Assessing Trade Targets

Cole. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
Cole. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Yankees are looking for pitching. It’s shocking, I know, but it’s going on. Even though they ‘found’ a pitcher yesterday by re-signing CC Sabathia to a one year, $10 million contract, it’s unlikely that they’ll just settle in with what they have. Sure, a rotation of Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, Sabathia, and Jordan Montgomery is solid, but that doesn’t mean they can’t and won’t add to it. We’ve seen the Yankees connected to free agent Alex Cobb a bunch of times this offseason. However, most of the buzz around the Yankees and pitching seems to be concentrated around the trade rumor mill.

Over the past two weeks or so, the Yankees have been linked to no fewer than four starting pitchers in trade rumors. One is division rival Chris Archer of the Rays. Another, also in the AL is Tigers’ starter and 2016 AL Rookie of the Year, Michael Fulmer. The other two hail from the National League–Gerrit Cole of the Pirates, the Yankees’ first round draft pick in 2008, and Patrick Corbin off the Diamondbacks (who became an absolute monster in one iteration of franchise mode in The Show for me many moons ago).

When considering a trade, we’ve got a multitude of factors to weigh, but they can be boiled down to three fundamental categories: cost, control, and performance.

Cost operates on two fronts: How much money and how many players will it take to get your target? Control considers the player’s current contract and that/those of the player(s) you’re giving up. And performance deals, of course, with whether or not the guy is any good or has done well. All three categories can and will intersect when evaluating whether or not to make a trade.

To bring work home with me even more than an English teacher already does, I developed a quick rubric of sors to judge each trade candidate using the aforementioned fundamental categories.

 

Category/Score 3 2 1
Cost $ Low $ Medium $ High $
Cost player Low player Medium player High player
Control 3+ years beyond 2018 1-2 years beyond 2018 Impending free agent
Performance High performance consistently AND recently Some inconsistencies, may be a rebound/regression candidate Consistently poor performance

For the acquiring team, you obviously want the cost to be low and the control and performance to each be high. The better that combination, the more desirable the trade target. Let’s use Giancarlo Stanton as a test case or model to implement this rubric. We have hindsight here and in a vacuum, without the Marlins’ apparently dire financial situation, Stanton would be high on all three categories. He’s got a big contract for a long, long time, and just won NL MVP; in a “normal” world, he would’ve cost an arm, a leg, and then some. But, in reality, Stanton was acquired for a low player cost and even the big cost of his contract–which has him under control for a long time, a double-edged sword, perhaps–is somewhat mitigated by the Marlins kicking in $30 million. By any rubric or measure, this was a no brainer trade for the Yankees to make.

Let’s lead off by looking at Gerrit Cole, the pitcher most consistently linked to the Yankees recently. Cole is projected by MLBTR  to make $7.5 million in 2018. That’s not bad at all. Additionally, he’s also under control for 2018 and 2019. The former puts him at a 3 for Cost $ and a 2 for control. Not a bad start. The player cost is where we hit a bit of a bump or a snag. Yesterday, it got out that the Pirates were going to ask for Gleyber Torres in exchange for Cole, which is, uh, not gonna happen. Good for them for asking, but I’d sooner bet on the snowball in hell. Failing Torres, though, it’s likely the Pirates will then ask for Clint Frazier and more–Chance Adams, perhaps, and another lesser piece. At first blush, that seems to be the going rate for a pitcher of Cole’s reputation, so that could just be the cost of doing business, right? You’ve gotta give to get and all that, and if both sides are hurting, then the trade is probably good. But Cole seems to have more in the bank on reputation than on performance lately. He was downright elite in 2015 but then just sorta good in 2016–and hurt–and pretty meh overall in 2017. He had a big home run spike last year–his HR/FB% more than doubled from the year before–which could explain a lot. But when you’re poised to give up someone as talented as Clint Frazier and a potential league-minimum, back of the rotation guy in Chance Adams, AND another piece, I’d want something more than a guy who’s pretty much the definition of a 2 on my rubric. The idea of Cole seems to be better than the reality.

