CC Sabathia's key for success in 2017 lies in his ability to limit hard contact
One of the most memorable storylines from the New York Yankees' 2016 season was the resurgent performance of CC Sabathia.
After working in the offseason to address his off-the-field issues, Sabathia emerged once again as a reliable option in the Yankees rotation who could frequently go deep into ballgames and keep runs off the board.
The veteran lefty made 30 starts - something he hadn't done since 2013 - and in 21 of those, CC allowed three runs or fewer. In 16 of those 21 outings, CC pitched at least six innings, utilizing a new knee brace and a new mentality to find reinvented success in his 16th MLB season.
The key improvement CC made that allowed him to post a 3.91 ERA last year - his lowest since 2012 - was his adeptness in limiting hard contact. Among American League starters in 2016, none were better at getting their opponents to make weak swings on the ball than Sabathia.
Based on a FanGraphs study by Tony Blengino last November, Sabathia found a way to get the better of his opponents not with his overpowering velocity, but by fooling hitters.
Among qualified AL starters, only Hector Santiago allowed a lower percentage of batted balls to be line drives (15.9%) than Sabathia (16.9%), and no AL starter averaged softer overall contact on balls put into play than the Yankees veteran (85.3 mph).
The top five AL starters on 2016's 'Lowest Average Exit Velocity' list, in ascending order, are: Cole Hamels (87.9 mph), Doug Fister (87.8 mph), Collin McHugh (87.5 mph), Corey Kluber (87.0 mph) and, finally, Sabathia. Considering that less than 1 mph separated the No. 5 starter from the No. 2 starter on that list, Sabathia's 1.7 mph margin over Kluber looks even better in comparison.
Additionally, Sabathia's fly ball rate (28.5%) was one of the lowest recorded by qualified AL starters, and when batters did get under the ball facing CC, the exit velocity on those balls hit averaged 86.9 mph, the weakest against any AL starter.
While baseball trends seldom stay the same, these promising numbers from a year ago could spell very good news for Sabathia - who takes the hill for his first start of 2017 on Tuesday night against the Rays - as well as the Yankees, who are in regular need of strong outings from their starting rotation.
"That authority suppression is very real," Blengino wrote of CC's impressive 2016 exit velocity numbers. "Mr. Sabathia appears to have successfully reinvented himself as a contact manager."
Such reinvention was the goal for the Yankees longtime veteran, who has worked alongside another notable Yankees lefty - Andy Pettitte - to develop his cutter and learn the nuances of pitching beyond one's flamethrowing prime. Sabathia will be 37 years old by season's end, and has voiced his desire to continue pitching beyond this season, and it looks as though he's found a recipe that will enable him to do just that.
If CC can keep finding ways to keep batters from hitting the ball hard, his longevity and effectiveness on the mound will continue to flourish. Even after 16 seasons, six All-Star selections and a Cy Young Award, Sabathia has to keep evolving in order to prolong his outstanding career.
For more on Sabathia's bounce-back season and how the rest of the AL's starters fared in exit velocity charts last year, check out Blengino's original Fangraphs piece here.