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Call it a comeback: CC Sabathia among other recent rebounds

The Yankees' former ace has begun 2016 with a strong start — how unprecedented is his apparent resurgence?

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees
CC Sabathia currently has a 2.58 ERA through nine starts, which would be a career best rate over a full season.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

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-
CC Sabathia 2016 61 119 58
Edinson Volquez 2014 86 139 53
Jason Hammel 2016 53 102 49
Dallas Keuchel 2015 62 106 44
Cliff Lee 2008 59 102 43
Esteban Loaiza 2003 63 106 43
Ben Sheets 2004 62 104 42
John Burkett 2001 71 112 41
Joel Pineiro 2009 86 126 40
Roger Clemens 2005 44 84 40

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-
Phil Hughes 2014 70 108 38
Cliff Lee 2008 67 104 37
Ben Sheets 2004 59 94 35
Joel Pineiro 2009 79 113 34
Dallas Keuchel 2015 71 103 32
Esteban Loaiza 2003 65 97 32
Justin Verlander 2009 63 94 31
A.J. Burnett 2013 76 106 30
CC Sabathia 2016 79 107 28
Ervin Santana 2008 77 105 28

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.

. . .

Spencer Bingol is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. He can also be read at Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.