(Brian Davidson/Getty Images)
(Brian Davidson/Getty Images)

Starting with the money, we get another manageable situation in Diamondbacks lefty Patrick Corbin. He’s projected to make $8.5 million. Another 3 in the Cost $ category. Where he loses out, though, is that this is his last year of team control and he’s a free agent at the end of the year. Big time 1 in the Control category. That would likely bring his player cost down, too, as would performance that was okay-ish in 2017 (4.03 ERA, 4.08 FIP), his second full year back from injury after missing all of 2014. 2016, by the way, was pretty ugly for Corbin (5.15 ERA, 4.84 FIP). What stands out is a garishly high HR/FB% of 15.8% last year; his career mark is 13.8%. Granted he plays in a homer friendly park, but that wouldn’t be likely to move down in Yankee Stadium and the AL East. If I’m feeling generous, I give him a 1.75 in the Performance category and probably a high 1, low 2 for player cost. Overall, I don’t think this one would be worth it unless that player cost dipped way down low.

Archer. (Presswire)
Archer. (Presswire)

Chris Archer is a pitcher who, on the face of things, passes every mark for a Yankee trade target. He’s got a good reputation and has spent his entire career in the AL East. Beyond that, he’s got a team friendly contract that has him making $6.25 million in 2018, $7.5 million in 2019, $9 million in 2020, and $11 million in 2021; the latter two are club options with buyouts of $1.75 million and $250, 000 respectively. That all makes for a fantastic mark in both Cost $ and Control. Unfortunately, that also means he’d likely be a 1 in Cost Player. Add on the fact that the Yankees would be trading with a division foe and you’re looking at a very steep cost. In terms of the Performance category, Archer is sort of in the same territory as Gerrit Cole; based on the way we think and talk about him, you’d think his stats would be a lot more glowing. While he hasn’t been bad by any real stretch, he’s failed to repeat the great season he had in 2015. A big home run spike in 2016 and 2017 is likely the cause of that. Still, he throws lots of innings (200+ the last three seasons), strikes out lots of guys, and doesn’t walk a ton of batters. Throw in that with the with the contract and this is someone who, unlike Cole, I could see giving up some top-flight talent for.

(Justin Edmonds/Getty)
(Justin Edmonds/Getty)

Michael Fulmer is about to start his third year of MLB service, so his first shot at arbitration won’t be until a year from now. Per Cot’s , Fulmer is also going to qualify for Super 2 status, meaning he’s got an extra year of arbitration, giving his team control of him through 2022. Hot damn. That’s a 3 and then some on the Control category. Even if he signed some sort of extension or contract, his mark in Cost $ is going to be a 3 pretty much no matter what. In terms of performance, Fulmer more or less repeated his ROY season, though with a lower strikeout rate. He kept up a big ground ball rate, though, and did a good job of keeping the ball in the park. That would probably change in moving from Comerica Park to Yankee Stadium, of course. Still, he’s got good control and command and keeps the ball on the ground; if you’re not going to strike people out, those two are the next best things. All this, though, of course means that Fulmer’s player cost is going to be sky high. The Tigers would be justified in asking anything–non-Torres division–in exchange for Fulmer. While there would be doubts in my mind about paying the player cost for Cole and some minor ones in paying the player cost for Archer, those more or less don’t apply to Fulmer. A young, supremely controlled pitcher with history of solid performance? Yep.

Given all this, my preferred order of acquisition would look like this:

Fulmer, followed by Archer, then a toss up between Corbin and Cole. While Cole is definitely the better pitcher, the cost for Corbin would likely be a lot lower, which evens them out a little bit. I’m not sure, obviously, what’s going to happen, but if the Yankees are going to go hard for one of these guys, it should be Fulmer. The farm system would take a hit and it would suck to say goodbye to someone as fun and cool as Clint Frazier, but Fulmer would make an immediate impact and a lasting one.

Yankees, Sabathia reportedly agree to one-year, $10M deal

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

CC Sabathia is staying with the Yankees. According to Mark Feinsand, the Yankees and Sabathia have agreed to a new one-year contract worth $10M with incentives based on innings pitched. The deal is pending a physical which, despite Sabathia’s knee, shouldn’t be an issue since the Yankees know all about his medicals. The Yankees have not yet confirmed the agreement.

Sabathia, 37, reportedly spoke with the Angels and Blue Jays this offseason, though he made it clear his first choice was remaining with the Yankees. “This is my home. I want to see this thing through. I want to come back here and finish things off. This is where I want to be,” said Sabathia following the ALCS Game Seven loss a few weeks ago.

