CC Sabathia's Rebirth Is Most Pleasant Surprise for Yankees

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 11, 2016

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 10: Pitcher CC Sabathia #52 of the New York Yankees fist pumps a teammate after walking off the field in the seventh inning against the Detroit Tigers during a game at Yankee Stadium on June 10, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

What Alex Rodriguez was for the 2015 New York Yankees, CC Sabathia has been for the 2016 New York Yankees.

That is to say: seemingly against all odds, a hugely productive player. 

Because the 35-year-old left-hander entered the year fresh out of rehab and with three straight bad seasons and a balky right knee to overcome, there was really no telling what the Yankees were going to get out of him. But 10 starts in, there's Sabathia with a 2.28 ERA.

He led the Yankees to their fifth straight win with his latest effort, firing seven shutout innings in a 4-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on Friday night. To the highlights!

At the moment, Sabathia's ERA ranks 10th best among major league starters who've logged at least 50 innings. According to Jeff Quagliata, the research manager for the YES Network, it's also the best ERA he's ever had through 10 starts.

Perhaps even more impressive is this:

Considering that we're talking about a former Cy Young winner who was arguably the best left-hander in the sport for a while there, this is saying something.

You can be forgiven if your only reaction to Sabathia's current dominance is utter shock, complete with a stupefied and/or dumbfounded look on your face. Although he was one of the best pitchers in baseball once, that was before he put up a 4.81 ERA between 2013 and 2015. In the meantime, his physical health and personal well-being fell apart along with his numbers.

But in 2016, Sabathia does indeed look like a new man. And a new pitcher, for that matter.

May 26, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia (52) pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Sabathia's decision to go into a rehabilitation program for alcohol abuse last October caught everyone off-guard. But by all accounts, it was both totally necessary and totally worth it.

Sabathia communicated openly to the New York Post's George A. King III in spring training about how good he was feeling and expounded when he wrote in The Players' Tribune: "[Now] that I’m on the other side of things, I feel at peace. I feel good about myself. I feel good about my body. And I’m really looking forward to coming into this season with a new frame of mind."

Sabathia also came into the season with a new way to keep his right knee from being a pain in the, well, knee. He committed to wearing a knee brace, and is apparently benefiting from it.

“I think his knee has not been an issue because of the brace,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi told Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal, “and I think it’s changed who he is.”

However, just because Sabathia is better off in mind and body doesn't mean he's the same pitcher he used to be. The power fastball he once had is still long gone. Going into Friday's start, FanGraphs had his average fastball velocity at just 88.2 miles per hour, six miles per hour slower than his peak of 94.7. In a related story, his strikeout rate is still well below his peak levels at 7.5 per nine innings.

But who needs velocity when you have movement? As Brooks Baseball can show, Sabathia has scrapped his straight four-seam fastball in favor of more sinkers and a lot more cutters:

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

Adding a cutter to his repertoire is something Sabathia toyed with back in 2014, when he was trying to learn the pitch from Andy Pettitte. But this time, he turned to Mariano Rivera.

"Just talked about how he throws it, seeing what I could pick up from him," Sabathia said this spring, per Brendan Kuty of NJ.com. "His was the best one ever."

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Whatever Mo taught him, it's working. Sabathia's new cutter can be glimpsed at the 0:20 mark in the above highlight reel, which shows its late glove-side action. And entering Friday, it was holding right-handed batters to a .210 average. They'd also managed only four extra-base hits against it.

In general, hard-hit balls have been tough to come by against Sabathia. According to Baseball Savant, he entered Friday with an average exit velocity of just 85.7 miles per hour. He was also limiting hard contact with the best of 'em:

  1. Tanner Roark: 20.5 Hard%
  2. Scott Kazmir: 21.9 Hard%
  3. Jake Arrieta: 21.9 Hard%
  4. CC Sabathia: 23.0 Hard%

As such, going for a movement-first approach has allowed Sabathia to become the kind of pitcher he needed to become once his strikeout rate started going the way of his velocity. That was a wake-up call for him to learn how to pitch to contact, and he's finally done it.

Of course, pitching to contact effectively also usually requires good luck. Sabathia's .275 batting average on balls in play suggests he's gotten more than his fair share of that. As noted by Corinne Landrey at FanGraphs, he's also been a bit too good at keeping fly balls in the park. Once these two things regress, his ERA will take a hike.

Nonetheless, the 2.28 ERA Sabathia has now feels awfully reminiscent of the .842 OPS and 33 dingers the Yankees got out of A-Rod in 2015, following his year-long suspension in 2014. It's production that can be nitpicked, but it's also production that can't be ignored and can certainly be enjoyed.

Sabathia is allowing the Yankees to say hello to an old friend they probably thought they'd never see again. They should be (and presumably are) savoring every second of it.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter 

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