2016 In Review: CC Sabathia

Preseason Expectations

I’m not sure how anyone could have set reasonable expectations for CC Sabathia entering this season. He was coming off one of the poorest showings of his career in 2015 that ended with him in rehab to treat alcoholism. Yet, he finished that 2015 on a high note from a purely on-field perspective. Over his last 9 starts, the big lefty pitched to a 2.86 ERA over 50.1 innings pitched. His 4.19 FIP downplayed that performance, but it was a significant improvement over his 5.54 ERA and 4.89 FIP in his first 20 outings. Much of the credit he received for the late season turnaround was because of his use of a brace on his right knee. Whether or not that was the reason for his success is beyond me, but it’s plausible.

With his end of season surge and successful go in rehab, perhaps there was reason to be optimistic about a full season rebound. Then again, Sabathia was running three consecutive years of well below league average performance. Plus, at 35 years old and nearly 3,000 career innings pitched, it wouldn’t be fair to expect a significant bounce back.

ZiPS’ preseason projection clearly weighed the recent full seasons of performance and age far more than the final 9 starts of 2015, and there’s no faulting the system for that. It forecast a 4.98 ERA and 4.54 FIP in a hair under 125 innings, which would easily have been his worst full campaign performance to date.

What Happened

Sabathia picked up right where he left off in 2015. In fact, he outdid himself. Through his first 11 games, his ERA/FIP was 2.20/3.30. CC was good at the end of 2015, but not this good. It was beginning to feel like Sabathia had rediscovered his old self to an extent, or at least reinvented himself a la Mike Mussina in 2008.

Unfortunately, that excellent run did have some obvious regression signs, particularly allowing only 2 home runs over those 11 starts (65.1 innings). The long ball was such an issue for Sabathia in recent seasons that it was hard to believe that the problem vanished. Alas, CC allowed 5 or more runs in each of his next 5 games, and continued to scuffle through most of August. By August 17th, Sabathia’s ERA and FIP climbed to 4.49 and 4.31 respectively. Had the veteran southpaw finally worn down, or was there one more run in him? The latter.

Like 2015, Sabathia finished 2016 robustly, beginning his strong finish with 7 frames of 1 run ball in Seattle on August 23rd. Including the outing in Seattle, his final 8 starts brought his season’s ERA below 4 for the first time since 2012. The quick line on his final stretch: 49.1 innings pitched with a 2.37 ERA and 4.20 FIP. Great from a runs allowed perspective, and decent from a defense-independent standpoint. Ultimately, it capped what has to be determined as a wildly successful campaign for the burly left-hander. With 179.2 innings across 30 starts, a 3.91 ERA (92 ERA-), 4.28 FIP (97 FIP-), 2.6 fWAR, and 3.0 rWAR, 2016 was unquestionably a terrific result.

Looking Ahead

An option for 2017 kicked in following Sabathia meeting the requirements for it to vest, so the Yankees will owe him $25M for what likely will be his final season in pinstripes next year. Sabathia has already said he wants to pitch past 2017, and if he builds off his performance from this season, he’ll certainly have his suitors.

Despite his effectiveness this past year, there’s still reason to be skeptical about his success continuing. After all, Sabathia will be another year older and had mostly struggled from 2013-2015. 2016 could very well turn out to be a blip. Could he be the next Bartolo Colon? Perhaps, but it’s important to note that the Mets’ hurler is the exception to the rule.

His reputation aside, Sabathia has earned a spot in the 2017 rotation. I doubt that he’ll be an above average pitcher once again, but if he can settle in as a back of the rotation league average innings eater, he’ll be a boon to the club. A couple of years ago, it would have been laughable to reasonably think that Sabathia could be a reliable starter in 2017. But here we are.

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