“There were very competitive offers out there that really made CC take his time,” said Sabathia’s agent to Joel Sherman. “In the end, he feels there’s unfinished business to attend to. Loves his teammates, clubhouse and the moves the Yankees are making this offseason. (Sabathia) wanted to come back for his 10th season with the New York Yankees.”

Given his age and performance and leadership, there’s a pretty good chance Sabathia and the Yankees are operating on the Andy Pettitte plan now, meaning they keep working out new one-year contracts as long as Sabathia wants to continue pitching. That would be cool. There’s no such thing as too much pitching and this signing doesn’t break the bank.

This past season Sabathia threw 148.2 innings with a 3.69 ERA (4.49 FIP), and he did it with the same cutter heavy approach that revived his career in 2016. He’s a soft contact machine now. Sabathia had the lowest average exit velocity (83.9 mph), fifth lowest hard contact rate (24.1%), and sixth highest soft contact rate (27.2%) in baseball in 2017.

Sabathia will join Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery in the rotation. The Yankees have been connected to a bunch of young controllable starters in recent days, including guys like Gerrit Cole and Michael Fulmer, and I don’t believe re-signing Sabathia will stop that. I think the Yankees still want another starter.

With Sabathia back on a $10M deal, the Yankees are approximately $23M under the $197M luxury tax threshold, though keep in mind they have to set some money aside for midseason additions and call-ups. In addition to another starter, the Yankees could use another infielder after trading away Starlin Castro and Chase Headley.

2017 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Thursday

Machado. (Justin Berl/Getty)
Machado. (Justin Berl/Getty)

The Winter Meetings come to an end today and, really, they’ll be over before lunchtime. The Rule 5 Draft is this morning and everyone heads home after that. The Yankees will undoubtedly lose some players in the Rule 5 Draft. That tends to happen when you have a strong farm system. There’s a good chance Nestor Cortes, Anyelo Gomez, and J.P. Feyereisen will hear their names called today. Bryan Hoch says the Yankees won’t make a Rule 5 Draft pick themselves. They’re focused on adding pitching.

“We are accessing all opportunities and see if we can land a plane,” said Brian Cashman to Andrew Marchand yesterday. “Right now, we are circling the airport. We are waiting for clearance on the runway. That is not from ownership. That means that we’ve got the signal that it is a safe landing spot, that we are comfortable with it, excited by that. We have enough gas in that tank that we can keep circling for awhile.”

The Yankees were connected to basically every young controllable starting pitcher Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. That includes Gerrit Cole, Michael Fulmer, Danny Duffy, Patrick Corbin, you name it. Starting pitching is clearly the priority right now, even over an infielder. We’ll again keep track of the day’s Yankees-related rumors here, though I can’t promise much activity today. Keep check back for updates anyway. All timestamps are ET.

  • 3:14pm: The price of starting pitching is too damn high, according to the Yankees. Seems like general offseason machinations to me. We want this guy but price is too high, rinse and repeat. [Heyman]
  • 10:10am: The Yankees have checked in on Machado but have no expectation of Orioles owner Peter Angelos approving a trade. Angelos hates the Yankees. I think he’s sooner keep Machado and lose him as a free agent than trade him to the Yankees. [Jon Heyman]
  • 9:41am: Contract talks with CC Sabathia have moved at a slow pace. The Yankees are focused right now on adding a younger pitcher and are talking with multiple teams. [Jack Curry]
  • 9:00am: The Orioles are “moving aggressively” in Manny Machado trade talks and the Yankees are among the teams to make an offer. O’s GM Dan Duquette said the club is open to trading Machado to the Yankees, though I’m going to have to see it to believe it. The White Sox have emerged as the frontrunner for the time being. Would they trade for Machado then flip him to the Yankees?. [Bob Nightengale, Ken Rosenthal, Rich Dubroff]
  • 9:00am: The Pirates are “gathering names” of young Yankees players who could be included in a trade for Cole. In addition to Cole and Fulmer, the Yankees are also looking at Chris Archer. An intra-division trade would be tough. [Bill Brink]

(Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.)

2017 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Wednesday

Machado. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
Machado. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

The first two days of the Winter Meetings have been pretty eventful for the Yankees. On Monday they introduced Giancarlo Stanton with a press conference in Orlando. Then yesterday they salary dumped Chase Headley (and Bryan Mitchell) on the Padres. What will today bring? I’m not sure. All I know is the Yankees have been popped up in an awful lot rumors this week.

