ended up with a crooked pitching line (5 R, 8 H, 5 2/3 IP) because of two issues that have plagued him over the last two seasons – a high BABIP and inability to pitch out of trouble. Half of the 16 balls put into play went for hits, and he stranded just three of the players that reached base against him. There is little doubt that Sabathia stills needs to iron out those problems if he’s going to bounce back from the worst two-year stretch of his career.

However, there was one very encouraging trend from his season debut that is worth watching for tonight when the large lefty takes the mound against the Orioles in his second start of 2015.

Even during the low points of Sabathia’s struggles in 2013-14, he still maintained strong strikeout and walk rates. So the fact that he had eight strikeouts and no walks last Thursday was not surprising.

Rather, the most impressive number from his outing against the Blue Jays was 75.0 – the percentage of balls in play that were grounders. That was the third-highest groundball rate he’s induced in any game of his career, and his best mark since joining the Yankees. As you can see in the heat map below, he was really effective in pounding the bottom of the strike zone with his sinker.

Sabathia vs Blue Jays pitch location

Perhaps realizing that he can no longer dominate hitters with a blazing four-seamer, Sabathia relied on his two-seam fastball more than ever before against the Blue Jays. Forty-five percent of the pitches he threw were sinkers, his highest two-seam usage rate in a game since Pitch F/X tracking began in 2007. He also threw just six four-seamers, his fewest in any game over that same time period.

Although the sinker averaged only 89 mph, it had impressive horizontal movement (11 inches) and he located it well (53 percent below the knees). The pitch was just not a ground ball machine either; he got three strikeouts with the sinking fastball and batters whiffed on more than 20 percent of their swings against it.

One key result of his increased sinker usage was the weak contact that he induced throughout his outing. According to ESPN Stats & Information’s Mark Simon, he gave up only one hard-hit ball (as classified by video review) to the 24 batters he faced last Thursday. Just two of the 16 balls in play were line drives, and in addition to his 12 ground balls, Sabathia also generated an infield popup.

By keeping the ball down and getting grounders, Sabathia successfully avoided one of his biggest problems over the past two seasons – the home run ball. From 2013-14, he allowed 1.33 homers per nine innings, the sixth-highest rate among pitchers with at least 250 innings in that span.

Was this a deliberate strategy by Sabathia? Will he continue to ditch his four-seam fastball and instead go to his sinker to generate quick outs? Perhaps the most intriguing question is this one: Can Sabathia re-invent himself as a ground ball pitcher as he ages and enters the twilight of his career? If the answer is yes, the Yankees may have found themselves a solid mid-rotation pitcher for the next few years.

Yankeemetrics: April 10-12 (Red Sox)

Chase Headley, clutch Yankee. (Photo credit: Richard Perry/The New York Times
Chase Headley, clutch Yankee. (Photo: Richard Perry/New York Times)

I watched the entire game!
Three times a charm, right? Wrong.

In the series opener against their most-hated rival, the Yankees somehow erased three separate one-run deficits with their backs against the wall in the ninth, 16th and 18th innings – but could never get the big hit needed to complete the rally against the Red Sox. There are brutal losses, and then there’s the way that the Yankees lost in 19 innings on Friday night.

Let’s recap the craziness of this epic marathon in bullet-point form. First, some notes on the game length:

• It was the sixth game of at least 19 innings in franchise history and the first since a 5-4 19-inning win on August 25, 1976 against Minnesota.
• The only other time the Yankees lost a game that lasted at least 19 innings was a 3-2 loss in 19 innings on May 24, 1918 vs. Cleveland.
• The game was the longest the Yankees have ever played this early into the season (first four games).
• The Yankees and Red Sox have been playing each other since 1903. The only other game in the rivalry that lasted longer than this one was a 20-inning win on August 29, 1967.
• The game lasted six hours and 49 minutes, the longest game ever played by the Yankees in the Bronx. It was just shy of the longest game the Yankees have played anywhere, which was a seven-hour marathon at Detroit on June 24, 1962.

And now let’s put into context how improbable the clutch, game-saving hits were by Chase Headley, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran:

• Headley became the first Yankee with a game-tying two-out homer in the ninth inning against the Red Sox since Roberto Kelly in 1991; the last Yankee to do that against Boston at Yankee Stadium was Roy White in 1977.
• Teixeira’s 16th inning homer is latest game-tying home run by an American League player since the Jim Finigan (Kansas City Athletics) tied the game in the 17th inning against the Senators in 1956. Before Tex, no Yankee had done it in at least the last 75 years.
• Beltran’s 18th inning game-tying double is the latest game-tying hit by an American League player since the Tom Paciorek’s single for the White Sox in the 21st inning against the Brewers in 1984.

