The early 2016 season has provided few more pleasant surprises than the apparent comeback of New York Yankees' starter CC Sabathia. A combination of diminished performance, injury, and public off-field struggles left the baseball future of the former ace in question — but through his first nine starts in 2016, it seems like he has rejuvenated his career.
From 2013-2015, Sabathia managed 424.1 innings pitched, with a 4.81 ERA and 4.40 FIP. Those were the third-worst and twelfth-worst marks, respectively, by a pitcher over that time, minimum 400 innings. That happened while he was one of the ten highest-paid pitchers in baseball in each of those three seasons.
In 2016, Sabathia has started strong, with a would-be career low 2.58 ERA and encouraging 3.39 FIP across his first 52.1 innings pitched. His performance has been strong enough to earn 1.3 fWAR, tied for the 31st-best production from a starting pitcher with only the 115th-most innings pitched.
How has he done it? He credits pounding the strike zone and an improved changeup. Per PitchF/X, the pitch has seen significant improvement so far. However, his 63.1 percent strike rate is actually lower than in 2013-2015 (65.4 percent), and he's using the changeup at his lowest rate of the PitchF/X era. There's no good reason he should publicly volunteer his improvements for opponents to see, but there might be something else going on.
Thankfully, Corinne Landrey of FanGraphs recently noticed Sabathia's increased sinker usage, and the introduction of a new, improved, Mariano Rivera-approved cutter. As Landrey observes, it's not an unusual late career adjustment (see Halladay, Roy), and there is some precedent for a sustained rejuvenation following this change.
Against him are a career low average fastball velocity, and a FIP buoyed by an unsustainable home run rate, but the material repertoire change offers some hope. The banked value he's provided an uncertain Yankees' rotation, and the rate at which he's exceeded expectations, are already worth celebrating. In fact, as far as comebacks go, Sabathia is on pace to be one of the greatest since the beginning of this century.
|Name||Year||ERA-||Prior ERA-||Diff ERA-|
By comparing the ERA- of every qualified starter since 2000 to their combined total over the previous three seasons (minimum 400 innings), I've created a single season "improvement" leaderboard, using FanGraphs' custom leaderboards. Sabathia is currently on pace for the greatest jump of any starter over the last seventeen seasons. Hammel is also on pace for the third-largest improvement, but he was also beginning with a roughly league-average track record.
The last three seasons, Sabathia has prevented runs at a rate almost 20 percent worse than league average. He's currently performing almost 40 percent better than league average — in roughly the same company as Chris Sale, Jordan Zimmermann, and Jose Quintana.
|Name||Year||FIP-||Prior FIP-||Diff FIP-|
Sabathia doesn't have quite the same gaudy placement on the equivalent FIP- leaderboard, but he still cracks the top 10.
Not to rain on this parade, but his less-than-stellar 10.5 percent K-BB rate indicates that all of that improvement is due to the drastic drop in home runs — so far, just 3.7 percent of fly balls allowed have gone out of the park — which isn't going to last in Yankee Stadium. Using the HR rate-adjusted xFIP-, he's actually 15 percent worse than over the last three seasons.
We're talking about only 52.1 innings pitched; there's still roughly two-thirds of a season left for regression to take place, and we should probably expect that it will. However, this is banked production that's already well-exceeded preseason projections, which pegged him as roughly replacement level.
This is a feel-good story. Such a feel-good story, in fact, that Sabathia has to be the current favorite for AL Comeback Player of the Year. If he can keep up a productive season (even with some regression), he'll be bouncing back from declining performance, injuries, and off-field struggles. That's not only a recipe for votes, it is the entire point of what the award is designed to recognize. Add in his former superstar status and the pinstripes he wears, and it is hard to imagine him not receiving the award.
Both Sabathia and the Yankees have to be thrilled with his performance. By at least one basic measure, he's been the best starter on the team for the first time in years.