“We all know we have a stated desire to upgrade our starting pitching,” said Brian Cashman to George King yesterday. “We have more flexibility today than prior to (the Headley trade). We did it with knowledge that we have some hungry, talented, and inexperienced kids ready to prove they can take that next step. But at the same time there might be some opportunities that might exist via free agency or trade.”

On Monday and Tuesday the Yankees were connected to basically every possibly available starting pitcher, including Gerrit Cole, Danny Duffy, and Michael Fulmer. Also, we learned they touched base with Todd Frazier after the Headley trade. We’ll again keep track of the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here, so make sure you check back often for updated. All timestamps are ET.

  • 2:08pm: The Yankees are “possibly” in the mix for Eduardo Nunez. I figured this was coming at some point. They need help at second and third bases and Nunez can play either. Not well, but he can stand there. [Heyman]
  • 2:02pm: Right now the Yankees are focused on adding a starting pitcher and Todd Frazier is on the back-burner. He could be someone they pursue more aggressively if they shed more money. [Sherman]
  • 1:57pm: The Yankees are one of ten teams on Ian Kinsler’s no-trade list. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’d reject a deal to New York, of course. Would he want something (i.e. an extension) in exchange for waiving the no-trade clause though? [Sherman]
  • 1:47pm: Jabari Blash, who came over in the Headley trade, may wind up with a team in Japan. I get the sense he is not long for the 40-man roster either way. [David Waldstein]
  • 10:50am: In addition to Patrick Corbin, the Yankees have also talked to the Diamondbacks about infielder Brandon Drury. The 25-year-old hit .267/.317/.447 (92 wRC+) this season while playing second, third, and left field. [Sherman]
  • 9:43am: Hoping for a Michael Pineda reunion? Well, don’t. He’s inked a two-year deal worth $10M with the Twins, the team announced. They’ll rehab him in 2018 and hope he can help in 2019.
  • 9:00am: The Yankees are among the teams interested in Manny Machado, who is available. Those involved say a trade is unlikely, however. I can’t imagine Orioles owner Peter Angelos would okay a trade sending Machado to the Yankees. [Buster Olney, Joel Sherman]
  • 9:00am: The Yankees are still talking to CC Sabathia about he a reunion. He did meet with the Blue Jays yesterday though, a few days after meeting with the Angels. Hmmm. [Jon Heyman, George King]

(Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.)

2017 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Monday

2017-winter-meetingsSo this offseason went from boring to crazy in a hurry, huh? After weeks of inactivity, Shohei Ohtani signed with the Angels and the Yankees traded for Giancarlo Stanton (!!!) in the span of 48 hours. Just like that, the two most intriguing storylines of the offseason were resolved. Ohtani is an Angel and Stanton will be mashing dingers in the Bronx.

That doesn’t mean the Winter Meetings will be boring this week, of course. There are still plenty of quality free agents on the board — nearly every top free agent remains unsigned — plus surprise trade candidates always emerge. The Stanton trade is all but certain to be the Yankees’ biggest move of the offseason. They do still need some pitching though, and possibly a second baseman.

“I do think that the future is bright. We’ve got a lot of good stuff that is already in place, and we’ve got more good stuff coming. I thought everybody got a chance to see that on the baseball stage this year play out. It has a chance to play out that way even further in the future. I don’t think there is a lot for us to have to do. I think we’re going to be patient, and we’re going to be diligent,” said Brian Cashman to Bryan Hoch, barely three days before the Stanton trade.

Stanton will be introduced at a 2pm ET press conference this afternoon, which I assume will be on MLB Network and MLB.com. Now that the Winter Meetings are underway, we’re going to keep track of all the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here. I honestly don’t know what to expect in the wake of the Stanton trade. The Yankees could very easily sit back and let the market come to them now. We’ll see. Make sure you check back often for updates throughout the day. All timestamps are ET.