Oh, and did you forget that Nathan Eovaldi actually started this game and pitched the first 5 2/3 innings? All he did was become the first pitcher in at least the last 100 years to throw at least two wild pitches and hit a batter in his Yankee debut. Good times, everyone.

The hangover
Red Sox starter Joe Kelly completely dominated the Yankees lineup on Saturday afternoon (W, 7 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 8 K), paving the way for an eventual 8-4 loss by the home team. He became the first Red Sox pitcher to allow no more than one hit and strikeout at least eight batters against the Yankees in a game at Yankee Stadium since Pedro Martinez’s one-hit, 17-strikeout gem on September 10, 1999.

Although the Yankees’ bats eventually woke up in the sixth game of the season (see below), but it’s worth noting how anemic the offense was through five games. Again, to the bullet-points:

Through five games, the Yankees…
• .622 OPS is their lowest since 1998 (.610)
• .280 OBP is their lowest since 1989 (.259)
• .193 BA is their lowest since 1968 (.176)
• 46 strikeouts are their most in at least the last 100 years

Seventh heaven
The Yankees wasted no time in getting on the scoreboard in the Sunday night finale, jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the first inning. It was the first time the Yankees scored at least seven runs in the first inning against the Red Sox since Aug. 15, 1954, when they took a 8-0 lead en route to a 14-9 victory at Yankee Stadium.

Prior to this game, not only had the Yankees never scored first in a game this season, they didn’t even have a hit in the first inning – the only the team in the majors that entered Sunday’s schedule without a first-inning hit.

The Yankees tagged Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz for 10 runs before he was pulled in the fourth inning. He is the only Red Sox pitcher to allow 10-or-more runs in fewer than four innings pitched against the Yankees over the last 100 years of the rivalry.

The Yankees broke out of their offensive slump in Sunday’s 14-4 win, but their sloppy glovework continued as they committed another error, bringing their league-leading total to nine after the first week of the season. Even worse, they have allowed at least one unearned run in each of their first six games, joining the 1995 White Sox as the only teams in the last 75 years to do that.

Yankeemetrics: April 6-9 (Blue Jays)

First win of the season! (Photo credit: NY Daily News)
First win of the season! (Photo credit: NY Daily News)

[For those of you new to these Yankeemetrics posts, what I try to do is recap each game in the series using interesting, fun and sometimes quirky statistical notes. Hope you enjoy it.]

Marathon, not a sprint
Opening Day did not go exactly as planned, to put it mildly. The Yankees lost 6-1 to the Blue Jay on Monday afternoon, extending their streak of Opening Day losses to four. That’s the longest such streak for the franchise since 1982-85. The Elias Sports Bureau also notes that for the first time in team history, the Yankees have lost three straight season openers by a margin of at least three runs.

The Yankees also failed to score more than two runs for the third Opening Day in a row, just the third time the Bronx Bombers have done that in the last 100 years. The other seasons were in 1978-80 and 1935-37.

Masahiro Tanaka, who was the youngest righty to start on Opening Day for Yankees since Doc Medich in 1975, allowed five runs in four innings and made every Yankee beat writer hit the panic button. It was the shortest Opening Day start by any Yankee since Phil Niekro in 1985 vs. Red Sox.

While a ton of the focus was on Tanaka’s poor outing, the Yankee bats certainly didn’t help him out with just one run on three hits. The last time the Yankees scored no more than one run and had three or fewer hits in the season’s first game was 1968 (yes, the so-called Year of the Pitcher).

So you’re saying there’s a chance…
Phew. The Yankees got back to .500 with a 4-3 win on Wednesday, avoiding what would have been a franchise-record fourth straight 0-2 start. Down 3-1 entering the eighth frame, the Yankees pulled off what has to be one of the more improbable rallies in recent memory.

They tied the score when Brian McCann was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. The last time the Yankees had a game-tying HBP after the seventh inning was when Reggie Jackson was plunked in 1978 against the Brewers.

Chase Headley had the game-winning RBI in the next at-bat when his ground ball up the middle bounced off Blue Jays pitcher Brett Cecil and squirted into the outfield. It was Headley’s third go-ahead hit in the eighth inning or later with the team, the most such hits by any Yankee since he arrived in the Bronx on July 22 last year.

Michael Pineda may not have made his case to be the Yankees ace, but he had strong performance in his 2015 debut (ND, 6 IP, 2 R, 6 K, 1 BB). This was the fifth time in his Yankee career he’s given up two runs or fewer in at least six innings pitched without getting the win –- and three of those games have now come vs. Toronto.