  • 2:37pm: Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees talked to the Marlins about Stanton at the GM Meetings a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t until they lost out on Shohei Ohtani that they pursued him seriously. [Bryan Hoch]
  • 2:01pm: The Yankees are interested in Gerrit Cole, their 2008 first round pick. The “initial impression” is the Pirates are not trading him, however. [Heyman]
  • 10:57am: The Stanton trade is official. The Yankees made the announcement this morning. Here’s the press release. The trade is as reported: Stanton and cash for Starlin Castro, Jorge Guzman, and Jose Devers.
  • 10:30am: The Angels and CC Sabathia have had contract talks. Sabathia said many times he wants to remain with the Yankees, so maybe he’s using the Angels for leverage? [George King]
  • 10:30am: The Yankees are continuing to weigh Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley trade options. Ellsbury has a no-trade clause and apparently wants to stay in New York. The Yankees are said to be willing to eat half the $68M left on his contract to facilitate a deal. [Jon Heyman]
  • 10:30am: The Marlins initially asked for Justus Sheffield, Chance Adams, or Estevan Florial in Stanton trade talks. They settled for Jorge Guzman and Jose Devers. [Heyman]

(Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.)

Now that Shohei Ohtani is no longer an option, the Yankees are circling back to CC Sabathia

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The Yankees found out they will not land Japanese ace-slash-slugger Shohei Ohtani last weekend. He prefers the West Coast, and informed the Yankees he will not sign with them. Bummer. Ohtani is a lot of fun. He also has a chance to be insanely good. He’d have fit into the youth movement nicely. Alas.

With Ohtani out of the picture, the Yankees have circled back and reached out to CC Sabathia‘s people about a reunion, reports Jon Heyman. I thought the Yankees would’ve been smart to bring Sabathia back even if they had landed Ohtani, but without him, getting another starter is a must, and Sabathia is an obvious target.

“We know CC and he’s a tremendous asset for us,” said Brian Cashman to George King. “We know everything about him, what a competitor he is and that he can perform on the biggest stage. Does that guarantee that everything is going well in this process? No. Nothing is guaranteed.”

Typical Cashman, downplaying the odds. Sabathia has been very open about wanting to stay with the Yankees — “This is my home. I want to see this thing through. I want to come back here and finish things off. This is where I want to be,” he said after ALCS Game Seven — and I have no reason to doubt him. A few things about this.

1. Sabathia is still effective, which is pretty important. It’s kinda hard to believe we’re talking about re-signing Sabathia for 2018 given how poorly he pitched from 2013-15. He had a 4.81 ERA (4.40 FIP) in 424.1 innings those years, and has a 3.81 ERA (4.38 FIP) in 328.1 innings in two years since. Pretty amazing late career turnaround.

That turnaround has been fueled by Sabathia’s relatively new cutter, which has turned him into one of the best soft contact pitchers in baseball. Soft contact can turn into hard contact real quick as a pitcher ages, that’s the risk here, but Sabathia has succeeded with this new approach for two years now. It’s not a fluke. No, he doesn’t pitch deep into games anymore, but there’s something to be said for his knowing you’ll get five good innings each time out.

2. The price may be too good to pass up. Sabathia turned 37 in July, and over the last five years only two starting pitchers age 37 or older signed a multi-year contract: John Lackey and Bartolo Colon. The Cubs gave Lackey two years and $32M two offseasons ago, and the Mets gave Colon two years and $20M four years ago. Both of them were coming off much better years than Sabathia, however.

Contract Year IP ERA ERA+ FIP fWAR bWAR
Colon 2013 OAK 190.1 2.65 147 3.23 +3.8 +5.0
Lackey 2015 STL 218 2.77 142 3.57 +3.6 +5.7
Sabathia 2017 NYY 148.2 3.67 122 4.49 +1.9 +2.8

Perhaps Sabathia can lean on his track record and inflation to demand two years from the Yankees, but yeah, the list of pitchers his age getting multi-year contracts is very short. Colon and Lackey needed outrageously good seasons — their best seasons in several years, in fact — to get their contracts.

The market indicates Sabathia is looking at one year and $12M or so, which is in line with what Colon and R.A. Dickey received last year. Maybe Sabathia succeeds and gets two years. It could happen. Point is, Sabathia is going to come affordably and on a short-term deal. That’s good for the luxury tax plan and good for flexibility moving forward.

3. You know what you’re getting off the field. Any time you sign a free agent or trade for a new player, how he’ll fit into the clubhouse is always a bit of an unknown. Teams do plenty of homework — players (and coaches) change teams so often these days that chances are someone on the roster has played with the guy before — but in the end, you just don’t know how someone will react to a new environment until he gets there. That’s especially true in New York.

With Sabathia, there are no such concerns because he’s been here for so long already. He’s beloved in the clubhouse — if Brett Gardner is the unofficial captain of the position players, Sabathia has been the unofficial captain of the pitching staff all these years — and has taken on a leadership role, and he knows all about playing in Yankee Stadium and in New York in general. Those are adjustments he won’t have to make. Plug him into the roster and go.

4. There are reasons not to sign Sabathia. As much as I love Sabathia — I think everyone loves Sabathia, right? he’s the man — we have to acknowledge the reasons not to re-sign him. One, he’s 37 and will turn 38 in July. Sabathia is firmly in the “this can fall apart in a hurry” age range. In the past five seasons, only eight different pitchers age 37 or older finished a season at +1 WAR. Recent history is not really on Sabathia’s side.

Secondly, Sabathia’s right knee is a wreck. It’s bone-on-bone at this point, hence the regular lubrication injections, and Sabathia has admitted he’ll likely need a knee replacement once his career is over. Remember when he left that game in Toronto and everyone thought his career is over? It wasn’t, thankfully, but that’s pretty much the risk you’re running here. The knee could give out at any moment. Between his age and the knee, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Sabathia as a free agent target at all had he not spent the last nine years with the Yankees.

* * *

Coming into the offseason I thought it was inevitable the Yankees would re-sign Sabathia, with or without Ohtani. It makes too much sense. He’s not going to cost a ton, you know what you’re getting on and off the field, and there’s no such thing as too much pitching depth. Now that Ohtani has spurned the Yankees, adding another pitcher is a must, and in a weak free agent class, bringing Sabathia back on a short-term deal sure seems like an obvious move right now. The Yankees have been contact with Sabathia’s camp lately and I get the sense something could happen soon.

The King of Soft Contact [2017 Season Review]

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

It’s hard to believe CC Sabathia‘s time with the Yankees may very well be over. The 2017 season was the final guaranteed year on Sabathia’s contract — well, it was the vesting option year, not a guaranteed contract year — and he is currently a free agent able to sign with the highest bidder at a moment’s notice.

The Yankees won a World Series and were never truly bad during Sabathia’s nine years in pinstripes. Their worst season was 84 wins and, really, that’s not that bad. The leaderboard among Yankees pitchers from 2009-17:

  1. CC Sabathia: +28.4 WAR
  2. Masahiro Tanaka: +12.8 WAR
  3. David Robertson: +12.4 WAR
  4. Hiroki Kuroda: +12.0 WAR
  5. Mariano Rivera: +12.0 WAR

Even with the lean years from 2013-15, Sabathia has been far and away the Yankees’ best and most reliable pitcher the last nine years, and their best pitcher since peak Mike Mussina. The Yankees gave him a seven-year contract worth $161M back in the day, then essentially tacked on two years and $50M. Sabathia provided the team with $212.8M in production in exchange for that $211M in salary, per FanGraphs’ calculations. That doesn’t include the financial windfall the Yankees received following the 2009 World Series title, to which Sabathia contributed greatly.

Following those lean years from 2013-15, the now 37-year-old Sabathia reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher in 2016, and he used the same approach in 2017. His 2016 and 2017 seasons were shockingly similar on a rate basis:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
2016 179.2 3.91 4.28 19.8% 8.5% 50.1% 1.10
2017 148.2 3.69 4.49 19.3% 8.0% 49.9% 1.27

Sabathia allowed a few more home runs in 2017 than 2016 because, well, everyone gave up more home runs in 2017 than 2016. Despite the increase in homers, Sabathia was able to lower his ERA this year because he had more success pitching out of jams — his strand rate went from 75.7% in 2016 to 79.0% in 2017 — and also because Joe Girardi had a quicker hook. Remember how many times he left Sabathia in only to watch him allow runs in his final inning last year? That didn’t happen as much this year. His innings per start average went from 5.99 to 5.51.

Let’s dig a little more into Sabathia’s generally awesome 2017 season.

Postseason Hero

Maybe hero is too strong a word. Aside from Tanaka though, Sabathia was the Yankees’ best starter in the postseason, and the team trusted him so much that they gave him the start in Game Five of the ALDS and Game Seven of the ALCS. Look at the game log:

  • ALDS Game Two: 5.1 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 3 ER,, 3 BB, 5 K
  • ALDS Game Five: 4.1 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 9 K
  • ALCS Game Three: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 5 K
  • ALCS Game Seven: 3.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 1 K

There’s a story behind each of those starts. In ALDS Game Two, Sabathia allowed the four runs early, then settled down to retire eleven of the final 12 batters he faced. In ALDS Game Five, he dominated for four innings before the Indians were able to string together some singles in the fifth.