Second to none
CC Sabathia‘s first regular season start in nearly a year was ruined by a disaster second inning when he gave up four runs on five singles; he allowed just three hits and one run in the other 4 2/3 innings he pitched. Of the 17 outs he recorded in the game, 16 were either by strikeout (8) or groundout (8). That’s pretty darn good…except for the five runs he allowed on the night. Oops.

So the Yankees ended up losing the rubber game, 6-3, and Sabathia lost his fourth straight home start, his longest such losing streak in pinstripes. The only Yankee left-handers to lose more than four starts in a row at Yankee Stadium are Whitey Ford (5, 1965-66) and Sam McDowell (6, 1973-74).

Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira tried to rally the Yankees when they hit homers in the sixth inning to make it 5-3. For A-Rod, it was his 57th homer vs. Toronto, the most by any player against the Blue Jays franchise. Of course it was also his 655th career home run, five away from tying Willie Mays and earning a cool $6 million bonus.

How Pineda can become the next Yankees ace

(Presswire)
Is the next Yankees ace on the mound tonight? (Presswire)

Michael Pineda may be the No. 2 starter according to Joe Girardi‘s binder, but after Masahiro Tanaka‘s unimpressive Opening Day performance and lingering concerns about his UCL injury, could Pineda jump up to the front of the rotation?

Based on his outstanding spring and last year’s record-setting performance, the answer just might be yes. Pineda last season became the first Yankees starting pitcher to finish with a sub-2.00 ERA (min. 10 starts) since Ron Guidry in 1978, and his .200 batting average allowed was the lowest by a Yankee starter (min. 75 innings) since Dave Righetti in 1981.

Perhaps the most impressive number was 8.43, his strikeout-to-walk ratio. That was the best single-season mark by any Yankee in franchise history with at least 75 innings pitched.

Yet, it’s important to remember that those numbers came in a very small sample size (13 starts, 76 1/3 innings) and there’s still a few holes in his “ace” resume. So before we put the crown on Pineda – and as we await his first start of 2015 – let’s take a look at one key thing the 26-year-old needs to do in order to take the next step during his second year in pinstripes.

***

Although there’s no consensus definition of an ace, it usually is a pitcher that you can count on to go deep in games, a true workhorse who can give the bullpen a rest for the night and turn over the opposing lineup multiple times.

Pineda last season averaged fewer than six innings and just 87 pitches per start, a mark that ranked 80th out of 91 AL pitchers with at least 75 innings pitched in 2014. He recorded an out in the seventh inning or later in just five of his 13 outings, and only twice threw at least 100 pitches in a game.

Those averages are slightly skewed because of his April 23 appearance when he was ejected in the second inning for using pine tar, but it doesn’t hide the fact that Pineda didn’t give the Yankees length as a starter and Girardi rarely felt comfortable extending him beyond the sixth frame.

While some of that might be due to the fact he was coming off major shoulder surgery at the start of the season and then spent two-plus months on the disabled list with a back injury, there’s also evidence that he wasn’t as effective in the later innings and when facing hitters multiple times through the order.

Pineda held hitters to a .185 batting average with 48 strikeouts and four walks the first two times through the order. The average MLB starter allowed a batting average of .250 in those situations, so it was clear that Pineda was dominant early in games.

But when the lineup turned over a third time, those batters tagged him for a .246/.281/.443 line in 64 plate appearances. Frankly, those numbers more resemble an average major-league pitcher (.268/.327/.421) than an ace. Most of that damage was done by lefties, who slugged .543 and had a line drive rate of 23 percent when seeing him for the third or fourth time in a game.

Most concerning might be that his signature slider became increasing ineffective as he faced hitters a second and third time during a game:

MICHAEL PINEDA SLIDER BY TIMES THROUGH ORDER IN 2014

BA Slug pct ISO
1st 0.135 0.212 0.077
2nd 0.200 0.314 0.114
3rd+ 0.240 0.480 0.240

Pineda also inevitably was hit hard when he pitched beyond the sixth inning. Four of the 16 earned runs he gave up in 2014 came in the seventh frame or later, across only 4 1/3 innings pitched. That’s an 8.31 ERA for those counting at home.

Batters were 8-for-21 with three doubles and two homers against Pineda after the sixth inning (.381/.435/.810), and it should be no surprise that he failed to hold his velocity on his four-seamer as he went deeper into games:

Pineda velo by inning

There is little doubt that Pineda has shown a ton of promise during his short stint as a Yankee, and appears to be on the cusp of being the next Yankees ace. However, the 26-year-old still has a ways to go before he can be viewed as a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Not only must Pineda prove that he can remain healthy for an entire season, he has to develop the stamina to give the Yankees length on a consistent basis and learn to pitch effectively in the later innings after batters have seen his stuff during a game.