In ALCS Game Three, the Yankees scored early and often, and Sabathia did exactly what you want a veteran pitcher to do with a big lead. He worked quickly and kept the other team off the board, and got his offense back on the field. In ALCS Game Seven, when Sabathia clearly had no command, he somehow got through 3.1 innings while allowing just the one run.

It’s a damn shame the season ended in a Sabathia start given how well he pitched this season overall, though, to be fair, it’s hard to pin that loss on the big man. The offense scored one run total in Games Six and Seven of the ALCS. Five earned runs in 19 total innings in the postseason (2.37 ERA)? Sign me up. With Luis Severino up there in innings, Sonny Gray struggling to throw strikes, and Tanaka being a bit of an unknown going into the postseason given his rough 2017 overall, Sabathia was the steady hand in October.

King of Soft Contact

For years and years, Sabathia was a power pitcher who overwhelmed hitters with velocity, a wipeout slider, and the sheer intimidation factor that comes with being 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds. As the years and innings piled up, that approach no longer worked, so last year Sabathia scrapped his four-seam fastball entirely. He started throwing a cutter. From Brooks Baseball:

cc-sabathia-fastball-selection

The cutter did a few things for Sabathia. One, it gave him a way to bust right-handed hitters inside. Righties punished him from 2013-15, but once Sabathia was able to get in on their hands, he was able to keep them at bay. And two, it allowed him to miss the barrel more often. The straight four-seamer was getting squared up far too often. The subtle movement on the cutter makes it more difficult for hitters to get the sweet spot on the ball.

As a result, Sabathia traded hard contact for soft contact last year, and this year he was again one of the best contact managers in the league. Hitters had as much trouble making hard contact against Sabathia this season than they did against guys like Corey Kluber and Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw. Sabathia’s rates (min. 140 IP):

  • Soft Contact: 27.2% (sixth highest)
  • Hard Contact: 24.1% (fifth lowest)
  • Average Exit Velocity: 83.9 mph (lowest)
  • Average Launch Angle: 6.2° (12th lowest) (what’s this?)

Simply put, over the last two seasons Sabathia has made it very difficult to hit the ball hard against him. When he makes mistakes, they still get crushed. That’s true for everyone. Sabathia gave up a 470-foot homer to Manny Machado back in April. It was the 19th longest homer in baseball this season.

Sabathia has been able to limit those mistakes the last two seasons. From 2013-15, there were a few too many of those each time out. Now he keeps them to a minimum. Sabathia embraced the cutter and embraced the finesse pitcher within, which he absolutely had to do to be successful at this stage of his career. He’s transformed himself as a pitcher, and now that he’s done it for a second year in a row, we know it’s not a fluke. This is who Sabathia is now. He is one of the game’s best soft contact pitchers.

2018 Outlook

Like I said, Sabathia is a free agent right now, free to sign with any team at any time. He has made it perfectly clear he wants to remain in New York, however. “This is my home. I want to see this thing through. I want to come back here and finish things off. This is where I want to be,” said a very emotional Sabathia following Game Seven of the ALCS.

There are reasons the Yankees should re-sign Sabathia and reasons to stay away. They do need a fifth starter, and Tanaka not opting out means getting a big name like Yu Darvish or even Alex Cobb won’t happen without blowing up the luxury tax plan. Sabathia won’t cost a ton and won’t require a long-term contract, plus there won’t be an adjustment period of any kind. He knows the ropes and knows New York. Plug him into the rotation and go.

On the other hand, Sabathia is 37, and his balky right knee won’t get better. Sabathia has admitted he’ll likely need a knee replacement after his playing days are over. He did miss a few starts this season when the knee acted up. Also, Sabathia doesn’t pitch deep into games anymore. He’ll get through five and maybe six on a good day, and that’s pretty much it. As with all players this age, Sabathia could lose it any moment.

The offseason is still young and right now the Yankees seem to be focused on finding a new manager and coaching staff. That’s kinda important. Hard to make a good pitch to free agents when they don’t know who the manager or coaching staff will be. I get the sense Sabathia is in no rush to sign a new contract. I think he wants to see if things can be worked out with the Yankees, and if not, he’ll find a home elsewhere. If this is the end, Sabathia was a great Yankee. I hope he comes back for another season though.